English speakers: Semantics of 'uh' vs. 'um' as a pause filler?

What people use as pause fillers seems to be a topic of linguistic research, and this Language Log entry and the older entries linked from there go into some detail on specifically on the demographics of ‘um’ vs. ‘uh’ use - but don’t speculate on what the functional/semantic difference between the two utterances are (a few of the comments do speculate).

English speakers: What’s your take on using one of the two pause fillers instead of the other?

In writing, at least, I think of “uh” as shorter. It takes longer to have to move one’s mouth. “Um” seems to stand out more, as it’s more of an interruption in speaking.

Semantically, I think of “um” being more thoughtful. “Uh” is really dopy sounding if done at normal volume, and sounds much more unsure when done softly. Neither of these seems thoughtful.

I mean, when I think of someone saying “um” in a non-sarcastic way, I think of them putting their hand up to their face in a thoughtful pose. In that context, it conveys “Let me think about this before answering.”

When speaking, I would rather say “um” or actually it’s more like “em” or perhaps “rmmmm.” To my ear “uh” just sounds slack jawed and kind of stupid.

No difference. They’re just discourse markers to let the other person know that you’ve got a sentence coming and you’re not relinquishing the floor just yet. As far as I can tell, I don’t have any prestige associations with one over the other with the exception that a forceful umm can seem dismissive or slightly patronizing but I think that in that instance umm is functioning as more than a simple filler.

No difference to me. However i like the sound of um more.

I think there is a certain degree of cultural influence in the choice of pause-filler that people use. I’m fairly sure I use Um and Er because my father does.

I’m trying to train myself out of it because it comes across really badly when recorded. I managed to record a video for YouTube today in one main take with not a single Um or Er in it, but unless I thoroughly rehearse what I am going to say (not always possible), the pauses are still there.

So… I end up… sounding… a bit… Shatner.

While not absolute, to my ear ‘uh’ is a bit more, uh, you know, like a neutral quick filler while my speech center catches up to my well-formed thought. Whereas ‘um’ comes across as, umm, well, more deliberative, while I’m trying to complete the thought or choose just the right word to communicate a subtlety.

To me, there are subtle differences. I’d say that “uh” is when you don’t actually KNOW what you want to say (or what the answer is, etc.) and you’re trying to figure it out on the fly. “Um” is when you know the general idea or answer you’re going to give but you need a second to sort out optimal phrasing or things like that.

All cellphone users in my area, whether they speak English or French, always say “Uh?” into the phone if they haven’t heard something clearly. I’ve wondered for a while why that is.

In my mind, “uh” is what you say when you are trying to figure out phrasing of your next utterance, whereas “um” is what you say when you are trying to work out the content of your next utterance.

“What do you want for dinner?”

“Does this outfit make me look fat?”

Yes. That’s a much better articulation of what I was trying to say.

Depending on the tone I associate “um” with sarcasm, a corrective tone, brattiness, or a sort of saccharine cuteness (like something a shy little girl would say). Or asking for the speaker to be recognized like putting your foot in the door, e.g. “Um, can I get a word in.” I’m more likely to use “hmm” than “um” as a thinking placeholder if I have to make something up. I might be unusual though since I may have passively struck “um” from personal usage after using the net for so long because posts or messages that start with “um” make the poster look eye rollingly self important to me. Like the way a valley girl would talk.

inb4 “Um, not really…”

I think that’s exactly what they are. I spent several years in Toastmasters. The Toastmasters program works to make a speaker very aware of filler words because while they have a function in conversation, they sound bad in a formal speech. Whenever someone gives a speech, there’s someone else acting as the Ah-Counter.

Good examples of actual words that are used as filler. I have an uncle who throws in “and that” every other sentence. I’ve also heard “so to speak” used as fill. Another common fill is to start a sentence with a long, drawn out aaaaaannd or sssoooooo. There’s a lot more to fillers than um or uh.

Now having read the article, I’m wondering if anyone has tested typical transcribers to see if there’s a bias. That is, is there a tendency to assign equivocal utterances to ‘um’ or ‘uh’ depending on whether the person they’re listening to is male or female.

“Filler” words like um, ah, uh, you know, like are largely regarded as something to be altogether avoided in public and professional speaking. AFAIK, ther is no semantic difference as they are all meaningless words used to fill a pause.

That’s true in a speech, and professionals do seek to sound as if they’re giving a speech; but it may not be true in conversations. And even if there’s no semantic difference, if the studies are replicated, the fact that men and women use different fillers or that people use different fillers with strangers than with people that they know, may indicate . . . something. Maybe not something significant, but something. So far, that’s all they’ve got.

Now, the dopers who have explained the small semantic differences that they attribute to the fillers - that’s interesting. It’s not part of the studies discussed in the article, but it’s interesting. I wonder if anyone is working on that?