Ehh, How Do You Say…

The use of fillers in language are not limited to spoken communication.

In American Sign Language, UM can be signed with open-8 held at chin, palm in, eyebrows down (similar to FAVORITE); or bilateral symmetric bent-V, palm out, repeated axial rotation of wrist (similar to QUOTE).

This is interesting to me because it helps differentiate communication which is unfolding in time and communication which is spatially inscribed. When we speak informally, most people use a some filler words, sounds, and gestures. Some support for embodied cognition theories has come from studies which show that

“Gestural Conceptual Mapping (congruent gestures) promotes performance. Children who used discrete gestures to solve arithmetic problems, and continuous gestures to solve number estimation, performed better. Thus, action supports thinking if the action is congruent with the thinking.”

The effective gestures that they refer to aren’t exactly fillers, because they mimic or indicate conceptual experiences in a full-body experience. The body is used as a literal metaphor. Other gestures however, seem relatively meaningless, like filler. There seems to be levels of filler usage which range in frequency and intensity from the colorful to the neurotic in which generic signs are used as ornament/crutch, or like a carrier tone to signify when the speaker is done speaking, (know’am’sayin?’).

In written language, these fillers are generally only included ironically or to simulate conversational informality. Formal writing needs no filler because there is no relation in real time between participating subjects. The relation with written language was traditionally as an object. The book can’t control whether the reader continues to read or not, so there is no point in gesturing that way. With the advent of real time text communication, we have experimented with emoticons and abbreviations to animate the frozen medium of typed characters. In this article, John McWhorter points out that ‘LOL isn’t funny anymore’ – that it has entered sort of a quasi-filler state where it can mean many different things or not much of anything.

In terms of information entropy, fillers are maximally entropic. Their meaning is uncertain, elastic, irrelevant, but also, and this is cryptic but maybe significant…they point to the meta-conversational level. They refer back to the circumstance of the conversation rather than the conversation itself. As with the speech carrier tone fillers like um… or ehh…, or hand gestures, they refer obliquely to the speaker themselves, to their presence and intent. They are personal, like a signature. Have you ever noticed that when people you have known die that it is their laugh which is most immediately memorable? Or their quirky use of fillers. High information entropy ~ High personal input. Think of your signature compared to typing your name. Again, signatures are occurring in real time, they represent a moment of subjective will being expressed irrevocably. The collapse of information entropy which takes place in formal, traditional writing is a journey from the private perpetual here of subjectivity to the world of public objects. It is a passage* from the inner semantic physics, through initiative or will, striking a thermodynamically irreversible collision with the page. That event, I think, is the true physical nature of public time – instants where private affect is projected as public effect.

Speakers who are not very fluent in a language seem to employ a lot of fillers. For one thing they buy time to think of the right word, and they signal an appeal for patience, not just on a mechanical level (more data to come, please stand by), but on a personal level as well (forgive me, I don’t know how to say…). Is it my imagination or are Americans sort of an exception to the rule, preferring stereotypically to yell words slowly rather than using the ‘ehh’ filler. Maybe that’s not true, but the stereotype is instructive as it implies an association between being pushy and adopting the more impersonal, low-entropy communication style.

This has implications for AI as well. Computers can blink a cursor or rotate an hourglass icon at you, and that does convey some semblance of personhood to us, I think, but is it real? I say no. The computer doesn’t improve its performance by these gestures to you. What we might subtly read as interacting with the computer personally in those hourglass moments is a figment of the Pathetic fallacy rather than evidence of machine sentience. It has a high information entropy in the sense that we don’t know what the computer is doing exactly, if it’s going to lock up or what, but it has no experiential entropy. It is superficially animated and reflects no acknowledgement to the user. Like the book, it is thermodynamically irreversible as far as the user is concerned. We can only wait and hope that it stops hourglassing.

The meanings of filler words in different languages are interesting too. They say things like “you see/you know”, “it means”, “like”, “well”, and “so”. They talk about things being true or actual. “Right?” “OK?”. Acknowledgment of inter-subjective synch with the objective perception. Agreement. Positive feedback. “Do you copy?” relates to “like”…similarity or repetition. Symmetric continuity. Hmm.

*orthomodular transduction to be pretentiously precise

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