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Volume 13, Issue 20;   May 15, 2013: Embolalia and Stuff Like That: I

Embolalia and Stuff Like That: I


When we address others, we sometimes use filler — so-called automatic speech or embolalia — without thinking. Examples are "uh," "um," and "er," but there are more complex forms, too. Embolalia are usually harmless, if mildly annoying to some. But sometimes they can be damaging.
Fugu Rubripes, the Fugu fish

Fugu Rubripes, the Fugu fish. The genome of the Fugu contains almost the same genes and other coding that the human genome contains, but it is far more compact — about one-eight the size. The Fugu's genome contains much less of the so-called "non-coding" DNA — DNA that does not encode protein sequences. This makes the genes easier to find, and it is therefore convenient for scientific study. Non-coding DNA has been called "junk DNA" because it was at first thought not to have a genetic purpose. That view is changing. In the human genome, some now conjecture that up to 80% of DNA does serve some biochemical purpose, though that number is controversial.

In human communication, many regard embolalia the way genomics scientists once regarded non-coding DNA — useless or worse. Certainly embolalia do not carry much of the central meaning of the communication. And just as certainly, extreme overuse of embolalia is useless or worse, relative to the communication's purpose. But embolalia do carry meaning of some kind. They sometimes serve social purposes — providing means of achieving or expressing social connections of many kinds, including accessibility, distance, superiority, or affection.

Photo courtesy Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.

Embolalia are those utterances we produce that are little more than filler, if they are any more at all. Sometimes, when they do carry meaning, the function they serve is better accomplished in more straightforward and economical ways. At other times, they can damage the relationship between the addressor and the addressees, or worse, they can harm the very image of the addressor. What are embolalia, and why do we produce them?

In their simplest forms, embolalia are monosyllabic non-words. They fill spaces. They mark time while we gather our thoughts or while we plan what we're about to say. In English, examples are "uh," "um," "er," and "eh." Some people use embolalia habitually, even though they don't need time to plan their next words. "Like" is one example often used this way.

When we hear others using embolalia, we make meaning of their use. For the simplest forms, we sometimes conclude that the addressor is "unprofessional," or lacks confidence or polish, or that the addressor is nervous or under stress. This is one reason why those who aspire to be taken seriously often try mightily — sometimes too mightily — to rid their speech of these forms.

With regard to these simplest embolalia, conclusions about professionalism or polish can be correct, but there are other possibilities. For example, some users of "uh," "um," and "er" use them consciously, by choice, to convey an impression of softness, tact, or accessibility. They want to avoid appearing too certain of themselves, or too commanding or domineering. They want to seem to be considering their words carefully, as if for the first time, when they actually know very well what they're planning to say. People who employ this deceptive strategy might also use more complex embolalia, but using "uh," "um," and "er" in this way — and doing it effectively — requires true theatrical skill.

Some more complex Some users of "uh," "um," and "er"
use them consciously, by choice,
to convey an impression of
softness, tact, or accessibility
embolalia also provide opportunities for softening impressions. Examples: "you know," "You know what?," "kind of," "kinda," "sort of," "sorta," "it seems to me that," "it seems like," "the thing is," "I mean," "stuff like that," and "things like that." These forms, like all embolalia, do provide extra time for the addressor to plan ahead, but they can also be disarming or softening, or contribute to a more familiar or humble tone if the addressor seeks such a tone.

Sadly for some users of embolalia, familiarity or humility aren't always desirable results. Addressors who seek credibility, who want to persuade the addressees, or who want the respect of addressees, would do well to avoid these forms in particular.

We'll continue our exploration of embolalia next time, when we look at some of the most complex forms.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Embolalia and Stuff Like That: II  Next Issue

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