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Where do we backchannel. On the use of mm , mhm , uh huh and such like

Where do we backchannel?
On the use of mm, mhm, uh huh and such like*
Göran Kjellmer
Gothenburg University
The paper investigates a sample of ‘backchannels’, a kind of response item, in the
Cobuild Corpus. Its object is to chart the occurrence of backchannels in modern
English speech, and especially to find out if they can indicate how much of a
language sequence is needed for a listener to understand the intended message.
The sequences into which backchannels are inserted and their insertion points
are therefore classified, and the fairly numerous sequences where backchannels
“interrupt” a linguistic unit are singled out for special study. A general conclusion is that in the cases where there is no explicit information about the part of
the message following the inserted backchannel, the message will nevertheless
mostly be understood even at the backchannel insertion point. A comparison
between male and female speakers shows that women use backchannels more
than men and that, unlike men, they prefer unemphatic backchannels.
Keywords: backchannel, collocational bonding, gender relations, interference,
nexus constructions
The following is talk between students who are planning a lavish meal.1
(1) <M01>
I’m going to have to make erm I’m going to make a big pan of
I’m just putting the fruit on top.
It’ll make a big pan of mince chilli.
and a pan of vegetable chilli.
International Journal of Corpus Linguistics 14:1 (2009), 81–112. doi 10.1075/ijcl.14.1.05kje
issn 1384–6655 / e-issn 1569–9811 © John Benjamins Publishing Company
Göran Kjellmer
<M02> Mm.
<M01> And a <ZF1> I’m going to do about <ZF0> I’m going to do about
three or four cans of chilli er er those pepper things
<M02> Mm.
<M01> with loads of sour cream on and and make
<M02> Oh yeah.
<M01> lots and lots of rice which I need your cauldron for.
<M02> Yeah.
<M01> And lots and lots of tortilla chips.
<M02> Mm. Mhm mm. Mhm. Mm mm mm mm. Mm. Mm.
<M01> Cos Mexican’s dead easy to make.
<F02> Mm. <tc text=pause> And it’s good for feeding large numbers of
(from the Cobuild Corpus, ukspok/04. Text: S0000001166.)
Although the passage is essentially a description by <M01> of a dish he is preparing, it takes the form of a collaborative effort where the listeners take part without
interrupting the speaker. <M01> holds his turn throughout the passage, while the
rest of the company show their support and appreciation by means of the elements
emphasised in bold above. The result can be seen as a joint achievement (Schegloff
1982:89). The emphasised particles are so-called ‘backchannels’, a type of element
regularly occurring in casual conversation. In this study I will look at the use of
backchannels in order to study the transmission of information between participants in a discussion. More precisely, the question I will try to answer is this: can
backchannels tell us when the speaker’s message is understood? And if so, how
much of an utterance do we need to hear before the penny drops? Can the insertion point of backchannels show how much information is conveyed implicitly?
In dealing with such problems, where quantitative measures are often called for,
language corpora are very useful, not to say indispensable. The present investigation will consequently be largely corpus-based.
The current study is organised as follows: after a presentation of definitions and
functions of backchannels and of the sources used for the study, homonymous nonbackchannels are discarded and the remainder classified into turn-external and turninternal backchannels. Some conclusions are drawn from the results of the classification. A brief sub-study of men’s and women’s use of backchannels is then followed
by an analysis of turn-internal backchannels. A rough estimate is made of the degree
of interference they create with the speaker’s message. The types of backchannelinserted sequences where a maximum of interference and therefore possibly a break
in communication can be expected are singled out for special study. It is concluded
that information is normally transmitted even when it is only partially expressed.
Where do we backchannel?
2. Definition
Backchannels2 have attracted the attention of a number of scholars. According to
Rühlemann (2007:94), “there is little agreement in the literature as to what qualifies
as a backchannel […] backchannelling is essentially not a lexico-grammatical but
rather a discourse phenomenon.” It is therefore hardly possible to give a finite list
of English backchannels. Even so, the items given in exemplification by different
scholars overlap to a considerable extent. Two definitions of backchannels that will
serve in the present context are those given by Tottie (1991:255): “Backchannels are
the sounds (and gestures) made in conversation by the current non-speaker, which
grease the wheels of conversation but constitute no claim to take over the turn”, and
by Carter and McCarthy (1997:12): “[N]oises (which are not full words) and short
verbal responses made by listeners which acknowledge the incoming talk and react
to it, without wishing to take over the speaking turn.” Credit is given by most writers
on the subject to Yngve (1970) for first using the term in his discussion of the phenomenon. Tannen (1992:11) places backchannels in their conversational context:
Thus any utterance by any participant in a conversation is a joint production, influenced by speaker, listener, and audience (including the investigators or their
equipment). For this reason, research has also focused on listenership behavior.
Among the more frequently studied of such phenomena is backchannelling.
This includes minimal responses such as Mhm and Uhuh, lax tokens such as Yeah,
one-word responses such as Right, phrases such as I see what you mean, repetitions and sentence completions, and short ratifying utterances.
The backchannels occurring in example (1) above are probably among the most
frequent of English backchannels, but as was just pointed out there is no finite list
of elements in this function. Different writers arrive at different lists. “Numerous investigations into listener activity have succeeded Yngve’s [list], but what is
included within back channel behaviour (as opposed to turns which assume the
speaker-role) varies from study to study.” (McCarthy 2002:51). There also seems
to be some difference between British and American writers in this regard (Tottie 1989:271, 1991:270; Biber et al. 1999:1096). It may be mentioned for the sake
of comparison that Nordenstam (1987:47) lists 22 Swedish backchannels with 36
variants of ja (‘yes’) in her study of Swedish conversational style.
3. Functions
Schegloff (1982:78) sums up characterisations of “these bits of behavior” (including laughter, nods and shakes) offered in the literature in this way:
Göran Kjellmer
According to one [characterisation], these bits of behavior are evidence of attention, interest, and/or understanding on the listener’s part. […] A second use of
such behavior proposed in this literature is that it ‘…keeps the conversation going
smoothly’ […], or ‘… appears to provide the auditor with a means for participating actively in the conversation, thus facilitating the general coordination of action by both participants …’
Tottie (1991:256) distinguishes the “supportive” function of backchannels, signalling understanding and agreement, and the “regulative” function, encouraging the
speaker to continue his/her turn. Stenström (1994:82) ranges them along a gradient, from indifference to strong involvement. And according to Aijmer (2002:53)
backchannels “come into the conversation at regular intervals to show the hearer’s
understanding of the social relationship between the partners and to keep the conversation going.”
