Colloquium (3/23/2016): Jean E. Fox Tree (University of California, Santa Cruz)

The Usefulness of Useless Utterances: Why Um, Like, and Other Disparaged Phenomena are not Superfluous

Spontaneous communication differs from prepared communication in what is said, how it is said, and how talk develops based on addressee responses. Spontaneously produced phenomena such as ums, likes, and rising intonation on declarative sentences, or uptalk, are often vilified, but they have specific functions. In addition to what is said and how it is said, spontaneous communication involves responding to contributions from interlocutors. Even the shortest of addressee responses, such as the choice between uh huh versus oh, affects speaker production and overhearer comprehension. Differences between quotation devices, such as said versus like, also reflect functional choices. Because many spontaneous phenomena do not appear in carefully constructed communication, there has been a mistaken conclusion that they are uninformative. In fact, however, spontaneous phenomena are solutions to problems encountered in unplanned, unrehearsed communication.