At our last Toastmasters meeting, I delivered a book report on a recent read that I loved: Like, Literally, Dude: Arguing for the Good in Bad English by Valerie Fridland.
In case you're not familiar with Toastmasters, it's an international club for learning and practicing public speaking. One of the skills Toastmasters stresses is avoiding what we call "filler words", particularly ums and ahs. Every Toastmasters meeting has someone assigned to the role of "Ah Counter", to pay attention to each speaker's filler words and report at the end of the meeting on how everyone did. That factors in to the book review, which went like this:
Today I have a book report. And it touches on something that's near and dear to all our hearts.
Ummmmmmmm ;.. uhhhhhhhh ... er ...
That's right. It talks about Ums! Among other things.
The book is called Like, Literally, Dude: Arguing for the Good in Bad English by Valerie Fridland and it's terrific.
First, it was a good reminder that language is fluid and it's best not to get all worked up over the parts that change underneath us. I'm one of those people who gets annoyed by people using language incorrectly – like using literally to mean, well ... not literally. Like when people say "My head literally exploded!"
But we don't get upset that people aren't speaking in the language of Beowulf, right? Fridland points out that what's correct now isn't the same as what was correct a hundred years ago, or what will be correct fifty years from now.
And the process she describes is fascinating. For instance, linguists have known for a long time that Language changes are advanced by the underclasses: particularly women and young people. Linguists aren't sure why; it may be because moms spend more time with their kids, so they pick up each other's speech patterns, which then become the patterns of the next generation.
And some of these changes are, like, a lot older than you might think. "Like", used as a connector in the middle of a sentence, dates back to the late 1700s. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a passage written in 1778: "Father grew quite uneasy, like, for fear of his Lordship's taking offence."
There's a chapter about using THEY as a pronoun when speaking in general or about someone whose gender you don't know. That dates back to Middle English in the fourteenth century! Chaucer uses it in The Canterbury Tales! Later on, such notables as Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, and Jane Austin used it, as well as Dickinson, Swift, Dafoe, Shakespeare, and the King James Bible.
The word "dude", which annoys a lot of people, originally meant a man who cared too much about his dress: a fop or a dandy. In fact, really a dandy: as far as linguists can tell, it originally came from the song "Yankee Doodle Dandy", and Doodle was shortened to Dude. Over the next two centuries the term gradually changed to cover frican-American zoot suiters and Mexican American pachecos, and from there, it extended to include groovy white dudes and eventually, to cover pretty much everyone.
My pet peeve, using literally to mean NOT literally, turns out to have been around a long time too. It's been used that way at least since 1769, by writers including Jane Austen, James Fenimore Cooper, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, James Joyce and Mark Twain. I guess I need to be a little more tolerant of that one.
There's a chapter on vocal fry and how women just can't win: if they speak in a high voice, they're seen as non-serious, but if they try to lower their voice then people complain about vocal fry, what Fridland calls "the crime of speaking while female."
But I know you're all waiting to hear about, ummm ... uh ...
Ums and ahs are covered in one of the first chapters. And yes, she mentions Toastmasters several times. She calls this sort of word, ums and ahs, "filled pauses".
They occur in most languages around the world — and they sound pretty much the same in most languages.
A funny thing about that: you know how sometimes characters in books say "er" or "erm", with an R? For instance, in the Harry Potter books they say "er" a lot. That comes from the UK, where E R is pronounced eh, and E R M is ehm, more or less like um. Remember, in Standard British English, a lot of times they just drop their Rs. Apparently, British people have been laughing all this time at Americans who think E-R is pronounced "er". Who knew?
But it turns out filled pauses are not always bad. Studies have shown that if you insert an Um, listeners are more likely to remember what comes next. This is apparently because people often say um and ah when they're trying to think of a way to phrase something complicated — so to the listener, an Um means "This next part may be complicated and important, or might introduce a new idea, so it's worth listening closely."
She describes several studies in great detail, and it's fascinating reading. For instance, they'll give the subject some cards with pictures, and track their eyes while they give instructions about which card to move where. They found that subjects followed the instructions faster and with less confusion if they added some Ums and Ahs in the instructions. In another study, they read a list of words to participants, and found that the words that were preceded with Um or Ah were remembered better than the other words.
Yet another study tested whether various speech "disturbances" increased with the speaker's anxiety level. What they found was that while most disturbances, like false starts, repetitions, and mispronunciations, did get worse as speakers got more anxious, filled pauses did the opposite: high anxiety speakers actually used fewer ums and ahs.
The number of filled pauses a speaker uses also depends on the audience. Researchers have found that people use fewer Ums when talking to a computer, like Siri or Alexa. They also find that people with autism spectrum disorder — who may not be worrying as much about passing social cues that change what their listeners might be thinking — use fewer filled pauses.
(She does concede that in formal public speaking, you may give a better impression by avoiding ums and ahs.)
Anyway, there's lots more great stuff in the book. I found it entertaining and illuminating. I'm still going to try to avoid ums and ahs in public speaking — but I'll try to be less annoyed when people use "literally" wrong. If you want to read it, it's Like, Literally, Dude! by Valerie Fridland.
(I get a small kickback from Amazon if you buy the book through that link, but don't feel obligated. And your local public library probably has it; ours does.)
[ 19:16 Jun 18, 2023 More speaking | permalink to this entry | ]