A list of the main uses, partly overlapping, of backchannels may look like
OK so far, carry on
(Tottie’s “regulative function”)
I appreciate what you’re saying
I understand – ” –
I agree with – ” –
I agree with what I assume you’ll be saying
¾ (≈ Tottie’s “supportive function”)
I confirm what you’re saying
(“Confirmatory function”)
I’m listening
(“Attention-showing function”)
I’m on your side, I sympathise with you
(“Empathetic function”)
The functions just suggested should not be taken as exhaustive, nor do they constitute a consistent pattern. Andersen’s discussion (1999:66–67) of the question of
formalising the functions of pragmatic markers is relevant here:
Since the existence of bona fide categories of markers is dubious, and since a taxonomic framework which does justice to the multifunctional aspect seems inconceivable, I do not consider it a purposeful task to develop a taxonomy of markers.
Rather, I argue in favour of the understanding of pragmatic markers as having
multidimensional meanings/functions, and that assigning a particular function to
a marker on a particular occasion is a matter for pragmatic inference.
Where do we backchannel?
4. Material
This work makes use of material taken from the spoken British English module of the CobuildDirect Corpus. The module is named “ukspok” and contains
9,272,579 words. The transcribers have painstakingly recorded not only all the
words but also all the grunts and sounds occurring in a conversation.3 Pauses occurring in the conversation are also marked. For a study of the present kind it has
one great drawback, however: unlike e.g. the London-Lund Corpus (see Altenberg 1991) it has no prosodic annotation, which, if given, would have disambiguated a number of occurrences. One such use would have been the indication of
upward intonation to show solicitation of signs of agreement (Schegloff 1982:80).
This is one reason for being cautious here. Another is, in the words of McCarthy
(2002:69), that “[s]poken corpora as a locus for research into human communication always run the risk that features of talk may be culture-bound, and it is
only in intervarietal and interlingual studies that one can find safer ground for
As the field of backchannels is somewhat indeterminate, and, as McCarthy
(2002:52) points out, listener responses are characterised by their scalar nature,
there was never any question of trying to cover the whole field. Six of the most frequent English backchannels were selected for close study, viz. (in Cobuild transliteration) Mhm, Mm, Right, Uh huh,4 Yeah, Yes. One thousand occurrences of
each of those particles were randomly extracted from the Corpus. Some of them
include duplicated tokens, as in
(2) <M0X> I don’t think you’d be likely to say I don’t like that project.
<M0X> Right. Right.
<M0X> But <ZF1> it’s <ZF0> it’s used I’m sure <ZF1> in er <ZF0> in
Duplicated tokens were treated like non-duplicated ones. Not every instance of the
particles was a backchannel, so an operational definition was applied to the material. Those cases which followed the pattern “Speaker 1: xxxx — Speaker 2: Mhm/
Mm/Right/Uh huh/Yeah/Yes. — Speaker 1: xxxx” were accepted as backchannels.
(4), further below, is such an example. Speaker <M08>’s Yes, Yeah and Uh huh in
the following example were thus not regarded as backchannels:
(3) <M01> […] and you cannot compare
<M08> Exactly yes. Yes <ZF1> that’s <ZF0> that’s. Yeah. Uh huh. Yes
exactly. Yeah the your first thought tonight when […]
Such cases were called “Unanalysed” and not further dealt with. One of the advantages of defining backchannels in such a strict fashion is that the problem of
Göran Kjellmer
distinguishing between backchannels and speaking turns disappears (see for example Drummond & Hopper 1993:161).
5. Preliminary classification
The remainder of the material went through some classifications. The first of them
resulted in a division into the three groups “Turn-external”, “Answers” and “Turninternal”. The first group contains cases where a backchannel follows a completed
turn (where of course the speaker resumes his speech after the backchannel). Here
the backchannel acknowledges the information and interferes in no way with the
speaker’s utterance. An example is this:
(4) <M01> Erm the mortgage we’re after is less than ninety per cent
<F01> Mhm
<M01> Do we still need to fill in this budget planner
The second group, “Answers”, is a marginal subgroup of the first and contains cases
where Mhm/Mm/Right/Uh huh/Yeah/Yes function as answers to a previous question, as in
(5) <F0X> […] they come from like poor families and they’re all like into drugs
and do you know what kind of <ZF1> s <ZF0> situation I mean?
<F01> Mhm.
<F0X> Well some people would say they’re disadvantaged.
The third group, “Turn-internal”, is the group that is being focussed upon here. It
contains cases where the speaker continues his/her turn across the backchannel:
(6) <F02> […] They could’ve learnt me a bit more spelling and
<F01> Mhm
<F02> things like that.
Most of the functions referred to above suggest that backchannels are produced
by a listener after the speaker has just presented an information unit (cf. the backchannel in (4).) However, there are many cases like (6), where the listener inserts
her backchannel before the speaker has finished her turn. It may seem surprising
that elements with such functions as those described above should occur before
the speaker’s message has been completely delivered. Could it be that even in the
cases when backchannels occur in the middle of the presentation of a message,
enough information has been conveyed for the listener to react on? This is the
question the present study will try to answer.
Where do we backchannel?
It is obvious that the insertion of backchannels is most of the time helpful
to the speaker, assuring him or her of the sympathy of an interlocutor or audience and keeping the conversation going. This is particularly the case when a
response in the form of a backchannel occurs after the speaker has presented a
unit of thought that is easy for an interlocutor to agree with, understand, confirm,
etc. The interference of the interlocutor with the speaker’s train of thought is in
such cases minimal or null. However, there are situations, as we have seen, when
backchannels are inserted before speakers have had time to develop their thought,
and when consequently the backchannel interferes, at least potentially, with the
speaker’s message. Such situations may be those, for instance, where speakers are
interrupted before they have reached the verb of their sentence, or before they
have uttered the complement or the object of the sentence. Backchannels used in
this way could be seen as signs of encouragement or as a routine response to any
conversational element. But they could also indicate that the listener has formed
some opinion of what the speaker’s message is going to be. In this way backchannels could suggest how much is needed for a participant in a conversation in order
to be able to understand the gist of the speaker’s message. Therefore backchannels
might be an indication of how much is redundant, informationally speaking, in
a conversation. Even if it is hardly possible to distinguish the two interpretations
(routine response vs. sign of comprehension) from each other in each individual
case, it will be of interest to see where and how often backchannels occur in the
The division of the material into Turn-external and Turn-internal is normally
straight-forward. The point where the two categories are closest is the one illustrated below:
(7) <F02> I think must be at her this person’s house
<F01> Mhm
<F02> And er she’s the more or less taken over you know
Turn-internal (A1, see below):
(8) <F01> Well before she could change her mind I whipped her in
<M01> Mhm
<F01> and she sat there she was hanging on
In the first example, <F02> starts a new turn after the backchannel, as the transcriber indicates by means of “And” (perhaps guided by prosody), but in the second, <F01> continues her turn across the backchannel. Because of their similarity
the dividing line between some such classifications may occasionally be doubtful.
