Ummm, just curious
January 7, 2009 12:18 PM   Subscribe

My two-year-old has begun to say "Ummm" when pausing and thinking about her next word. I find it very interesting (and cute), this little conversational tick. She has very few words overall, maybe a couple of hundred, and though often she just babbles, sometimes she really seems to be sorting out in her mind what she is going to say ("What do you want for breakfast?" leads to "Ummm - pause - banana!") So, ummm, I'm curious--did this arise naturally from her developing brain, or is she imitating something she heard? Do people speaking other languages say "Ummm?"
posted by _sirmissalot_ to Grab Bag (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
AFAIK, people do this in all languages, but not every language uses the syllable "um." I would say it's not a learned behaviour but she did learn to use "um" rather than some other sound.
posted by winston at 12:22 PM on January 7, 2009

When operating in English, I say 'Umm...'
When in Spanish: 'Eee...'
When in Finnish: 'Ööö...'

As my Spanish teacher told me, it's a good way to prepare the vocal chords for the dominant intonation of that language. It helped my Spanish pronounciation immensely when I was able to switch my brain/mouth connection to do the correct preparatory vowel in anticipation of what is about to follow. I imagine the basis for children doing this is in the same realm.
posted by slimepuppy at 12:36 PM on January 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

It's a learned behavior, and winston is right, in French the pausing sound is "errr" (but in a French accent so it sounds more like "euuuuuhh." In Hebrew it's "ehh."
posted by rmless at 12:37 PM on January 7, 2009

In Japanese, you say "Ano..."
posted by martinrebas at 12:42 PM on January 7, 2009


These are normal delay utterances. Everyone does them except politicians, and that's because politicians are regurgitating memorized speeches.

It is a fault with humanity that we perceive people who are fluid speakers (obama, for instance) as more intelligent than people who are thinking about the content of the speech they are making (which as a result include delay sounds).
posted by rr at 12:43 PM on January 7, 2009

To a linguist, these types of sounds are phonemes, the basic meaningless sounds people make to form meaningful words. They exist in all different types of language.

My best guess is that your 2 year old is:
1. Learning that conversation is turn-based
2. Realizing that it's her turn to speak
3. Using um as a filler sound to recognize her turn while she is priming for lexical retrieval.

My guess is that she may also be gesturing while this is happening? If so, the gesture may also helping with image retrieval. I'm sure I'll be planed by an actual linguist because the concept is probably much more complicated than I've represented.
posted by |n$eCur3 at 12:57 PM on January 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

RR mentions Obama as being a 'fluid speaker'...

What has surprised me most when listening to him is how often he fills his speech with 'Um's' when what he has to say is not by rote.
posted by Incognita at 12:57 PM on January 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Our daughter (under 2 years) has been putting her finger to her mouth and going 'hmmm' for a while now - learned behaviour.
posted by lowlife at 1:12 PM on January 7, 2009

Um is the "word" of the day, writes Bruce Ramsey of the Seattle Times.
posted by Carol Anne at 1:22 PM on January 7, 2009

I know that when I lived in Turkey I was told to never use "umm" as a pause since it sounds like slang for a part of the female anatomy.
posted by JoanArkham at 1:31 PM on January 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Doesn't Obama say "um" and "well" and all sorts of stalling thinking tactics when he's speaking extemporaneously or answering questions in an interview?
posted by vsync at 1:35 PM on January 7, 2009

Obama did that a lot during the debates. It stood out to me because I don't follow politics and had really never heard him speak much before but had heard how he was an outstanding public speaker.
posted by PFL at 1:44 PM on January 7, 2009

Yeah, the French sound is something like "euuuuuuhhhhhh" which I definitely hear a lot over here (in France, natch). Actually, deliberately using "euuuhhhh" when I'm speaking French instead of "ummm" helps me feel more at home in French, which is my second language.
posted by fantine at 2:35 PM on January 7, 2009

I don't know what other countries use, or what it's called, but I've always referred to it as "spooling".
posted by VioletU at 2:52 PM on January 7, 2009

People sometimes also do that when they aren't quite ready to say something, but don't want to lose their turn to speak. I have to do that if I want the neighborhood women around here to shut up long enough for me to construct a coherent sentence (which is really only a second or two, about a long ummm-length.) I talk by whole sentences or even paragraph units - I can't just start running my mouth and think what I want to say as I go.

I'd been previously taught in school that silence in those seconds is better than a verbal pause, and it is, in a speech or presentation or something more one-sided. In a conversation, though, I find that pausing to think a lot silently makes people think you're slow-witted, while saying "ummm" is perfectly acceptable and nobody even notices.
posted by ctmf at 3:27 PM on January 7, 2009

Mine did the exact same thing, at the exact same age and it stemmed from 2 things. Umm.. one. Me. Two.. an episode of Micky Mouse Clubhouse.
My Czech husband goes.. "Uhhh..." and that's their "Umm"
posted by czechmate at 4:08 PM on January 7, 2009

VioletU: I really like the term spooling for this, I picked up the term for these as disfluencies somewhere. Maybe that will help googling.
posted by ktrey at 4:21 PM on January 7, 2009

I babysit for an almost 2 year old who also does that--the most frequent times are also when asked what she wants for a meal, and she does seem to be thinking about her answer. But I have to think that it's just learned behavior at that stage. This is supported by the times when I forget what she's answered last time and re-ask the same question--she says "um..." the second time too before saying what she wants.

Cute nonetheless! :)

--Ms. DeucesHigh
posted by DeucesHigh at 4:48 PM on January 7, 2009


Looks like I'm the linguist who is going to jump in on that definition :)

"um" is not a phoneme; rather, it is made up of two English phonemes: /u/ and /m/. I would also argue that this word (along with its equivalents in other languages) does, in fact, have meaning. It means, "I'm about to/still going to say something (but I am thinking of the word)". That's pretty useful, which is why it is so ubiquitous!
posted by kosmonaut at 5:34 PM on January 7, 2009

Obama's more of an "uh" guy (and as inspirational as his prepared speeches are, sometimes his impromptu remarks don't exactly inspire confidence... although his "uhs" are a lot different that Bush's).

I never quite understood why we would naturally come to use "um" rather than "uh" exclusively, since the latter doesn't require one to put the lips together. Same with "ow!" versus "ouch!"
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 9:38 PM on January 7, 2009

I think in a similar case a Japanese child that age would say "eh-to" (long eh and to as in toad) or tack a "ne" (as in neck) on that, "eh-to-ne".

("What do you want for breakfast?" leads to "Ummm - pause - banana!")

Asa gohan nani tabetai? Eh-to-ne, banana!

A similar word is "oon-to-ne" (oo as in oops), which is maybe a bit closer to "ummmm" in English. It's a baby word that's a form of "eh-to," so unlike "um" in English you rarely hear it used by adults. I think "ano" or "a-no-ne" is something kids tack on to a sentence when they already know what they're about to say, not when they're trying to sort out what to say next. But I might be splitting hairs here.

So no, "um" isn't used in all languages.

Gosh I miss my son as a two-year-old!
posted by misozaki at 11:34 PM on January 7, 2009

My son (two in two weeks) has just started doing the exact same thing. He seems to have learned it from watching me scroll through files on my Xbox Media Centre. He puts his hand on his chin and taps his finger under his nose, furrows his brow - the works.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:19 AM on January 8, 2009

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