DiSS-LPSS Joint Workshop 2010

The 5th Workshop on Disfluency in Spontaneous Speech
The 2nd International Symposium on Linguistic Patterns in Spontaneous Speech

Tokyo, Japan, September 25-26, 2010

Disfluency as Metacommunication

Dale Barr

Department of Psychology, University of Glasgow

Research on spoken language comprehension has challenged the traditional view that disfluencies are mere performance errors that disrupt comprehension. By now, there is a range of evidence that disfluencies often facilitate language comprehension by supporting predictive inferences about upcoming speech. What is less well-understood is the exact nature of this benefit. How do listeners derive meaning from disfluency? To what extent are the benefits of hearing a disfluency dependent on potentially "signaled" elements, such as the fillers um and uh, versus more symptomatic elements, such as the length of a silent pause? Do disfluencies benefit comprehension through low-level mechanisms such as priming, or do they call upon more high-level inferences? How sensitive are listeners to different possible sources of disfluency?
  In this talk, I will review results from a research program investigating the nature and processing of utterance-initial disfluencies during referential communication. In these studies, the form of a speaker's disfluency was experimentally manipulated to discern its impact on the listener. The results generally support the view that the primary meaning of disfluencies is metacommunicative [1]: a disfluency signals that the speaker is experiencing trouble, and the form of the disfluency provides information about the severity of the trouble. The impact of a disfluency on listeners is to cause them to attend to the speaker and to attempt to diagnose the cause of the trouble. Moreover, listeners appear to do this in a flexible and largely speaker-specific, rather than "egocentric", manner. This model gives good coverage of the phenomena, and suggests important avenues for future investigation.


  1. H. H. Clark and J. E. Fox Tree, “Using uh and um in spontaneous speaking.” Cognition, vol. 84, no. 1, pp. 73–111, May 2002

Full Paper

Bibliographic reference.  Barr, Dale (2010): "Disfluency as metacommunication", In DiSS-LPSS-2010, 2.