Göran Kjellmer
The classification of the material described above resulted in the following
Table 1. Distribution of backchannels over turn-related classes
In ukspok
Uh huh
It may be of some interest to see that when all the occurrences in the Corpus module, whether backchannels or not, are compared, Yeah predominates greatly over
the others, and Uh huh is much less frequent than any of the others. However, our
primary interest here lies in comparing the proportions of the items in the classes.
The table shows that, as expected, backchannels predominantly occur in the
category “Turn-external”, i.e. after speakers have finished their turn and before
they set out on the next. But in addition it shows, as was also suggested, that Turninternal backchannels are also quite frequent, namely 42% of the analysed cases.5
Three of the items, Yeah, Yes and Right, fall to a very large extent in the unanalysed
class. The reason for this is the fact that, strictly speaking, they often do not qualify
as backchannels as defined in this paper, as example (9) shows:
(9) <F0X> But perhaps that’s what the poet’s trying to say that’s right yeah.
This is especially the case when they are used as fully lexical words, as in
(10) <F0X> […] you can put as much energy you like in terms of the right
colours the right sounds the right smells the right touches
As a result, Yeah, Yes and (particularly) Right are relatively seldom used as Turninternal backchannels while Mm, Mhm and Uh huh relatively frequently occur in
such positions. Yeah and Yes are the preferred affirmative answers to a question,
whereas Right is only occasionally used in that function. The number of Turninternal occurrences varies from one particle to the next.
6. Gender relations
A point of some interest here is whether men and women backchannel to the same
extent. International studies show, according to Nordenstam (1987:76), that women use more backchannels (“support signals”) than men, and in Nordenstam’s own
Where do we backchannel?
(Swedish) material women use twice as many backchannels as men (ibid.). To find
out what the situation is in the spoken British material, I counted the number of
male and female backchannellers in both the Turn-external and the Turn-internal
category.6 Table 2 presents the results:
Table 2. Male and female backchannellers
(a) “Turn-external”
Uh huh
<M> %
<F> %
(b) “Turn-internal”
Uh huh
<M> %
<F> %
If we assume that there are about as many men as women in the material,7 the English figures seem to bear out Nordenstam’s Swedish conclusions: more women than
men backchannel in the material. It is noteworthy that women are relatively more
likely to add a backchannel after a completed turn (“Turn-external”) than they are
in the middle of a speaker’s turn (“Turn-internal”): 55.1% versus 52.7%. The other
side of the coin is that men’s tendency to backchannel increases slightly in Turninternal situations, from 44.9% to 47.3%. But what is particularly striking is that
the two sexes have different preferences in their choice of backchannel. Women
favour Mhm, Mm and Uh huh, whereas men prefer the more explicit Yes and Right,
and, very markedly in Turn-internal situations, Yeah. Even if the differences are
not great, it seems that we could make a distinction between emphatic and unemphatic backchannels, where men prefer the first type and women the second. This
distinction between emphatic and unemphatic is in line with Gardner (1997:23)
who distinguishes between “minimal responses” such as Mm, Hm and the “stronger, more aligning/agreeing” Yeah. It is also in line with the “widely cited features
of feminine and masculine interactional styles” given in Holmes (2006:6), where
Göran Kjellmer
the first three features under Feminine are “facilitative”, “supportive feedback” and
“conciliatory”, corresponding to the Masculine features “competitive”, “aggressive
interruptions” and “confrontational”.
Insertion points
The 1,960 cases of primary interest here, the Turn-internal ones, were analysed
with regard to the nature of the language chunks into which they are inserted. The
list of insertion points as given in Table 3 evolved out of the process of analysing
the backchannels. There was thus no preconceived notion of what the system of
classification should look like. There are more detailed comments on Table 3 in the
Appendix. The following classificatory scheme emerged:
Table 3. Insertion points
A. At clause break
1. before conj. (incl. so) or interrogative
2. after conj. (etc.)
3. before & after conj. (etc.)
4. no conj. (etc.) at break
5. before relative (overt or covert)
6. after relative
B. In noun phrase
C. Before apposition
D. In verb phrase
1. between vbs
2. between vb & obj
3. between vb & pred. complement
4. before free-standing participle
5. before (whether/in order) to-infinitive
6. between to and infinitive
E. In prep. phrase
1. before prep.
2. after prep.
F. In coordinated structure
1. before coordinator
2. after coordinator
3. no coordinator
G. In nexus8
H. Adverbial
1. before adverbial
2. after adverbial
3. in adverbial
Where do we backchannel?
I. Before repeated element
J. In adjective phrase
K. Unanalysed
8. Distribution of backchannels over insertion points
Relevant information here is found in Table 4, which presents the distribution of
the 1,960 Turn-internal backchannels over the classes in Table 3.
Table 4. Distribution over insertion points
Backchannels, raw numbers
Backchannels, per cent
Mm Mhm Uh huh Yeah Right Yes Total Mm Mhm Uh huh Yeah Right Yes
A1 107 147 106
64 36 43 503 24.1 30.9 25.7
25.7 23.2 19.2
18 15 17
4.1 3.2 4.1
3.6 3.9 2.7
3 1
0.7 0.2 0.5
0.4 1.3 0.0
42 48 40
27 20 28 205
9.5 10.1 9.7
10.8 12.9 12.5
22 25 16
5 13
5.0 5.3 3.9
2.4 3.2 5.8
3 4
0.7 0.8 0.2
0.4 0.6 1.3
27 15 18
20 12 14 106
6.1 3.2 4.4
8.0 7.7 6.3
9 12
2.0 2.5 2.2
1.2 1.3 2.7
11 6
2.5 1.3 1.9
4.4 2.6 0.9
9 2
2.0 0.4 1.9
1.6 2.6 0.4
16 7
3.6 1.5 1.2
3.6 1.9 3.6
4 4
0.9 0.8 0.5
2.0 2.6 0.4
2 7
0.5 1.5 1.9
1.2 0.6 1.3
0 0
0.0 0.0 0.0
0.0 0.0 0.4
38 48 45
20 16 25 192
8.6 10.1 10.9
8.0 10.3 11.2
19 18 13
4.3 3.8 3.1
2.4 2.6 2.7
22 27 28
12 11 16 116
5.0 5.7 6.8
4.8 7.1 7.1
9 10
2.0 2.1 1.9
3.2 1.3 0.4
4 6
0.9 1.3 1.5
0.0 0.0 1.3
19 20 16
5 11
4.3 4.2 3.9
3.6 3.2 4.9
17 21 25
3.8 4.4 6.1
2.8 3.9 4.0
1 1
0.2 0.2 0.2
0.4 0.0 2.2
3 0
0.7 0.0 0.0
0.0 0.0 0.4
18 14 16
6 18
4.1 2.9 3.9
6.4 3.9 8.0
5 2
1.1 0.4 0.0
0.4 0.0 0.0
2.4 3.2 0.0
16 15 15
3.6 3.2 3.6
Total 444 475 413
249 155 224 1,960 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0
22.7 24.2 21.1
12.7 7.9 11.4
Göran Kjellmer
Table 4 shows that the most frequent insertion point of the backchannels is
that between clauses, A1 and A4 (25.7% and 10.5%), which together answer for
more than a third of the cases. The position just before a preposition phrase, E1
(9.8%), is also a favoured point. In fact, it often happens that the speaker pauses at
A1, A4 and E1 points, as it were to solicit a response from the listener, either with
a silent pause:
(11) <M01> I’ve got an atmosphere <tc text=pause>
<M02> Mm.
