Filled Pause
Research Center

Filled Pause
Research Center

Filled Pause
Research Center

Investigating 'um' and 'uh' and other hesitation phenomena

Investigating 'um' and 'uh' and other hesitation phenomena

Investigating 'um' and 'uh' and other hesitation phenomena

January 27th, 2017

The ums and uhs of yesteryear

Edison phonograph. Photo by Tomasz Sienicki // user:tsca [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY 1.0 
)], via Wikimedia Commons

The UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive is a wonderful new* resource that's being provided for free by the University of California, Santa Barbara Library. These are digitizations of audio extracted from phonograph cylinders produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries–in essence, the earliest audio recordings made by humans. While most of the recordings are musical in nature (probably intended to be listened to for enjoyment at the time), some contain speech and these are the ones I'm really interested in. I've been browsing through the recordings little by little in order to get a sample of some of the earliest recordings of filled pauses and here are a few interesting ones.

Thomas A. Edison's first public recording: "Let us not forget" (1919). Starting at 0:28, Edison starts his speech with, "This is uh Edison speaking."

Edison is the inventor of the phonograph and his voice is thought to be the first recorded human voice when he recited the children's poem, "Mary had a little lamb". Though, a recent reproduction of that original tin foil suggests that the voice might be someone else's.

Lieutenant E.H. Shackleton: "My southern polar expedition" (1910). Starting at 2:21, "After this, we four men had uh a thousand pounds to pull..."

Yes, this is THAT Shackleton, the Antarctic ice explorer who led his crew to survive an otherwise disastrous three-year voyage.

Len Spencer: "The Arkansas Traveler" (1909). Vaudeville comedy routine featuring back-and-forth between a traveler and a local fiddle-player. The traveler utters several filled pauses:

  • 0:05 "Why uh how do you do?"
  • 0:29 "Uh Did you see a fella'"
  • 0:39 "Well uh how long have you lived here?"
  • 1:01 "Are you uh married?"
  • 1:17 "Well uh how far is it to the next..."
  • 1:36 "Say uh down the road..."
  • 1:55 "Say uh you're a pretty smart fella..."
  • 2:29 "Say uh that's a very fine apple orchard..."
  • 2:43 "Say uh what are you doing..."
  • 3:00 "Say uh now I'm a lawyer..."
  • 3:20 "Uh I noticed a hole in the roof of your house..."

"Congressman Filkin's home-coming" (1911). Vaudeville comedy routine by Steve Porter and Byron G. Harlan. Starting at 0:19, "Well, didn't he uh uh ... let me he he ... well I can't remember exactly."

Grand Theatre in Buffalo NY (ca. 1900) (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons //,_New_York).jpg

These are both classic vaudeville routines that were likely recorded so they could be enjoyed more widely. So these are professional performers who have performed their routines so many times, they could probably do them sleeping. And yet, they use filled pauses. Why? Well, this is just conjecture now, but I'd venture it's because it was simply normal speech at the time (just as it is nowadays). And one more data point of evidence against the notion that filled pauses and the like "degrade the language".

The performers apparently felt that this was one way that their audience would quickly empathize with these comic characters as everyday folks. These were earlier incarnations of Bob Newhart. And no doubt, they too were preceded by earlier incarnations perhaps going all the way back to ancient times. But sadly, we lack recordings of ancient Egyptian button-down minds.

I feel a certain nostalgia when I listen to these old recordings. Not, of course, because I lived during those days; but rather because I feel I would have fit right in: umming and uhhhing like everyone else, feeling perfectly normal about it and even blissfully unaware of how normal it is.

*This is a post I drafted when the USBC Cylinder Archive was newly released. That was over a year ago, so some of the novelty is now gone, but the information I present here has not been presented elsewhere yet, to my knowledge. I had hoped to find enough samples to be useful for a modest corpus investigation, but there just isn't a lot of speech in the archive. So, I share it here for just for interest and nostalgia.

**I've uploaded all four of these recordings as a playlist on SoundCloud here. As I find further samples in the UCSB Cylinder Archives, I'll upload them there.