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Conjunction + øh(m) as a shift-of-activity-marker

The small word øh or øhm (best translated as ‘uh’ and ‘uhm’ to English) is special compared to most other words. Grammatical tradition categorizes it as an interjection, which is what we do here as well (at least for now). But øh(m) can occur in more places of a sentence than most other interjections, and there are places where normal interjections can occur but øh(m) cannot. For that matter, øh(m) can also occur in way more places than other words from other parts of speech. 

Some think that øh(m) is not even a ‘real’ word but rather a more peripheral language phenomenon. We, however, maintain that it is an actual word, or at least a grammatical ‘entity’, because there are limitations as to where and when it can occur, and because it has functions in the grammar of talk-in-interaction. It can be pronounced with or without a final m and can also be pronounced with the vowel æ (IPA: [ε]) instead of ø (IPA: [œ]). As far as we can see, neither the vowel nor the presence of m makes a difference to the word’s function, which is why we use the spelling øh(m) to encompass all four variations. 

Until now, we have identified three different functions of øh(m) which each have their own entry on this webpage. These functions are word search marker, problem-marker in responses to questions, and shift-of-activity marker. This entry examines the function of øh(m) when it is preceded by a conjunction and signals an activity shift. 

Øh(m) can occur at least after the conjunctions men ‘but’, jamen ‘well’, ‘so’, fordi ‘because’, and fordi at ‘because that’ and probably more. When øh(m) is used here, the construction signals that a shift in the conversational activity is about to happen, for example, in the form of introducing a new topic, return to a previous topic, or start wrapping up the conversation. In fact, the conjunctions alone can perform these functions, but they are typically used together with øh(m)

In the below excerpt we see two examples where the construction conjunction + øh(m) is used to shift the activity of the conversation. It is from a telephone conversation between BO and her mom. MOR (mom) has just commented on some birds that can be heard in the background on BO’s end, which she in line 1 says har det da rigtig sjovt ‘are having a lot of fun’. 

Samtalebanken | telephone | bilen | 199 

01   MOR:   (xxx) men de: har det da rigtig sjov(t)↘=
            ‘but they are having a lot of fun’

02   ?:      =hnhh=

03   BO:    =jah=

04   BO:    =.hhhh

05   MOR:   hn hn↘
            ‘hn hn’

06          (1.3)

07   BO:    yes→

08   MOR:   (*nå:*/((mechanical sound)))

09   BO:    jam’n ø:h jeg ve       >smutte i<gen
            PRT   øh  I   will.PRS pop.PRS again
            ‘well ø:h I’m going to pop out again’

10          (0.5)

11   MOR:   JA*:*↘

12          (0.2)

13   MOR:   men ø::h (0.3) hvis i      kommer   op en  dag→
            but u::h       if   you.PL come.PRS up a-C day
            ‘but øh if you come up one day’

14          ka du så ikk tage min gry:de med
            ‘could you bring my pot’

15          den mangler jeg b*are* godt nok→
            ‘I just really miss it’

In line 6 there is a longer pause which could indicate that the talk of birds is dying out, which BO seems to confirm in line 7 with a yes and MOR with a ‘well’ in line 8. In line 9 BO initiates her turn with a jam’n ø:h whereafter she begins to wrap up the conversation with jeg ve smutte igen ’I am going to pop out again’. MOR accepts this shift of activity in line 11 with JA ‘yes’, but then shifts the activity again because she needs to add something before they finish talking. She does this in line 13 with a similar construction men ø::h ‘but uh’ and follows up by asking BO to bring the pot she borrowed next time she visits.

Sources and further readings 

Brøcker et al. (2012) is a scientific article by DanTIN-authors, which among other things contains a section about øh(m)

Hamann & Lange (2011) is a short online article conveying øh(m)’s different functions. 

Schegloff (2010) is a scientific article which accounts for different uses of the English uh(m) in conversations. 

Sørensen et al. (2019) is a thorough account of øh(m)

Relevant entries

Forms > Word classes/Parts of speech > Interjections and particles

Functions > Actions > Initiation and completion of activities > Change of activity

Functions > Actions > Initiation and completion of activities > Completion of activity