<M01> and that’s good and […]
(12) <F01> And s and you could s get a ride with him you know during the
week if you <tc text=pause>
<F02> Mm.
<F01> if it was anything urgent and you had to get to <ZZ1> place name
(13) <F01> I used to sometimes go down <ZZ1> road name <ZZ0> Lane you
know <ZZ1> road name <ZZ0> Lane <ZZ1> place name <ZZ0>
but not I haven’t been down <tc text=pause>
<M01> Uh huh
<F01> for quite a while
(14) <F01> and in fact I did attend faculty board for a year or two and take the
<M01> Mm.
<F01> as an assistant to FX who was deputy registrar <tc text=pause>
<M01> Yes.
<F01> in this one respect
(15) <M01> So they’ve had their immense expansion as <tc text=pause>
<M02> Oh yes yes. Yes. Yes.
<M01> like so many other places.
or with a filled pause (cf. Kjellmer 2003:180):
(16) <M01>
Why did you go to Australia? Was it just a holiday
Er I’ve got a friend out there erm
and he paid for me to go
(17) <M01> Well I like doing experiments in every subject er
<F01> Mhm
<M01> but I don’t really get them in every subject
Where do we backchannel?
(18) <F01> Well that the actual doctor I saw wasn’t my doctor erm
<M01> Mhm
<F01> when I went took the test.
“[B]ackchannels are perhaps more often inserted at syntactic and semantic ‘completion points’, where even a takeover would have been natural”, says Stenström
(1994:6), and Aijmer (2002:135) adds, “They occur at certain ‘foci’ where acknowledging information or showing interest is relevant”. The present material
shows quite clearly that that is generally true.
9. Interference
A look at Table 3 suggests that the different types of points where a backchannel
may occur differ a great deal among themselves with regard to the degree of disturbance, or interference, a backchannel may cause if inserted at that point. It is
true that “backchannels often interfere with the syntactic continuity of the utterance. Such interferences are generally overlooked by the current speaker” (Stenström 1994:6). That a backchannel may nevertheless create some kind of interference is suggested by examples like the following, where there are indications that
the speaker is caught off balance by the inserted backchannel. There are numerous
cases where the speaker as it were has to resume his line of thought after the insertion of the backchannel. Such cases are marked by hesitation noises, repetitions
(indicated by <ZF1> … <ZF0>) and/or muddled syntax.
(19) <F01> I mean they ferreted away <ZF1> in the <ZF0> in the library and
er <tc text=pause> did the their lectures and their essays and went
<M01> Right. Yes.
<F01> er and er <ZF1> I <ZF0> I think they were terribly terribly earnest
ones who probably lost quite a lot
<M01> Yes.
<F01> in other areas
(20) <M01> Erm he’s working I know MX <ZGY> so the person he was kind of
nominally working with
<F01> Mhm.
<M01> <ZF1> but he <ZF0> but <ZF1> he erm g <ZF0> he gave er MX a
paper <ZGY> G S Ms <ZGY> critical <ZF1> of <ZF0> of the kind
of G C M <ZGY> pyramid.
Göran Kjellmer
(21) <M02> then you’re an asset-based <tc text=pause> business and you sort of
you know return on capital employed is the measure
<M01> Mhm.
<M02> you know erm,<ZF1> y y you’re <ZF0> you’re always considering
sort of replenishing those assets to keep the revenue streams going.
(22) <M01> I mean I’ve got say four broad questions
<M02> Mhm.
<M01> erm which er <ZF1> are are are <ZF0> are certainly not e they’re
attempting to be suggestive rather than exhaustive.
(23) <F01> […] and she phoned me to tell me she’d been turned down. Now I
was surprised
<M01> Yeah.
<F01> because I know background of the <ZGY> and I know what her
health is like
<M01> Mm.
<F01> but when it <ZF1> I’m <ZF0> I’m I’ve actually put it for a visit
because she can’t er from what she was telling me she’s been too
embarrassed to put down on the forms […]
A rough intuitive classification of the backchannels into the three categories “Low”,
“Moderate” and “High degree of potential interference” may then show if they are
used differently in this respect.
The places where the insertion of backchannels can be expected to occasion
little interference, or none at all, i.e. places where a thought unit has been presented and where it is natural to pause, are A1, A4, A5, C, D4, D5, E1, F1, F3, H1,
H2 and I. Those where a moderate degree of interference is possible are also places
where pauses naturally occur (cf. Kjellmer 2003:180f.), viz. A2, A3, A6, D6, E2, F2
and H3, and those where the degree of interference could be assumed to be high
are B, D1, D2, D3, G and J. Table 5 shows the proportions in which the backchannels are distributed over the three categories.
Table 5. Degrees of possible interference
Uh huh
Where do we backchannel?
There are clear differences in what can be interpreted as the interference tendencies of the particles. A relatively high proportion of the uses of Yeah, 21.6%, occurs
in the category “High degree of interference”, whereas the proportion of Mhm in
that category, 11.0%, is much smaller.9 As expected, the proportions are reversed
in the “Low interference” category. Yeah, which as we saw above is the preferred
male backchannel in Turn-internal contexts, thus often occurs without having
anything explicit to confirm or agree with, as in
(24) <M02>
[…] And <ZF1> that <ZF0>
that makes the tremendous difference <ZF1> in in in <ZF0>
in the difficulty of the problem in the
er requisite accuracy that you have to
address the problem.
Yeah so you could say that I mean what when it’s being we have a
fixed sea surface temperature or it’s been prescribed by sea surface
temperature <tc text=coughs> then in a way <ZF1> the <ZF0> the
constraints from the model are such that […]
The many Yeahs could be interpreted as “speakership initiation” (Drummond &
Hopper 1993:168).10 <M01> may be indicating all through the passage that he
wants to take over the turn, which he eventually succeeds in doing.
It is characteristic of Uh huh, on the other hand, which is one of the female
preferences and which has the largest proportion of its occurrences in the “Low”
category, that it should occur in examples like
(25) <F01> So what you doing now then?
