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

Yes, there is a map for that.

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.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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Image source: Pixabay
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