29 May 2009

Planning to say 'um' and 'uh'

For non-native speakers of English, learning how to use our definite article must be an absolute doddle compared with the problems I’ve always had in handling ‘le’, ‘la’ and ‘les in French and the even more complicated ‘der’, ‘die’, ‘das’, ‘die’, etc. in German (for which I achieved my worst failure ever with a pitiful 7% at 'O' level).

English nouns don’t have genders so ‘the’ works fine for all of them – except, of course, when we’re speaking. Nouns beginning with a consonant are indeed preceded by ‘the’, but, if the noun starts with a vowel, ‘the’ is pronounced ‘thee’ – so we say ‘the pub’ but ‘thee egg’.

Interestingly, the definite article often comes before ‘uhs’ and ‘ums’ when we're speaking. Even more interesting is the fact that, when it does, speakers invariably use the ‘thee’ form: ‘thee-uh’. The fact that the ‘the’ is fitted to an upcoming vowel sound presumably means that we know that an ‘uh’ or an ‘um’ is on its way before we select ‘thee’ rather than ‘the’.

On the evidence of Mrs Clinton's recent ‘consequences’ statement, she does it quite a lot as you can see from the following video clips:

1. "It has chosen to violate thee u-specific language of thee uh UN Security Council Resolution 1718."

2. ".. discussions are going on to uh add to thee uh consequences"

3. "I want to underscore thee uh commitments that the United States has"

video

The interesting question for people who know more than I do about languages other than English is whether they too involve planned 'ums' and 'uhs' - and, if so, what form does it take?

For example, do German speakers project an upcoming masculine, feminine or neutral noun with 'der uh', 'die uh' or 'das uh'? And what happens in languages that don't have definite articles at all?

1 comment:

Charles Crawford said...

Not sure I agree that it is easy for foreigners to grasp our use of 'the' and 'a' and when not to use them.

Sure they have no endings. But eg Poles/Slavs/Russians have no equivalents of 'the' and 'a', so even getting across to them the subtle differences in meaning between eg the following is v tricky:

- Yesterday I passed the cinema
- Yesterday I passed a cinema
- The cinema is always a good way to relax
- A cinema need not be well designed
- Cinema is a cool art form
- Cinemas are so outdated
- The cinemas here are so outdated

As for Hillary Clinton, see my posting on www.charlescrawford.biz