<F02> Er well I’m sitting around at the moment ‘cos MX’s out playing his
erm <tc text=pause> game that they do on Wednesday nights
<F01> Uh huh.
<F02> so he‘s out playing Silent Thunder or Distant Thunder or whatever it
where <F01> acknowledges the information she has just received without interfering with <F02>’s account.
Göran Kjellmer
10. High-interference types and message transmission
As the above examples demonstrate, the point in a speaker’s utterance at which
a backchannel is inserted by a listener can suggest whether s/he has taken in the
message. It is clear that we are here dealing with probabilities — listeners may
add backchannels at the “appropriate” places although their thoughts wandered,
they may just add little signs of appreciation, and so on. Uncertainty on this score
is another reason (cf. p. 85) for not drawing too sweeping conclusions from the
material. But the point at which the backchannel is inserted may suggest when the
listener has formed an idea of what the speaker is conveying or going to convey. By
studying insertion points we could get a better understanding of how the exchange
of thought units operates in ordinary conversation.
The types of insertion referred to above under “Low” and “Moderate” degrees
of interference will here be left aside, since it is fairly obvious that a backchannel
occurring directly after a complete thought unit, and/or where the speaker finds it
natural to pause, will refer to that unit and signal agreement, confirmation, understanding, etc. The types under “High” degree of interference are different in that
the sequence preceding the backchannel needs (conventionally) to be completed
by another sequence. The question now is whether the thought content can be assumed to be apparent already at the insertion point, and if so, what mechanisms
operate. (Type J, insertion point in adjective phrase, is left out of account because
of too few instances.) Let us start with type B, incomplete noun phrases.
10.1 Noun phrases
In noun phrases the emphatic backchannels Right, Yeah and Yes are overrepresented.11 A striking characteristic of many noun phrase (B) sequences is the fact that
the part of the noun phrase that precedes the backchannel is highly suggestive of
the part following it. The bonding force of collocation is evident in many B cases.
Here are some examples.
(26) <F02> […] It used to be very very late and er then they’d start to party and
have playing loud jazz
<F01> Mhm
<F02> music till about four o’clock in the morning
(27) <F01> […] there’s an interesting er link between the critical loads work and
this cost-benefit
<M01> Mm. Mm
<F01> analysis.
Where do we backchannel?
(28) <F01> […] my French teacher was came from Girton
<M01> Yes.
<F01> College in Cambridge.
(29) <M04> […] You’ve got to remember as well people’s livelihoods are at stake.
There are Forestry
<M0X> Uh huh.
<M04> Commission people there are people working in power stations.
In such cases the first part of the noun phrase, the part preceding the backchannel,
suggests with great precision what is to follow; jazz suggests music, cost-benefit
suggests analysis, and so on. Listeners are thus able to signal their understanding
of the message even before they have heard the end of it.
In other cases, a limited number of possibilities are open to the listener-interpreter, but elements outside the noun phrase will restrict them to one or two.
Consider the following example:
(30) <F02>
Erm I haven’t had much in terms of racism from
people during
my life.
I had occasional
erm if it’s blatant
outright racism I find that difficult to deal with.
After <F02>’s if it’s blatant one could imagine any one from a limited set of nouns
with a negative semantic charge, such as barbarism, commercialism, discrimination, hypocrisy, prejudice, racism, violation, but the fact that she has referred to
racism a little previously makes it virtually certain that that is the word intended,
which <F01> recognises by means of Mhm. (Note the change of backchannels,
from a string of Mms, which are probably carry-on signals, to Mhm when the
message is taken in.) Similarly, in the following extract from a discussion about
travelling, the first part of the noun phrase can only suggest in a very general way
what is to follow after the backchannel, but the preceding part of the sentence narrows down the number of possibilities to very few:
(31) <M0X> <ZGY> just marvellous sort of m you know going from Frankfurt to
Waterloo in a
<F0X> Mm.
<M0X> train on British Rail.
Göran Kjellmer
In the following conversation between two women (both referred to as <F0X>),
(32) <F0X>
And Christmas
shopping. I think probably it was Christmas
the speaker has just mentioned Christmas shopping, which strongly suggests to the
listener that she will say that again rather than choose some other noun compatible with Christmas.
The same type of analysis can be applied to the following example:
(33) <M02>
What we’re
saying is You must not r use rhino horn but here is an alternative
Yeah. Exactly
Oh right. Okay. Right. Right
Er so er <ZF1> and <ZF0> and it’s a sustainable erm
<ZF1> al <ZF0> alternative.
In isolation, the head of sustainable might conceivably be words like development or
resource, but it must be obvious to the listener, who confirms it with the backchannel Right, that alternative, mentioned a few seconds before, is the word aimed at.
And yet another example:
(34) <M02> but in the health services many of the most powerful moving forces
are political political <ZZ1> deliberate repetition <ZZ0> which
means they don’t necessarily have any particular relevance <ZF1> to
the <ZF0> to the business.
<M01> Mm. Mm. Mm. Mm.
<M03> <tc text=laughs> <ZGY>
<M01> Yeah. Yeah.
<M02> For example waiting lists a very hot
<M03> Mm. Yes.
<M02> political issue.
<M02>’s previous emphatic discussion of political forces in the health services
will have prepared his listeners for the continuation of a very hot, namely political
The following examples may be analysed along the same lines, viz. collocational force and/or contextual information.
Where do we backchannel?
(35) <M02>
erm I can’t get tw can’t always get my er the bars tight enough
on the you know on the central allen key
bolt there.
(36) <F01> So yeah <tc text=pause> erm what in your experience <ZGY> are
their main objectives?
<F02> <ZF1> I <ZF0> in this actual specific subject
<F01> Yeah.
<F02> area?
(37) <F01> Cos I didn’t take <ZF1> any <ZF0> any increase in my three years
when I was there as a temporary
<M01> Yes.
<F01> assistant.
(38) <M02>
There’s a Medical School in front of it.
Indeed there is.
And there’s a separate library
(39) <M02> <ZF1> if <ZF0> if we work under the same <ZF1> ki <ZF0> kind of
organization obviously we are moving towards one-stop
<M01> Yes.
<M02> service
We may sum this up by saying that collocation has an important role in noun
phrases in facilitating the exchange of ideas in conversation. Speakers let listeners understand the gist of their message even before they have completed it. In
noun phrases, it is either the case that the part of the noun phrase that precedes
the backchannel automatically suggests a second part, or else that the first part
presents a limited number of options, only one or two of which are likely in view
of the preceding context. Both cases often co-occur. In either case, listeners are
made aware of the meaning of the noun phrase and feel free to endorse, confirm
or acknowledge it some time before technically speaking they should be able to
do so.
