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Kidspeak as 'discourse markers'
Commentary on“Um … Who Like Says You Know: Filler Word Use as a Function of Age, Gender and Personality.”
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Adam Gopnik’s latest in The New Yorker is worth having a look at:

The Conscientiousness of Kidspeak

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That is good.  But there is another possible motivation behind those like’s and youknow’s,  which is that the person is simply too lazy to dig and commit to exactness.  I’ll say that that goes hand in hand with that ‘conscientiousness,’  at varied proportions.

The opposite end from conscientiousness  is when people will recount full event in the form of detailed dialog  (especially to boast how they came out victorious)-   So I said to the judge, I said, look, judge, I know the law, I know the constitution, right,  but sorry, judge, I have a family, I have things to do…The judge, he said, ok, ok, I’ll tell you what…   – Now that is truly truly truly annoying! 

New River, AZ, USA
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Thanks for that link Zednotzee. That’s an interesting take on what the author calls “discourse markers” and “filled pauses.” I’m not so sure about the use of same indicating conscientiousness on the part of the speaker, regardless of the cited research. I’m sure that applies to some speakers. And I’m sure that in some cases, the use indicates laziness, as pointed out by Robert. But I always thought it was more a matter of stalling, when the speaker needs a moment of time to organize their thoughts and compose the rest of a sentence. Most likely, all three motivations apply.

This applies to: “like” “I mean” “you know” “uh” “um” as well as a few more, including: “actually” “well” and “or” (followed by a silent measured pause) “IMHO (and its variants)”  and many other words that add little meaning to an expression.

A few years ago I noticed another variation while watching the evening news. And ever since I first noticed it, I’ve seen its frequency of use increase. I see this most often with weather people, but other newscasters are also guilty. It’s a pause in speech marked by an essentially silent “swallowing” action, where the speaker seems to be doing something with their vocal apparatus to enable further speech — that’s the best I can describe it. Watch for it, and I guarantee you’ll see it.

On a side note, I found it curious that the illustrator for that New Yorker article chose to use an old dial-type phone rather than a cell phone. I wonder why she did that?

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On the show “Kissed Her On the Stairs” Grant claimed that if you want to get a message across, breaking it up with “um”s and other fillers is actually a good idea. And, contrariwise, that a lack of these will tend to degrade attention. Here’s part of what he said:

“… it turns out that if you don’t have discourse particles, if you don’t have these moments of pausing, you are harder to understand, and less believable…People are more likely to beleive you if you have natural sounding pauses, with or without discourse particles- the discourse particles are almost always part of it…” (Earlier he mentions what may be the source for this: Michael Erard’s book “Um…:Slips, Stumbles and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean”.)

I also remember hearing many years ago on NPR that people tend to want their speech to follow a certain rhythm, and that if the words won’t come, the “um”s will. 

So far so good; naturalness attracts attention; rhythm helps thing flow.

Still, on a recent drive with a young (female) friend I found myself overwhelmed by the word “like”. During a typical minute it came up at least 20 times, so that’s about 1,200 “likes” to get from Seattle to Olympia. And yes she’s a conscientious person. 

Also on NPR recently, I listened to a woman who coaches other women on how to succeed in business, and she stressed that to get ahead it’s really better not to sound like a teenage girl: stop saying “like”, lose the upspeak, and cut down on “totally” “actually” and “literally”. She too, seemed conscientious.

So, back to my young friend- I want her to succeed. I also want to be able to pay attention to what she says, without the distractions.  Is there any way to bring this up that’s not offensive? Or is Gopnik suggesting that all of us should, like, talk like that?


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I don’t know about anybody else, but I find that conversing with someone who talks like that highly annoying, and very hard to follow. The “markers” become all I hear, all sense of meaning vanishes. Sometimes I try to invent an ending to what I think the thought might be that the person is trying to convey, or my brain takes off entirely on its own, on some unrelated topic. Almost always I can feel my blood pressure rise, and I want to be anywhere but in this person’s company. It sounds to me as though such a person is unable to grasp a coherent thought, and, in all likelihood, is not very interesting.

I’m a bit at a loss to understand the comment about “considered speech”. Is that different from the notion that the fillers are used to buy time to think of (consider) what to say next?

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I think that ‘considered speech’ is not about buying time.  Rather, it’s ,like, acknowledging that the truth is grey and fuzzy.  It’s analogous to elementary quantum physics: fuzzy locality if you want accurate velocity , and vice versa.  Cannot have both simultaneously.

So our ‘conscientious’ teen opts for a fuzzy range of the truth for the sake of not saying something wrong.  One alternative to that tack is Obama’s : he takes all day searching in his brain for just one word, but then he runs up the risk of being wrong because his truth is now narrow and stark. That’s why he takes all day – (to his credit) trying to get both ends of that quantum truth.

I think that if you take the teenager, take away all the “like”‘s, you’ll end up with  the garden variety politician or the sound-byte journalist.

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