We all employ these markers, of course. I’ve argued in my creative-writing classes that the word yes in Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy is her particular discourse marker, a word Joyce inserted whenever he was tempted to interrupt stream of consciousness with punctuation.
Living in France these past several months, with sojourns to other countries in Europe, I’ve grown aware of the discourse markers that set these languages apart. To begin with, there is the vowel sound peculiar to French, as uh is perhaps peculiar to English — a sound I try to reproduce in writing as euh, a sound made — usually after a word like mais (“but”) or alors (“then”), both discourse markers themselves — by thrusting forward the lower jaw and tongue and trying to say uh.
To finish off my semester, I took a brief trip with my family to Italy, Germany, and the Czech Republic, and I heard euh in none of these other countries. If I were to hear it in English, I would immediately suspect a French person was speaking. Euh, in other words, is just about the most French sound I know, even more than the back-of-the-mouth r or that hard-to-squeeze-out French u.
In addition to euh, mais, and alors, my favorite French filler is Voilà. Literally, it means “There it is,” but I hear it used (and have started to use it) as a way of completing a thought when there ought to be a more elegant completion but you don’t have it in hand. You might say, for instance, in French, “So Macron is going to Washington, euh, voilà" — and presumably the person you were speaking to would understand your general disgust with international politics. If you were to add more emphasis, you might replace voilà with alors là, which turns “there it is” into “then that,” with implications that your interlocutor should presumably pick up on.
Not infrequently, what sounds like a whole sentence can be created purely out of discourse markers, e.g.:
Mais écoute enfin, effectivement, alors, voilà. (But listen already, really, then, so there you go.)
Si non, euh, dis donc, bref, c’est ça, hein? (Otherwise, uh, you know, in a nutshell, that’s the thing, right?)
Discourse markers evolve, of course. Ten years ago, when I was here, I heard comment quite a bit and was interested in this French version of the discourse marker that pains many American professors, like. My young friends in France would achieve sentences like this one:
Je veux dire que, comment, il est beau, comment, mais il n’a rien, comment je veux dire, tu sais comment, il n’a rien à offrir …
which translates as “I want to say that, like, he’s like handsome, but he has nothing, how do I want to say, you know, like he has nothing to offer.”
I hear comment much less now. I don’t know if the use of like has similarly receded among Americans. I hear bien, or to be more precise, b’en, as in eh b’en, which translates into the English discourse marker “well,” as in the filler sentence, B’en, je ne sais pas, écoute.
Though we tend to think of liberal use of discourse markers in our own language as indicating lazy speech patterns or poorly formed thoughts, they’re among the hardest factors of informal speech to master in a second language. I’ve found them slipping into my conversational French only in the past month or so, and I’m relieved not to be hearing sniggers.
Finally, I noticed while traveling that I tend to mentally erase discourse markers in languages where I’m struggling. My Italian is rudimentary and my German rusty as an old bicycle wheel. So while I know that Italians use words and sounds like eh, ma, senta, and so on, I let them drop away so that I can get to the bones of the sentence I’m listening to. Ditto in German with ach, so, eigentlich, and the like. I certainly don’t try to allow such filler words into my own discourse, as I completely lack the required finesse. And I know I’m missing, not just something about the personality of the speaker, but something about the way those languages dance.
As to Czech, which of course I heard plentifully in Prague . . . well, I know there are filler words. They exist in every language. To other Czech speakers, they probably convey various nuances, hesitations, judgments. To me they sound the way French discourse markers sound to non-French speakers: like more words that aren’t mine, a code I will never break.