10.2 Nexus constructions
Nexus constructions12 are different from noun phrases in that they are much more
rarely made up of collocations. But like noun phrases they are often interrupted
100 Göran Kjellmer
by backchannels. In nexus constructions backchannels are therefore likely to have
somewhat different functions.
The backchannel insertion point in nexus constructions is regularly between
the subject and the verb. Because of the endless variability of sentence constructions the insertion of a backchannel can hardly mean that the listener knows with
any precision what the speaker is going to say next (cf. backchannels in noun
phrases). Nevertheless, the general drift of the conversation will often make the
listener anticipate, in a very general way, what the speaker will have to say on
the subject. As Stubbs (1983:21) points out: “[C]onversation is a joint production.
One immediate implication of this is that speakers constantly take account of their
audience by designing their talk for their hearers.” This will then help the listener
form a general idea of what the utterance will convey. The first part of the utterance
conveys a kind of preliminary meaning that will only be completely understood
when the speaker has delivered the rest of the utterance. This is reminiscent of the
idea of Emergent Grammar, where “structure, or regularity, comes out of discourse
and is shaped by discourse in an ongoing process” (Hopper 1998:156).
But the main function of a backchannel inserted in the midst of a nexus construction is readily apparent: its insertion regularly indicates recognition of and
familiarity with the concept referred to by the subject, normally the topic of the
utterance, particularly when the subject is long and/or complex. In the following
examples I have tried to indicate some possible meanings of the backchannels:
(40) <M0X> <ZF1> I <ZF0> I was just interested because er some of the research
suggests that erm children in their wish to depict an action figure
<M01> Mhm. (≈‘Yes, children may wish to depict an action figure’)
<M0X> er will er draw a continuous outline
(41) <F02> Whereas somebody in my position who went the conventional
<F01> Mm. (≈‘Yes, you went the conventional route’)
<F02> was felt totally well it didn’t even enter my head <ZF1> to <ZF0> to
(42) <F03> you know to bench mark ourselves against what’s happening across
the UK
<F02> Mhm (≈‘I know about benchmarking’)
<F03> is quite useful
(43) <F05> FX might smoke when she’s older I don’t know but erm you don’t
you can’t tell a person really can you and I think the people that try
to hide it
<F02> Mhm (≈‘Yes, there are people who try to hide it’)
Where do we backchannel? 101
<F05> like try to say I’m not going to smoke are more like the people that
are going to smoke
(44) <M01> Erm the lady who runs FX’s youth group
<F01> Mhm (≈‘We have heard about her’)
<M01> said the ones now have seem to have got a goal and they’re heading
for it sort of thing
In the same way we may see backchannels in other nexus constructions as indications of knowledge of or familiarity with the concept represented by the subject:
(45) <M02> and the reason for er wildlife deaths which was later traced of
course to D D T and so on and the work of people like MX MX MX
<M01> Mhm.
<M02> was from that period.
(46) <F01>
Right. So what other disciplines are represented here then
Well […] er er erm people in modelling
come along
(47) <M01> Er where they say that <tc text=pause> er they criticize <PN1>
Raminathon <PN0> and Collins for assuming that the change that
they investigate
<M02> Uh huh.
<M01> can be a surrogate for climate change.
(48) <M01> You know <ZF1> this <ZF0> this problem particularly of the
gradual pollution
<M02> Yeah.
<M01> erm <ZF1> is <ZF0> is relatively new in the UK
(49) <F01> Erm in April MX which is your husband
<F02> Yes
<F01> <ZGY> had a slight stroke during the night.
The occurrence of a backchannel after the subject is almost expected when the
concept represented by the subject is familiar or easy to sympathise with or acknowledge. If, however, that concept represents unknown facts that are hard to
assimilate, backchannels seem out of place. That is why an exchange like the following (fake!) does not seem quite natural in ordinary conversation:
(50) <M01> The calm rectilinearity of Hawksmoor’s Christchurch Spitalfields
<M02> Yeah
<M01> is quite different in fact from the curvilinear character of Wren’s
102 Göran Kjellmer
The casual nature of backchannels does not agree with the technicality of the
Backchannels are frequently called forth in the middle of a nexus construction
by the speaker’s reference to shared knowledge or embedded appeals for sympathy
and understanding consisting of you know or of course (see Carter & McCarthy
2006:106b and 56). Also compare the similar use of pauses between clauses and
before prep. phrases, examples 11–18.13
(51) <F01> I started as a office girl you know. And then I
<M01> Mhm
<F01> taught myself to type
(52) <F02> Never paid private for an appointment you know to see a specialist
at all
<F01> Mhm
<F02> Because I suggested it to you when he had this problem. You know I
<M01> Mm
<F02> said did he want to go in.
(53) <F01> Maybe <ZF1> if I was <ZF0> if I was mad enough if they’d er like I
say you know if I
<M01> Yeah.
<F01> hadn’t received a payment and if I was mad enough then yeah I
probably would fill it in
(54) <M02> <ZF1> The <ZF0> the other aspect of course
<M0X> Mm
<M02> is that in terms of er er […]
(55) <F02> they had horses of course they
<F01> Yeah.
<F02> worked with their horses.
In sum, although the use of a backchannel between the subject and the verb of a
nexus does not normally show that backchannellers are aware of the exact continuation of the sentence, it does show, I would suggest, their wish to indicate that
they are familiar with the speaker’s topic and ready for its development. In addition, when listeners are familiar with the speakers’ views they will often suspect
what type of verb to expect. This illustrates what J. R. Firth expressed in a more
general way as early as 1935:
The moment a conversation is started, whatever is said is a determining condition for what, in any reasonable expectation, may follow. What you say raises the
Where do we backchannel? 103
threshold against most of the language of your companion, and leaves only a limited opening for a certain likely range of responses.14
In nexus constructions we also find, as practically everywhere else in conversation,
backchannels indicating, often in a routine fashion, that the listener is being attentive, feeling sympathy and showing encouragement.
10.3 Verbal constructions
10.3.1 Verb + verb
Let us now finally take a look at a few other types where one could suspect backchannel interference. The first one is that where the backchannel intrudes between
verbs belonging to the same verb phrase, as in
(56) <M02> you can
<M01> Yeah
<M02> take it away
It now appears that this type stands somewhere halfway between the noun-phrase
and nexus ones with regard to the extent to which the listener has assimilated the
speaker’s message at the backchannel insertion point.
Sometimes the listener must have a pretty good notion of what the speaker is
going to say, as in
(57) <F01> I’m sorry I can’t come to lunch today I would have
<M01> Mm.
<F01> loved to have done
(58) <F01>
So you
weren’t really involved in that that much
Not <ZF1> the <ZF0> the mapping side. No. I don’t
Uh huh
do that
(59) <M01> All the consonant sounds tend to be the same in English like G is
<F01> Uh huh.
