Speech disfluencies

Speech disfluency

Speech disfluencies are any of various breaks, irregularities, or utterances that are often not consistent with any specific grammatical construction and occur within the flow of otherwise fluent speech. These include, for example, words and sentences that are cut off mid-utterance, phrases that are restarted or repeated, repeated syllables, grunts or unrecognizable utterances occurring as 'fillers', and 'repaired' utterances.

  • "The best part of my job is...well...the best part of my job is the responsibility."
  • "The soup is too hot and it would burn if you ... it would burn you if you tried to eat it."
  • "Fool me once, shame on - uh, shame on you. Fool me twice- ... you can't get fooled again."


Fillers are parts of speech which are not generally recognized as purposeful or containing formal meaning, usually expressed as pauses such as uh, like and er, but also extending to repairs ("He was wearing a black shirt and uh, blue pants"), and articulation problems such as stuttering. Use is normally frowned upon in mass media such as news reports or films, but they occur regularly in everyday conversation, sometimes representing upwards of 20% of "words" in conversation.


Research in computational linguistics has revealed a correlation between native language and patterns of disfluencies in spontaneously uttered speech. In addition to this research, there are other subjective accounts reported by individuals. According to one commentator, Americans use pauses such as "um" or "uh," the British say "er" or "erm", the French use something like "euh," the Germans say "äh" (pronounced eh or er), Japanese use "ahh", "anō", or "ēto", and Spanish speakers say "ehhh" (also used in Hebrew), "como", and "este" in Mexican Spanish. Besides "er" and "uh", the Portuguese use "hã or hein". In Mandarin "neige" & "jiege" are used while Serbian and Croatian speakers vocalize an "ovaj". Arabic speakers (especially Egyptians) say "يعني", pronounced something like "ya'ani" (literally, "it means").


Recent linguistic research has suggested that non-pathological disfluencies may contain a variety of meaning; the frequency of "uh" and "um" in English is often reflective of a speaker's alertness or emotional state. Some have hypothesized that the time of an "uh" or "um" is used for the planning of future words; other researchers have suggested that they are actually to be understood as full-fledged function words rather than accidents, indicating a delay of variable time in which the speaker wishes to pause without voluntarily yielding control of the dialogue. There is some debate as to whether to consider them a form of white noise or as a meaning-filled part of language.

Speech disfluencies have also become important in recent years with the advent of speech-to-text programs and other attempts at enabling computers to make sense of human speech.

In America, since the 1980s, the word "like" has been used as a discourse marker similar to filled pauses like "um" or "uh" and is widespread among youth. For example, "I, like, don't know" instead of "I, uh, don't know" (see Valley speak for more information).

See also

Notes and references

  • Robert Eklund (PhD thesis, 2004): "Disfluency in Swedish human-human and human-machine travel booking dialogues". Chapter 2 is an account of disfluency research from a wide variety of perspectives. Download (6.3 MB): http://roberteklund.info/eklund04thesis_corrected.pdf
  • Herb Clark & Jean E. Fox Tree

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