Earlier this month, Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, decided to look at “um” versus “uh” usage along gender lines. His post is interesting, if a tad bit technical. Luckily, Melissa Dahl at NYMag.com wrote a piece, “Dudes Say ‘Uh’; Ladies Say ‘Um'” which nicely summarizes the findings. I encourage you to check out the article, but here’s a quick TL;DR summary:
Woman tend to use ‘um’ 22% more than men, and men tend use ‘uh’ 250% more than women (nope, that’s not a typo). Also, men tend to use ‘um’ or ‘uh’ 38% more than women in general, and overall older people (men and women) use ‘uh’ or ‘um’ less often.
As a bonus, one of my grad school professors, Deborah Tannen, gets in on the conversation when Ms. Dahl contacted her for possible explanations for what these findings might mean. She’s careful to point out that since this study was based on a database of words and therefore doesn’t take the context of each of these usages into account, we can’t really do more than speculate. But she does say that the explanation offered by one commenter on the original post does sound plausible:that “men use /uh/ as a place-holder. Women use /um/ as a backchannel indicating, “that’s interesting, I’m thinking about it.”
Some linguistic research (including some of Dr. Tannen’s own work) has examined how men and women use these filler words to accomplish different tasks in conversation, either to prevent someone from interrupting by making a noise to hold the floor (place-holding), or providing feedback that demonstrates attention and understanding (backchannel).
This story was also picked up by the Washington Post who, in addition to mentioning the original UPenn blog post and the NYMag.com story, tie in some other research done by the University of Texas at Austin that studied the use of not only ‘uh’ and ‘um’ (filled pauses) but also ‘I mean,’ ‘you know,’ and ‘like’ (discourse markers). According to the abstract of their paper, they found that while the filled pauses seemed to be used by both genders and all ages “at comparable rates,” the “discourse markers…were more common among women, younger participants, and more conscientious people.” (I’ll be adding the full article to my ever-growing reading list).
For linguists every word, every sound, every instance of rising inflection at the end of a sentence, has the potential to reveal something interesting about human communication. These linguistic choices can be elusive, ever-changing, unconscious, or deliberate, but they can rarely, if ever, be called meaningless.