“Um” in Different Accents

All dialects of English have “filler” words. Just to name a few: er, ah, um, eh, or the increasingly common like* and you know. We humans are a hesitant bunch, and these words offer brief moments of reflection.

What’s interesting about these words is that, even though they carry little to no actual meaning , they vary in terms of pronunciation and usage depending on a speaker’s accent or dialect [Ed. Note: As per this post at Separated by A Common Language, these words may have more meaning that I thought].  Which brings us to the word I’m going to examine today: um.

I loosely classify um into three categories**. First off, there’s British Um which might be transcribed as erm. The vowel in this word is pronounced centrally in the mouth, near English schwa — [əm]. You can hear quite a few examples of this in the speech of comedian Ricky Gervais, interviewed below:

Then there’s American um which is typically pronounced lower and backer in the mouth, closer to the vowel in words like strut –[ʌm]. Many examples of this can be heard in this interview with musician Jeff Tweedy, who grew up in central Illinois, fairly close to the heartland of General American English:

Finally, there is Irish um which is more accurately transcribed as ehm — [ɛm]. Here’s a slew of ehms from Dublin pop idol Nicky Byrne:

Akin to the Mam-Mum-Mom debate from a few posts back, it’s difficult to seek the etymology of “um,” as it’s more of a sound that an actual word. (If I read something along the lines of “um derives from Proto-Germanic ummaz” somewhere, I will be the first to make a correction.) What is more notable about these three ums is that each assigns a different phoneme to the vowel in the word.

For example, the fact that American um rhymes with gum isn’t merely coincidental.  Just take a look at “um” among speakers with the Northern Cities Vowel Shift (The Great Lakes Accent).  In accents with this shift, the vowel in words like “strut” shifts further back toward the vowel in words like “thought.”  And the vowel in “um” often goes along with it!  Hence, I once had a roommate from Upstate New York whose said something closer to “awm” (ɔm) than “um.”

On the other hand, why do most Irish Accents do the opposite, and render the vowel toward the front in the mouth (ehm)? Did these different filler words come from some single source (a proto-um, if you will?) And if so, why did they split off into their current variants?

So, here’s my overall question, which is perhaps (let’s face it, probably) unanswerable: Is there some rhyme or reason as to why um is pronounced differently in different accents? Or is it purely random?

*A sidenote: Like is used as a filler word in American, Irish and Welsh dialects, but often in different ways.  In America, we tend to use “like” before or in the middle of a clause, whereas across the pond, the word is more typically used after a clause.  Example:  American “I got, like, really drunk” vs. Irish “I got really drunk, like.”

**Caveat:  I am not suggesting every single British, American or Irish accent employs these pronunciations.  These are merely three variants of “um” that I’ve grouped based on which accents tend to use them.


About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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26 Responses to “Um” in Different Accents

  1. Séamus O'Connor says:

    I’m sorry to say I can’t answer your final question, but I wanted to give my observations about the topic, if that’s all right. In Scottish English, I’ve noticed that the filler word often resembles the Irish version, i.e., something like [ɛː(m)] or even [eː(m)] (orthographically eh{m}, I suppose). Just ask RayTheFox a.k.a. that guy with the mole who made those videos showing people how to do a Scottish accent.

    I’ve also heard something similar to the Irish/Scottish filler word in parts of Northern England. I’ve noticed this is especially the case in the accent of the Liverpool area (Scouse), where NURSE and SQUARE are merged and the filler word is orthographically maybe er(m). So it’s also often in the [ɛː(m) ~ eː(m)] region there too. Maybe the Irish influence there is also at least partially to blame. The actor Stephen Graham uses it at least once in this video, after he talks about how “the cheeky Pikey” ripped them off.

    Here in Northern Ireland, I’m not sure what it is. I think it’s mostly in the central region, i.e., [əː(m) ~ ɐː(m)]. Listen to this lad from the Belfast area, whose videos I discovered when looking through random YouTube videos. I think he says something like [ɐː(m)]. It doesn’t sound too out of the ordinary or too different from the American version to me, but maybe you’ll hear it differently. Here is a video with David Feherty, a former professional golfer, originally from Bangor, Northern Ireland, answering a question someone had for him. He also seems to say [ɐː(m)] I think. Sometimes you will hear [ɛː(m)]. I think that’s mainly in areas closer to the border with the Republic of Ireland though. Listen to this other lad (Warning: not for children) from Dungannon, for example, which is not terribly far from where I grew up actually. He uses [ɛː(m)]. His accent is also much stronger than the others, but that’s a different topic.