<M01> pronounced G
(60) <M0X> it did make sense
<F0X> Made you read them properly didn‘t it
<M0X> Yeah it did. Yeah
<F0X> in the finish. Yeah
<M0X> Yeah. It made you
104 Göran Kjellmer
<M01> Uh huh
<M0X> read them properly
Most of the time, though, it may be less evident how the speaker is going to finish
the sequence:
(61) <M0X> what the different providers then did when we were interviewing on
the tender was to come in and give a presentation of how they would
<F0X> Mm
<M0X> achieve their outcomes
(62) <M01>
and you give them individual feedback
formally and informally so
that the students can
quite comfortably come to you
(63) <F02> So I never really bought records but I used to listen to listen to the
radio a lot And the result is that I actually have quite from that era
although I can’t remember what anything’s called I just have in the
back of my head I have
<F01> Mm
<F02> stored a huge amount of the pop music from this era.
But even in such cases, where the listener has no chance at the insertion point of
anticipating the literal wording of what is to come, the rest of the message is often
predictable in broad outline. For instance, in (61) it might be ‘proceed’, in (62)
‘profit’ and in (63) ‘amassed music’, with individual variations.
10.3.2 Verb + object
The second verb type is that where the backchannel intervenes between the verb
and its object. The situation with regard to semantic prediction is here much the
same as in the previous category. The situational or verbal context may suggest
what the speaker will say next:
(64) <F01> Erm do you think that the things that you’ve done this term have
been useful to you in your everyday life
<M01> Mm. Yeah like English you’d need you need that there so yeah they
do like
<F01> Uh huh
<M01> English and maths you need them.
Where do we backchannel? 105
(65) <M01> How but how do you think we might be might move towards that?
<M0X> Well paying a lot more for the use of our cars. Paying
<M01> Right.
<M0X> a lot more for the l <ZF1> use of <ZF0> use of electricity paying a
lot more for our water.
There is also in some cases collocational bonding between verb and object, which
makes it highly likely what the object is going to be once the verb has been presented (or vice versa):
(66) <M01> If we can’t sort the bloody thing out then what chance
<F01> Uh huh.
<M01> do we stand.
Most of the time, however, the verbs are very general in character, and it is next to
impossible at the backchannel insertion point to deduce what the object is going
to be:
(67) <F02>
It’s <ZGY>
suffered quite a lot now. And someone’s put
cigarettes here
(68) <M02>
Okay. What is your background?
Erm <ZF1> I <ZF0> I actually did <ZGY>
Uh huh.
my first year and I‘ve done er a doctorate in er science and
technology studies
(69) <M01> You know we get
<F01> Uh huh
<M01> feedback from the supporter groups if what we’ve given them is no
(70) <M01>
you’ve got a difference between the north and south bits
but then all this new part over to the east side
hasn’t got
any amenities
106 Göran Kjellmer
(71) <F01>
people move around a lot so they don’t
<tc text=coughs>
have the time to make
good la long-lasting relationships.
All that the backchannels in this verb+object type suggest is that the listener is
kindly disposed and has a very general idea of what the speaker is going to say.
10.3.3 Verb + predicative complement
The last verbal type, verb + backchannel + predicative complement, is the one
where precise semantic prediction is least often possible. Unless the context gives
strong clues, as in
(72) <M01>
French is very different from German and <tc text=pause> <ZGY>
Er except that they’re both modern languages.
Er they’re both
modern languages.
no prediction is normally possible, except perhaps in a very broad sense:
(73) <F01> your plot is going to be able to stand up <ZF1> without <ZF0>
without this structural outline
<F06> This is really
<F0X> Mhm
<F06> a guidance for a blockbuster which is obviously inevitably much
more complex and much longer than a sort of traditional novel
(74) <F01> And you have to guess well it was a poor presentation or erm you
know it wasn’t
<M01> Mm.
<F01> politically high <ZF1> on <ZF0> on somebody’s
<M01> Mm.
<F01> agenda
Backchannels inserted into a verb phrase, then, can hardly be taken to signify that
listeners have got a grip on the argument or agree with it. They may, however, suggest that listeners can guess in what direction the argument is moving, and in any
case they show that listeners are kindly disposed, listening and paying attention
and perhaps prepared to take part in the conversation at a later stage.
Where do we backchannel? 107
11. Summary and conclusions
Backchannels are often described as providing positive feedback in a conversation.
In our material they are more often used by women than by men; women seem to
prefer unemphatic and men emphatic backchannels. In this study the backchannels Mhm, Mm, Right, Uh huh, Yeah, Yes are most often inserted at the end of a
completed utterance (“Turn-external”, 53% of the cases). In that position, when
the speaker’s message has been presented in full, backchannels are naturally interpreted as a signal of agreement or confirmation. The same particles occasionally
(4%) do duty as positive answers to questions. However, as many as 42% of the
backchannels investigated occur in the middle of an utterance. If the speaker has
not come to the end of it, the question then is whether the listener’s backchannel
can be taken to indicate comprehension, agreement or confirmation on the one
hand, or whether its occurrence is merely to be interpreted as a sign of encouragement and sympathy on the other. There is no certain way of distinguishing
backchannels meaning “I understand what you are saying; I can see what you are
aiming at; I get your point” (comprehension) from those meaning “I’m listening,
carry on” (encouragement). (It is of course also possible that backchannels can
have both types of meaning simultaneously.) Nevertheless, the type of language
sequence into which backchannels are inserted, as well as the point at which they
are inserted can suggest how they may be intended. Most of the insertions take
place where a thought unit has been presented, even though the utterance has not
been completed. An example is
(75) <F02> if we’re saying it should be student choice I would disagree
<F01> Mhm.
<F02> cos I think we do have an input in that.
In such cases it is natural to imagine that the backchannel means “I understand,
I agree, I can follow you”, whereupon some additional information is supplied by
the speaker. But even in cases where neither the utterance nor even the phrase has
been completed the backchannel can have the same meaning. This is due, in the
case of noun phrases, to collocational coherence, where the full meaning of the
phrase is suggested by its first part, or to precontextual information; and in the
case of nexus insertion, to the fact that the subject part of the nexus in itself represents a concept that the listener can understand and perhaps agree with.
If, as I have tried to show, the information-content of an utterance is often
conveyed to the listener before it has been expressed in toto, the question arises
whether human speech is full of redundancies. A simple answer is, “Yes, it is”,
and anyone listening to unsophisticated conversation will be able to confirm such
a view. However, what is redundant at one level of communication may not be
108 Göran Kjellmer
redundant at other levels. If everything except the informationally essential elements were removed from the flow of communication the social and perhaps cultural aspects of the conversation would suffer severely. Birdwhistell (1970) makes
this point (quoted from Stubbs 1983:25):
… apparent redundancy is often an agent of reinforcement which serves … to tie
together stretches of discourse … behaviour which appears merely repetitive at
one level of analysis … always seems to be of special social and cultural significance at other levels.
