Home of the Um, Land of the Uh: the Filler Words Dividing America

Yes, there is a map for that.

Home of the Um, Land of the Uh: the Filler Words Dividing America

They're taboo for newsreaders and other public speakers, but the rest of us use filler words whenever our brain needs to catch up with whatever we're saying. Which at least in my case is, uh, fairly frequently.


Although we use these words thoughtlessly, they're not without cultural context. They vary widely between languages, for instance. Which is a bit weird for such seemingly automatic interjections. The Danish øh and the Greek εμ may resemble the English uh and um, but that is certainly not the case for wallahi (Arabic), niinku (Finnish), Þúst (Icelandic), znači (Serbian) or paatheenga-na (Tamil).

And of course each language has a range of filler words, often with connotations for region, class or age. If you want to sound intellectual in Hungarian (and let's face it, who wouldn't), you'll fill the pauses in your sentences with ha úgy tetszik instead of the more common asszongya. Using ke'ilu in Hebrew marks you out as a somewhat younger speaker, not unlike like in English.

You would think that the two most common filler words in English – uh and um – would be totally interchangeable, being so short and sounding so similar. But we wouldn't live in the Information Age if we couldn't crunch a heap of data that says otherwise. 

Is that, um, a bulge in your pattern or are you just happy to, uh, see me? (reproduced with kind permission from Quartz)

 

This remarkable map, the result of a thorough screening of 6 billion words on Twitter, shows that there is, in fact, an um/uh divide running through the United States. Assuming that the twitterverse is sufficiently colloquial for people to write uhs and ums where they would say them, we see Uh Country dominating the Deep South, New England, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Um Land stretches from Ohio and Kentucky in the east to Arizona and Wyoming out west. The West Coast is undecided, except, uh, for the Bay Area and, um, a contiguous coastal zone between California's north and Oregon's south (a.k.a. the State of Jefferson, see #458). 

Some states are completely torn up between both fillers - neither of which, fortunately, sounds like a plausible rallying cry. The northwestern half of Arkans-uh is decidedly um-minded. Tenn-uh-see is facing an um-vasion from the north and particularly in the northeast. The southern half of Iow-uh is completely um-ified, as is the southern half of Michigan's Lower Peninsul-uh.

The question, of course, is: what other data does this seemingly trivial divide correspond with? Could it be the Appalachians (if you haven't tired of the gimmick yet: Uh-palachians) keeping Um Country from reaching the coast? Is the Minnesotan preference for uh a residu of the øh imported by Scandinavian immigrants? Is the West Coast a mix of both or do they simply prefer, like, other filler words? And, finally: who's winning? Will the um bubble in the Midwest burst, or will it eat into the northern and southern wings of the uh pincer?

The raw data: more detail, less overview (reproduced with kind permission from Quartz)

 

The data for these maps was compiled by Dr. Jack Grieve, a forensic linguist at Aston University in Birmingham (UK), and Mark Liberman, a fellow linguist with a long-standing interest in the um/uh divide, who earlier posited that women are more likely than men to use um over uh

As linguists, the data made more sense to them than to this, uh, mere cartographer. The Midwestern um bulge largely corresponds to the so-called Midland American English dialect, which stretches from central Pennsylvania along the Ohio River valley into the West. In fact, according to Dr. Grieve, this is the first time he's been able to pin down the elusive Midland dialect on a map. 

For more on this subject, see the this article at Quartz. Dig even deeper with this article by Mark Liberman on Language Log. For more on Dr. Grieve's work, including a map of the recently popularised word thottie, see his homepage and his blog.

Strange Maps #679

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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Water may be far more abundant on the lunar surface than previously thought.

Lunar surface

Credit: Helen_f via AdobeStock
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