So, um, this is weird. There’s an apparent gender split in use of the filler words uh and um, according to a recent post on the linguistics blog Language Log: Men tend to say “uh,” whereas women tend to say “um.”
Mark Liberman, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, noticed the trend after digging into two data sets from Penn’s Linguistic Data Consortium, which contains audio samples from 11,972 speakers. He writes that, on average, women in this sample said “um” 22 percent more than men, and men said “uh” an incredible 250 percent more than women. But men also use filler words (either uh or um) more than women overall — 38 percent more often than women, to be precise. He also found that, over time, the gender divide here seems to level out, and that older people of both genders use uh more and um less.
Purely on its own, it’s an intriguing finding. But it’s hard not to wonder: What does it mean? Liberman didn’t respond to an email from Science of Us, so we contacted Deborah Tannen, the Georgetown University linguist whose work has largely focused on gender differences in communication styles, to get her thoughts on what the gender split might signify. We can’t assume too much from these findings, Tannen cautioned, because they’re based on a computerized database, and so we can’t look closely at the conversational context in which the ums and uhs appear. But Tannen did point out that one commenter on the original post suggested this:
I suspect men use /uh/ as a place-holder. Women use /um/ as a backchannel indicating, “that’s interesting, I’m thinking about it.”
Bearing in mind the aforementioned caveats, this theory makes a lot of sense, Tannen said. In her research, she’s found that men and women often use similar language for entirely different purposes (see: “sorry”). Among them, she explains, is this idea of the “backchannel” — that is, listener noises like “mhm, uhuh, and yeah.” One of the earliest studies on gender differences in conversation found that men use these listening responses more often than women, and they also use them differently: Women tend to say “yeah” to mean “I’m listening,” while men use the word to mean “I agree.”
“So the suggestion that men are saying ‘uh’ as a place holder to keep the floor whereas women say ‘um’ as a ‘backchannel’ fits in with that — that women are using it to indicate, ‘I'm listening,’” Tannen said. “I would reframe this in my own terms by observing that women using ‘um’ as backchannel is focused out — by indicating ‘I'm listening,’ it's taking into account the interaction between listener and speaker. In contrast, men using ‘uh’ as a place holder is focused in — it's about the speaker's own internal cognitive process. I've observed this difference in many gender patterns of language use.”
It’s not certain that this is what’s happening here. But, still, it’s intriguing to think about the potential meaning behind words we think of as meaningless.