Filler Words and Buying Time

Like. Yeah. You know? Right? Well… So, it’s like. Sure. Uh-huh. OK. I mean. God love him. Right? You know. Like, yeah.

Until I started studying German, I didn’t realize how many filler words and phrases litter my American English. Well, “God love him” is probably my Southeastern American English, but the rest are things that I say and hear so many times every day that they don’t even register. And in my everyday life, I’m not talking to the characters in Clueless, either. I’m generally talking to very intelligent and well-spoken women and men.

But I don’t think it’s just Americans that fill up so much verbal space with essentially meaningless phrases. From my year in Belfast, I can tell you that although the filler words are different, they are just as plentiful in Northern Ireland: that there, ach aye, so it is, ach sure, that wee [anything, regardless of size].

So, what’s up? Unlike some, I don’t think that filler words signify the dilution and crumbling of our language, or even signify anything about the speaker’s intelligence. Rather, I suspect that they are a natural part of language, a built in buffering system as we organize and verbalize our thoughts. My German professor uses a metaphor of juggling balls for speaking–you’ve got your subject-verb agreement, adjectives, tenses, inflections, etc. But even when those things are natural, as for a native speaker, you still have to juggle the content. I think this is especially true for thoughtful speakers–if you want your words to actually reflect your thoughts, you sometimes need to take a second to pick the right ones. Those seconds are bought for you by filler words and phrases.

But the filler words that sound natural are highly specific to region and culture. To use the Northern Ireland example again, whenever I said, “yeah” I was being particularly American, although they just as frequently, and in the same situations, would throw in “sure.” Learning a second language in a classroom, you do not have the advantage of cultural immersion to learn the “right” filler words, even though you need the time to juggle your thoughts even more!

Sometimes conversations in German 102 sound like a bizarre acting class exercise, in which we are trying to find as many different vocal inflections for ja as possible. Ja, ja, jA, JaaaAAAaaa! 

This might be why my favorite German word is vielleicht. It means “maybe,” so you are already uncertain when you use it, and it has so many sounds that you can stretch it endlessly into as many syllables as you want! I’m only kind of kidding.

The point is, I never really thought about the function of filler words in English or any other language, until I started taking German and desperately needing some more of them. Learning a new language really does make you think in new ways about your own, and being immersed in a culture even more so. But really, if you know some good German filler words, let me know, okay? I need all the time I can buy.

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3 comments

  1. Elizabeth-Anne · · Reply

    Even the “unsure sounds” differ!
    English (American): uh…
    English (British): er…..
    French: euh….
    Icelandic: hern…

    I can’t wait to find out what they are in German!

  2. Hi Molly! I guess you would give a try to this post, since it gives example of Berlin and Viennese German: http://goo.gl/PEIpo
    Enjoy, and keep on with your interesting posts! 😉

    1. Thank you so much!! That is really helpful!

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