Linguist N.J. Enfield, author of How We Talk, is here to justify your use of the important conversational “traffic signals” of “um, ah, and mm-hmm.” Your subconscious already knows it, but the functions of filler words include:
- To maintain cadence while the right word is sought
- To buffer a “dis-preferred response” (anything not the intended answer)
- To control and hold the listeners attention
- To support the moral architecture of normal human behavior
When it comes to little words, I produce “um” and “uh” as a signal to you that I know I should be speaking right now. The right thing to do is to be speaking fluently, moving the conversation forward. The whole motivation for my producing those little traffic signals is to make clear that, despite current appearances, I am aware of and I’m following the basic stipulations of what it takes to produce an appropriate conversation. It’s that whole moral architecture that human beings have, it’s the root of so much of our cultural life and our social life: the defining of what’s appropriate, what’s inappropriate, and policing those things and judging others on the basis of those things.
So don’t feel so bad the next time you find yourself stalling in conversation. You are doing your part to preserve human language mores with more human language!