    Aussies and Kiwis tend to use [aː(m)] in my experience, which is very much like arm in their accents. I don’t know about South Africans though. That accent doesn’t seem to get as much worldwide exposure.

    On a different note, it annoys me a little bit when Yanks write er or erm when they’re on the Internet (or texting, etc.), because I haven’t heard a single one of them say it that way in real life (with NURSE). We don’t say it like that in Ireland either. The vast majority of them have rhotic accents like we do. It would sound really stupid to actually say it that way, in my opinion. They must have picked it up from English people. I don’t know.

    But of course these are just my observations. And, yes, I am a nerd with too much free time. Thank you for asking 🙂 Happy Easter!

    • trawicks says:

      And to you as well Séamus!

      I think we Americans sometimes write “er” because it’s something we’ve read a lot. It conveys a kind of stuffy, Victorian discomfort. I admit I’ve been guilty of it once or twice, along with some other insufferably Anglophilic behavior.

      Excellent clips. Mr. Feherty sounds like his accent is a bit American-influenced (he lives in Dallas, TX). I’m curious if his American-sounding ums and uhs are a product of that.

      • Séamus O'Connor says:

        “Mr. Feherty sounds like his accent is a bit American-influenced (he lives in Dallas, TX).”

        I don’t know. To me he still sounds pretty Irish. You can compare that video with another video I found of him from the early 90’s. I don’t think he was living in Dallas yet at that time. The parts where he speaks are here and here. To me he doesn’t sound much different there. Maybe his accent wasn’t that heavy to begin with.

    • Ellen K. says:

      I’ll add that most of us Americans, when we read er or erm, we don’t realize that the R is meant to be silent; we don’t realize that it’s another spelling of uh or um. We think of it as a different thing altogether, and then we (some of us) pick it up and add it to our written English repertoire.

      • RN says:

        Only now that I read Ellen K.’s reply I get that the ‘r’ in ‘er’ is silent. Took me about three decades. I always found it odd that I never heard this ‘r’ on BBC broadcastings, but now I get it.
        I’m from the Netherlands, and although we learn Brittish English in schools, we’re heavily influenced by American English since we don’t dub, but use subs on foreign TV shows (thank goodness for that), and most of them are American.

        Here in the Netherlands we say something like [əː(m)], by the way.

      • m.m. says:

        This indeed. It wasn’t till recently I realized that “er/erm” was a non-rhotic spelling of “uh/um”.
        I still realized them as having rhotic properties, and as Ellen K writes, “a different thing altogether”.

  2. Leo says:

    Hey, it’s funny that you mentioned the way (some) people in the Great Lakes area say um. I’ve noticed that too! I’ve also heard a far back pronunciation of this “filler word” (and also, perhaps relatedly, the STRUT vowel) in the New York City/New Jersey/Philly area. I don’t know if it’s the same pronunciation or something different, but it sounds further back in the mouth than how I say it, and I’m not from either one of those regions.

    • Séamus O'Connor says:

      Hmm…my comment seems to have been deleted. I know it was long, but I’ve looked at some of the other posts and I’ve found really long comments, so I thought that was all right. My mistake.

      • trawicks says:

        Sorry, Séamus! Your comment appears now. I use a standard spam-blocking program called Akismet, and it tends to read a lot of comments on this blog as spam because people tend to post more links. If you write something and it doesn’t appear, just let me know either here or by contacting me. Your comments are very welcome!

        • Séamus O'Connor says:

          It looks like Aksimet got me again! I had a short reply above.

        • trawicks says:

          Sorry again, Séamus. As I mentioned in another post, Akismet seems to specifically target comments that have more than one link in them. Which unfortunately for me describes many of the legitimate comments on this site!

  3. Séamus O'Connor says:

    Whoops! That wasn’t meant to be a reply.

  4. quentin says:

    In french, I would say that our “um” is quite close to the american one (the “m” is not pronounced and it’s often spelt “euh”).

