Field of Science

Pauses in speech

While I was off guest-posting elsewhere, I talked Kristina Lundholm, a PhD student in linguistics and also a speech & language pathologist, into guest-posting here. She knows a great deal more about speech errors and disfluencies than I do. This is her follow-up to my post about errors in speech:

For a long time, spoken language was seen as inferior to written language. Hesitations and pauses were seen as flaws in the production of speech. This way of looking at language and communication (as proposed by e.g. Chomsky) proposes that there is an ultimate way to deliver an utterance.

Today, we know that pauses, hesitations etc are a vital part of communication and not some sort of unnecessary interruption in the speech signal. Natural conversation is studied by conversation analysts, sociolinguists, sociologists, anthropologists and more.

To understand why pauses are important, imagine trying to have a conversation with someone who never pauses. Would you get anything said? Pauses are necessary in communication; we need to breathe, think, and leave gaps where another person can take over. Pauses also make it easier for the listener to process and understand what we are saying.

Even when the people engaged in conversation understand the importance of pausing and make pauses in all the right places, that might not be enough. An agreement on pause length is key to a successful conversation. Pause length tolerance, i.e. how long pause you tolerate before the silence seems unbearable and you feel you have to say something, varies between languages, sociolects, dialects etc.

Because of this you may experience what a friend of mine went through when he moved south to study: he had a high tolerance of pauses, which also meant that if the pause in conversation was short, he didn't take his turn since he felt he was interrupting. Therefore, he felt that his new friends were quite rude who never let him talk, and they thought he must be terribly shy since he rarely spoke. The effect of different pause lengths has been verified by for example Scollon & Scollon and Deborah Tannen.

Pauses also influence how we perceive what is being said. If someone asks you for a ride home, your answer will be interpreted as more negative if you take longer to respond, even if the answer itself is positive; see e.g. Roberts et al.

The location of the pause is also meaningful: if the speaker does not want to be interrupted, it is wise to pause within a syntactic unit, for example before an important content word: "I want a (pause) green sweater". If you pause between syntactical units, chances are that your conversation partner will think that you're finished and will start talking.

Now, about those uuuums and eeeers… There are a bunch of different names for those small units in communication: filler words, fillers, filled pauses, hesitation phenomena, disfluencies etc. I prefer the term "filled pause" since I classify them as a sort of pause. Filled pauses have a lot of functions in spoken conversation. One is to signal to other persons that "even though I'm not saying anything particular right now, I don't want anyone else to take over". It can also mean "difficult question, I have to think about that". Or a number of different things, depending on position, prosody, context etc. Quite a lot of research has focused on filled pauses in spoken dialogue, but I don't know if anyone has investigated filled pauses in written communication – well, if not, someone should!

So, in conclusion: pauses are not only important: they may make or break a conversation. And in linguistics today, the spherical cow is not so spherical anymore, but seen as the irregularly formed creature it is.

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