Tuesday, March 10, 1998 at 23:02:48

I may be teaching my grandmother to suck eggs here, but I thought you might be interested in the followingfactoid: the reason most pause fillers are pronounced "er" (with a central schwa vowel as in the second syllables of the words "mother" and "father"), and not any other vowel sound, is that this sound (called "schwa") is central, i.e., it is articulated in the middle of the oral cavity (as opposed to, say, the vowel in the word "see", which is articulated way at the front, or the vowel in "mood", which is articulated at the back). This central postition is the most eligible one for a pause filler, given that speakers are naturally lazy and the distance from schwa to whatever phoneme the speaker eventually decides to utter is never very great.

- EV

Your theory as to why 'er' is the most common pause filler is very persuasive and I sense there is a significant degree of truth in it.  However, I have a couple of principle doubts.  First, although 'er' is common in English, it is not always a preferred filler among native speakers of other languages.  Here in Japan where I live and teach the most common pause fillers are 'e-to' and 'ano-'.  In Malay, 'la' is common, in Finnish, 'totta, niin niin', and in Estonian, 'noh' (according to various other visitors to FPRC).  Second is the notion that speakers are naturally lazy.   If so, then it would follow that native English speakers are relatively more lazy since they choose the laziest of all pause fillers.

Good point. But isn't this simply because the schwa vowel does not occur in those languages?

I don't know about Finnish, Malay, and Estonian, but it is true that the schwa vowel does not appear in Japanese. However, that still doesn't help explain why 'e-to' or 'ano-' would be more common than merely 'e-' or even the nasal 'n' (as the 'n' in 'sing') which are surely more lazy. Similarly, the Finnish filler 'totta, niin niin' seems quite complex (although there may be a simpler filler that my informant did not mention...).

Nevertheless, I think your idea merits further study although I might suggest that the aspect of speakers you have labeled 'laziness' might be better described by, say, 'efficiency' or 'economy'.

I guess you're right; it's probably not a question of laziness (or efficiency or economy either, for that matter).

Whatever the explanation, though, schwa does seem to be something of a favourite. I've just come back from Spain, and according to the language books, the normal pause filler in Spanish is "esto" (in Spain) or "este" (in Latin America). However, I noticed that the Spanish make frequent use of our friend schwa as a pause filler (as well as "esto"), despite the fact that, strictly speaking, the vowel doesn't occur in Spanish.

The phenomenon may be attributable to influence from English or French, but it might also indicate an innate human preference for schwa, though this is merely speculation.

I think it's clear that there is some reason for humans to prefer the schwa sound:   it is perhaps the easiest of all sounds the human vocal system is capable of producing. That, however, makes me curious about something else.  I teach English in Japan where my students' native language is limited to five vowel sounds /a/ (as in 'la'), /i/ ('he'), /u/ ('lute'), /e/ ('pet'), and /o/ ('code').  Why is the schwa such an integral phonetic sound in some languages (e.g., English) and not at all in others (e.g., Japanese). Interestingly, however, my students can readily produce the schwa sound when asked.

Not only Japanese, but all languages which have a set of five vowels usethose same five vowels which you described. Similarly, languages which have only three vowels in their inventory (Such as Arabic) will always have /a/ (as in 'la'), /i/ ('he') and /u/ ('lute'). The reason for this is a peculiar law of phonetics, usually called the law of maximal differentiation. This law prescribes that the vowel sounds in the phonemic inventory of a language will always be maximally opposed in terms of phonetic space. In other words, you will never find a three-way vowel system containing  /a/ (as in 'la'), /e/ ('pet') and ash (as in 'can'), because these three vowels are articulated very close together in the oral cavity. The three vowels described above for Arabic, on the other hand, are articulated at opposite extremes of the oral cavity. Presumably human languages seek maximal vowel differentiation for reasons  of clarity. This explains the absence of schwa in Japanese, but I'm not sure if schwa is easier to produce than other vowels.

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