  5. Erica Walch says:

    Another great post. I have no answer at all, but I will tell you that I ask my accent mod clients to think about their filler noises, plus noises that mean assent or dissent but aren’t words (like mmhmm, uh-uh, hmmm), and the words for hi, bye, yes, no, and okay in their native language. The intonation/stress/rhythm of these words is really hard-wired and reflects each languages overall intonation patterns.

    I find that if I can get my clients to hear, understand, analyze and reproduce these sounds in L1 + American English, they can do better at hearing (and eventually replicating) the same patterns in longer utterances.

    • trawicks says:

      I found, when I was young actor trying to learn an Irish accent, that say “ehm” made me “find” the accent better. I’m curious if the um’s in different accents are in some ways related to the where the accent is “placed” in terms of resonance.

  6. dw says:

    Great post, trawicks!

    Perhaps you could also say something about “uh”? This is often used in American sources to indicate a schwa — either as a sound of hesitation (where a non-rhotic might use “er”), or as a phonetic spelling.

    I (gree up near-RP, now live in California) have a STRUT-schwa contrast, although it has very low functional load (“unorthodox” vs. “an orthodox” is one minimal pair). I always hate it when “uh” is used to represent schwa, since the sounds are, to my mind, completely different 🙂

    • trawicks says:

      Thanks, dw. I actually think Americans make a distinction between schwa and STRUT words as well. Again, I would look at the Northern Cities Vowel Shift as exhibit a, since people in Detroit pronounce “strut” [stɻɔt], but obviously don’t pronounce “afraid” [ɔˈfɻeɪd]!

      • Dw says:

        Then why use “uh”, rather than “a”, to indicate schwa? To me, TRAP is just as close to a schwa as STRUT. And there is actually a word, the indefinite article “a”, whose usual pronunciation is a schwa.

        • Ellen K. says:

          Strut is definitely a lot closer to a schwa than trap for this American.

          The vowel in trap, as far as how it sounds, is about as far from a schwa as one can get.

          Also, making a distinction between schwa and strut words does not always mean that they have a different sound. It can mean they are different phonemes, the distinction being not sound quality, but stress. Thus, a sound shift (such as the mentioned Northern Cities Vowel Shift) might affect one and not the other.

    • trawicks says:

      Forgot to add that, in California, the separation between STRUT words and schwa appears to be more insignificant. This vowel chart of Southern California (disclaimer: it’s from Wikipedia) shows that the vowel is only slightly more open than the schwa. Back East, however, the difference is very pronounced.

  7. m.m. says:

    Rickys sounds more like [ɐm] to me; i use something close to [əm] myself, and his sounds more open. Listening to Jeff’s [ʌm], it sounds like my [əm], though I’m betting the perception is due to the fact that my /ʌ/ is basically at center for me.

    I want to hear this backed and lowered “awm” haha.

  8. Josh McNeill says:

    I do actually say ‘er’ fairly often, with the R pronounced, almost always followed by ‘uh’. For example, I might say, “This thing er uh that thing?” Er uhh, ya know, like, some other filler. The confusion may lie in pronunciation. When I type ‘er’, I’m pronouncing it like ‘burn’ or ‘learn’ (in AM, kinda wish I knew IPA for this), not like ‘ehm’.

  9. James says:

    I’ve also noticed that people from the Great Lakes area tend to pronounce final schwa further to the back of the mouth than I do. If you listen to this lady from Milwaukee say Stella, you’ll hear what I mean. I’m not sure if anything happens to a schwa at the beginning of a word though, e.g., in again. This is slightly off topic, but when you mentioned how they pronounce um in the Great Lakes region it reminded me of that.

  10. melissa says:

    This is an interesting topic. You start off by saying that all dialects of English have “filler” words. I would assume this is true for most languages, not just dialects of English. I know in Mandarin, the filler is usually “na” or “na ga”.

    Also @ Ellen K., I too always pronounce the English “erm” with the ‘r’ sound. To me, it was always a sound associated with somebody squirming around, rather than as a filler. It makes so much more sense to me now 🙂

  11. Pat says:

    It’s weird how even the way people hesitate differs from place to place. In Northern England, I’ve heard an Irish-like [ɛ(ː)(m)]. But I’ve also heard something like [œ(ː)(m)]. In Scotland you can hear [e(ː)(m)].

  12. Thomas says:

    What’s the hesitation sound of Irish Gaelic? That could be where the eh/ehm of Irish English comes from.