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.