Non-Lexical Conversational Sounds in American English

Nigel Ward

Pragmatics and Cognition, 14:1 (2006), pp. 113-184.

Sounds like h-nmm, hh-aaaah, hn-hn, unkay, nyeah, ummum, uuh, um-hm-uhhm, um and uh-huh occur frequently in American English conversation but have thus far escaped systematic study. This article reports a study of both the forms and functions of such tokens in a corpus of American English conversations. These sounds appear not to be lexical, in that they are productively generated rather than finite in number, and in that the sound-meaning mapping is compositional rather than arbitrary. This implies that English bears within it a small specialized sublanguage which follows different rules from the language as a whole. This functions supported by this sub-language complement those of main-channel English; they include low-overhead control of turn-taking, negotiation of agreement, signaling of recognition and comprehension, management of interpersonal relations such as control and affiliation, and the expression of emotion, attitude, and affect.

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