Delay sound

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A delay sound (also fill sound, embarrassment sound, pause sound, flick sound, English hesitation vowel, hesitation sound) is a usually monosyllabic discourse particle that can be stretched in length, in German usually äh, ähm or mhh, which is used in spoken language to bridge a pause in speech between two words or speech units.

Pause for thought for the speaker

Discourse particles fill pauses while the brain makes a word choice, puts it in the right order, and establishes stress and grammar.[1]

Motor and respiratory function

The breathing of humans when speaking (or singing), so-called speech breathing, differs considerably from their breathing without articulation of speech sounds, so-called resting breathing. While the latter only serves to take in oxygen and releaseCO2, speech breathing fulfils the additional function of providing the airflow needed for phonation, the so-called phonation stream, which is primarily an expiratory airflow, since normally only exhaled air is used for phonation (“bellows function”).

In resting breathing, the inspiration and expiration phases are of approximately equal duration, whereas in speech breathing the ratio of inspiration and expiration duration shifts strongly in favor of the latter. The switch from resting to speech breathing occurs through a complex process that is both neural, controlled predominantly in the cerebral cortex, and motor, in which the breathing rhythm is altered and, involving motor control of the vocal folds in the larynx, respiratory air is partly converted into phonatory flow.

The maintenance of speech breathing depends on the immediate availability of speech content or “speech material”. In order to avoid constantly falling back into resting breathing in the event of an intermittent lack of supply and having to breathe in again and again, with the possible consequence of a respiratory imbalance (e.g. hyperventilation syndrome), motor substitute routines using delay sounds (filler sounds or filler words) serve the purpose of maintaining speech breathing and thus serve to considerably economize the breathing process.

Communicative function

Delay sounds have no lexical meaning in the narrower sense and are in this respect comparable to interjections, but unlike the latter they are not normally used with a special expressive or apellic function. Apart from the purely motor and respiratory function of maintaining speech breathing, they can, however, also have a certain communicative function, namely to maintain linguistic contact with the listener and to indicate to him that the speaker still wants to continue his utterance or to replace a preceding word by a more suitable one(We are going to the airport, uh, to the station). Thus, delay sounds are one of the mechanisms involved in regulating speaker change in conversation.

The boundary between embarrassment sounds and interjections is fluid insofar as embarrassment sounds, like interjections, can also be used for further expressive intentions, e.g. as an expression of distancing irony or doubt (So you aretravelling with your, uh, wife? I don’t know, hm, should we really do that?). These are then not delay sounds in the true sense, as long as the motor-respiratory cause is not given, but is only staged phonetically in order to achieve a certain expressive effect.

Assessment of embarrassment sounds

Frequent and seemingly unmotivated use of delayed sounds as a characteristic of individual speaker behaviour is often interpreted as an indication of lack of concentration or even the presence of speech disorders. Speech education and training for public appearances or sales talks are designed for the acquisition of fluent speech and thus for the avoidance of delayed sounds.

In pre-recorded radio broadcasts, delay sounds are usually cut out (ä-stoppers); in shorthand transcriptions of speeches, they are ignored. When preparing transcripts in social research, it depends on the methodological approach whether embarrassment sounds are transcribed or omitted. In written language they occur only as a stylistic feature of sought orality.

Regionally different, the words yes or halt are also inserted as discourse particles.

Equivalents in other languages

Although the embarrassment sound has no lexicalized content of its own, it occurs in different languages in different phonetic forms:

  • English: er, erm, uh, um
  • French: euh
  • Spanish: eh, Mm-hmm
  • Japanese: えっと (etto), あのお (anō)
  • Swedish: hm
  • Chinese: nà ge


Since frequent or habitual use of embarrassment sounds is seen as a sign of lack of preparation or knowledge, or even as a personal quirk, the exaggerated imitation of such speech behavior is a popular means of parodying politicians and other celebrities (e.g. Edmund Stoiber, Boris Becker, Barack Obama).


  • Bastian Conrad / P. W. Schönle: Hesitation vowels: a motor speech respiration hypothesis. In: Neuroscience letters 55.3 (1985), pp. 293-296
  • Bastian Conrad / P. W. Schönle: Speech and Respiration. In: European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience (1979), p. 226
  • H. Maclay / C. Osgood: Hesitation phenomena in spontaneous English speech. In: Word 15 (1959), pp. 19-44
  • R. L. Rose: The communicative value of filled pauses in spontaneous speech. Dissertation, University of Birmingham, 1998
  • Lawrence Schourup: The basis of articulation. In: Ohio State University Working Papers in Linguistics 25 (1983), pp. 1-13
Audio publication
  • Jörg Sobiella: Justice for the ‘Äh’ – Saboteurs of Understanding. Radio feature, MDR Kultur/rbb kultur, first broadcast 28 December 2019[2]

Web links

Individual references

  1. The Small Question: Why do you say “uh” or “um”?(Memento of 13 November 2016 in the Internet Archive)
  2. Stefan Kanis:Justice for the “Uh” | May 3, 2021 (German).