Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Why do teenagers use fillers? Like, uh, dunno, like, uh...

Like ... uh...you know...they kind of do.

Where does such behaviour come from?

Many language experts - who follow the use of language - explain that fillers are used by people (of all ages) to provide a pause while they are collecting their next thought. Such experts tend to be quite tolerant and egalitarian of teenagers' deployment of fillers in their speech. For them, it's all part of life's wonderful tapestry, and, implicitly or explicitly, we should not judge people for their use of fillers.

Others find the fillers annoying. To add in words such as 'like' and 'innit' into sentences grates on their aesthetic nerves: the use of ums and ahs by adults similarly demotes the speaker in the ears of the listener (or rattling change in the pocket while lecturing or public speaking!).

The egalitarian view - tolerant though it may be of people struggling to put a sentence together - is more indicative of linguistic nihilism, the belief that no greater value can be put on sounding educated compared to sounding uneducated. A true nihilist denies that there can be value in anything, so I may be exaggerating the claim here, for a linguistic nihilist would logically not be able to reject an ungrammatical sentence such as 'the sat on the cat mat'?

I had an infuriating conversation with a supposed epistemic subjectivist/nihilist once who insisted that 2+2 = 4 because "that's how you see it, and my opinion that it may be 5 is just as valid." Crikey, where to start with such a muddlehead...(you often find them at philosophy conferences by the way, usually postgraduates who have read that nothing can have any meaning and then run with the theory)...so I offered to pour her milk into her coffee, which she gladly accepted. "So you agree that I've just poured milk into your coffee?" I asked her, swiftly refuting her attempt to annihilate everything into meaningless statements. She blushed. (I've a PhD in philosophy by the way - and I'm quite sure that there are values and meanings out there!)

Back to language.

The acceptance of fillers encourages a demeaning of education and of the greater conversation that the mind is capable. It is analogous to accepting scribbles for finished artwork or belches for humour.

We all struggle to find the most appropriate word for our ideas, but that struggle should be taking place in the higher reaches of our cultural-linguistic ability, not in the realm of the most basic.

"You know, I kinda like, um, this sort of music, y'know, like, uh, duh, like ..."


Hesitation, mental preparation, forestalling, nervousness - there's a few excuses for um-ing and ah-ing and like-ing and y'know-ing, but they all come down to a mental laziness, a low vocabulary, and an acceptance of low values. Or with an older person, a refusal to think before speaking.

I've had pupils who used fillers. They have tended to be the ones who watch a lot of tv. So I keep a tally of their use and show them how many times they use the word like while speaking. They are often shocked! We then proceed - always with their permission - to see if they can reduce the number that they use. (I do point out that if they are in a job interview and their response is replete with fillers, they are not likely to get the position over someone who can speak fluently).

It has nothing to do with intelligence or academic ability either. It's all about whether the speaker accepts poor communication as being acceptable or not. Accepting poor communication is essentially saying that the speaker does not care about what he or she says.

Now the reasons as to why that may be the case could be many and deeply embedded, but the speaker  is in control of what he or she says. She can decided that the next utterance will not have any fillers. She can work on avoiding the fillers by just focusing a little on what she is saying and how she is saying it. I've turned pupils around very quickly with minor interventions. Adults who um and ah, can also change how they speak with a little training.

Training, as the Romans knew, can improve anything.

If we are truly stumbling for the words to express our thoughts, some suggest remaining silent until the word comes. Well, that doesn't help if you have an idea but no word for it in your vocabulary - far better to ask for help! Otherwise, try an alternative path of words to help communicate the idea. Pen and paper are often fantastic media for communicating ideas - draw. Or dance, as one of my pupils may note.

Egalitarianism - the idea that one person should count for one person and no more than one person - constitutes the political and legal underpinning of civilisation. However, that does not imply that all words are equal, that all deeds are equal, that all speeches are equal.

Would Lincoln have been remembered for this speech:

"Right, you know, um, it was sort of a long time ago, like, that our umm, fathers helped build, you know, this nation like. It was um made in liberty, like, y'know, and ah, dedicated, sort of, like, to the idea that, y'know, all men, like, are like created like equal like."

Or Winston Churchill:

"We will like you know um fight them on the beaches sort of..."

If you use fillers. Stop yourself. Just slap your hand or put a 5p in a pot every time you utter one. Think before you speak and remain silent if you've nothing to say. Then go and read some books and find something to say. Expand your vocabulary.

As Funk and Lewis say in 30 Days to a a New Powerful Vocabulary, "your boss has a bigger vocabulary than you." There's a lot in that. Lazy thinking doesn't lend itself to getting on in life. The philosopher Wittgenstein reminded us that our world is constrained by our vocabulary - so, the smaller our vocabulary, the smaller our world. Imagine that.

I love civilisation and as a philosopher, political thinker, writer, and educationalist, I'm sensitive to the intellectual trends that demean civilisation: when our minds cannot grasp higher thought, when we tolerate inconsistent thinking and blurred communication, we are looking at our demise: so stand up for the civil order, improve your mind and your child's - accept not lazy speech.

Our children and our children's children will be proud that we stood up for values rather than let them slide into a linguistic cesspit.

Recommended texts - if you want to think better and wider, Nagel's succinct introduction to philosophy is hard to beat. 

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