In the same way it can be shown that repetitions of chunks of language, a pervasive, sometimes irritating and seemingly redundant phenomenon in conversation,
in actual fact serve a multitude of purposes (Kjellmer 2008).
Quite often the verbal or situational context can provide clues to the intended
meaning before the phrase or the utterance has come to an end, but the many
backchannels that occur in such places will mostly have to be interpreted as encouraging, empathising signals and as signals of attention. This is not an unimportant function; to quote Tottie (1991) again, they “grease the wheels of conversation” and facilitate human interaction. As for the transmission of information, the
use of backchannels strongly suggests to us how speakers and listeners continually
and simultaneously make use of the meaning, purpose and presuppositions with
which ordinary conversation is imbued, and how there is much more to conversation than is immediately evident from its surface appearance.
* I am very grateful to Karin Aijmer, who read and commented on an earlier version of the
paper, and to two anonymous reviewers, whose comments were also positive and helpful.
1. <ZGY> means ‘unclear’, and <ZF1> … <ZF0> enclose repetition.
2. Other terms are ‘go-on’, ‘continuative’ or ‘continuer’, ‘supporting move’ (Aijmer 2002:135).
3. In the manual accompanying the Corpus (“Bank Of English Codelist for Spoken Texts”),
transcribers are given the following instructions under “Fillers and affirmatives”:
Rationalize sounds used to encourage or express understanding into:
mm (one syllable, lips closed)
hm (one syllable, lips closed, definite starting puff of air)
mhm (two syllables, lips closed, definite puff of air heard in the middle)
uh huh (two syllables, lips open)
4. Pronounced h (nasalised) “usually with a low-rise tone” (Wells 2000:807). “The spellings
of mhm and uh huh imperfectly show their close correspondence. Their pronunciations are
Where do we backchannel? 109
/mhm/ and /h/, the former being the nasal variant, and the latter the oral variant of the same
basic form.” (Biber et al. 1999:1091)
5. 1,960 : (2,464+204+1,960) = 42%. On the basis of annotations in the BNC (see Leech & Smith
2000), Rühlemann (2007:97f.) calculates the proportions of Turn-internal occurrences of yeah,
mm and “between-speech-laughter” (BSL) and finds that 17%, 10% and 17% respectively occur
as stand-alone items in overlap. “[T]here is reason to believe that yeah, mm and BSL tend to a
noticeable degree to occur in overlap.” (ibid.: 98)
6. The totals in the tables do not quite add up to the totals in Table 1, partly because of missing
information of speaker sex (e.g. <X0X>).
7. This will have to remain an assumption, as the speakers in the material are not individually
identifiable, and as, consequently, we do not know whether a given speaker is the same as the
speaker in a preceding or following extract.
8. The term is used in Jespersen’s sense: “If now we compare the combination a furiously barking
dog (a dog barking furiously) […] with the dog barks furiously, it is evident that the same subordination obtains in the latter as in the former combination. Yet there is a fundamental difference
between them, which calls for separate terms for the two kinds of combination: we shall call the
former kind junction, and the latter nexus.” (Jespersen 1924:97)
9. It is worth noting that Mm and Mhm despite their similarity are used quite differently, where
Mm is not unlike Yeah.
10. Drummond & Hopper (1993:158f.) think that Yeah, as compared to Uh huh and Mm hm,
“shows a greater degree of speaker incipiency, or probability that its speaker is moving out of a
recipient role and projecting further speaking”.
11. 11%, 19% and 13%, respectively, as compared with their averages 8%, 13% and 11%. See
Table 4.
12. Cf. note 8.
13. Biber et al. (1999:1092) mention the use of you know and you see to elicit backchannels.
14. Quoted from Stubbs (1983:84).
Aijmer, K. 2002. English Discourse Particles. Evidence from a Corpus. Amsterdam/Philadelphia:
John Benjamins.
Altenberg, B. 1991. “The London-Lund Corpus: Research and applications”. In Proceedings of the
7th Annual Conference of the UW Centre for the New OED and Text Research Using Corpora,
Oxford, 71–83.
Andersen, G. 1999. Pragmatic Markers and Sociolinguistic Variation: A Corpus-Based Study.
University of Bergen.
Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G. N., Conrad, S. & Finegan, E. 1999. Longman Grammar of
Spoken and Written English. Harlow, Essex: Longman.
110 Göran Kjellmer
Birdwhistell, R. L. 1970. Kinesics and Context. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Also Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Carter, R. & McCarthy, M. 1997. Exploring Spoken English. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Carter, R. & McCarthy, M. 2006. Cambridge Grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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Author’s address
Göran Kjellmer
University of Gothenburg
Department of English
PO Box 200
SE 405 30 Göteborg
[email protected]
Comments on Table 3:
A1: Conjunction may be preceded by you know, er, erm, just:
he’s at college as well Mm. erm and my dad has got other commitments
A4: Second half (post-Mm, etc.) often consists of you know:
it doesn’t play an important role in their life either Mm. you know.
A5: Relative may be preceded by you know, er, erm:
house improvement Mhm. you know which is (A5)
A6: Cases included here can otherwise be seen as Nexus ones:
-a snowdrift which Mm. was maybe fifteen feet high (A6)
B: Prep phrases are handled under E:
in all aspects Mm. of nursing (E1)
but only if break is adjacent to preposition:
audit of their Mm. medical practices (B)
D1: Adverbial may be inserted:
the students can Mm. quite comfortably come (D1)
D2: Finite clausal objects are not included here but taken to A:
and I said Mm. Wait a minute (A)
then you knew Mm. what age you were (A)
D4: Participle is not part of finite verb phrase:
young people […] introducing themselves Mhm. based on er what they hear
E1: Preposition may be preceded by er(m), just:
with East Anglia Mhm. er from the physical point of view (E1)
American culture <ZGY> totally different <ZGY> Mhm. er just in general
Göran Kjellmer
F: Finite clausal coordinates are not included here but taken to A:
it’s FX and the lads Mm. and that’s the family. (A)
there’s pubs Mhm. there’s restaurants there’s (A4)
G: Adverbial may be inserted (cf. D1):
and other places Mhm. like won’t take them in (G)
one needs quite a lot of time as you just Mm. described (G)
H: Adverbial clauses are handled under A, and prep. phrases under E:
it must be much more difficult Mm. when you’re as young as that. (A1)
he kept thinking that it might hold him back Mm. in a way (E1)
I: Repetitions can co-occur with most other classes:
a dealer <ZF1> when Mhm. when er <ZF0> when you’re (I)
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