Do scholars have any idea what "words" were used as filler words in Classical Latin, similar to uh and um in English?

Surely Cicero and other great orators instructed their pupils to never, ever say <filler word here> when speaking?


1 Answer 1


Surely Cicero and other great orators instructed their pupils to never, ever say <filler word here> when speaking?

Strangely enough, they didn't.

According to Michael Erard's Um. . .: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean, warnings of filler verbs are not present in the books on rhetoric of Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, or other Latin writers.

Some things are recommended that would avoid the need for these filler words:

  • Aristotle recommends choosing words carefully, using rhythm and grammar together. Quintilian, interestingly enough, criticizes this and does not speak of the advantages of beauty and melody.
  • Crassus, a character on Cicero's De Oratore, notes that may speakers are

    "so hesitating in their speech, so inharmonious in their tone of voice"

    Another character in De Oratore makes the same criticisms:

    "What timidity was there! What distrust! What a degree of hesitation and slowness of speech!"

The evidence of Cicero is a reflection on speakers of the day, doing as Aristotle recommended, and as Cicero tried to correct. True, in day-to-day conversation, filler words might have been used. But the omission of advice against such usage suggests a system of rhetoric centered around choosing words carefully, and pausing when needed, thus eliminating the awkward equivalents of "uh" and "um".

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    @Nathaniel It's more that he regarded harmony as extra fluff, not necessarily that inharmonious phrases are much more desirable. He puts other things first.
    – HDE 226868
    Feb 25, 2016 at 1:51
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    I'm not sure I'm following the argument correctly. Is it something along the lines of, "speak swiftly and confidently and pause when you need to, because the only way to give one continuous thread of speech is to speak deliberately and hesitantly"? Feb 25, 2016 at 2:24
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    @MarJohnson As I understand it, that's it - at least, as Cicero advises. He wants speakers to be bold. Aristotle, on the other hand, wants people to choose their words carefully, and if that means pausing a little, then so be it. But both imply that stumbling is not something to be desired.
    – HDE 226868
    Feb 25, 2016 at 2:27
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    While I agree with the substance of this answer ("classical rhetorical training highly discouraged filler words"), I'm not sure if it addresses the question about what words were used as fillers. Just because the Emancipation Proclamation and most reference books don't contain them does not mean that English does not use them.
    – brianpck
    Feb 25, 2016 at 13:32
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    @brianpck That's true, but given that these authors were the major authority on speaking and some of the most well-known writers of the time - and thus some of the best recorded - it makes sense that if there was the presence of these words, they should be included in their works somewhere, especially given the points of their writings. Records of "everyday" Latin aren't existent to the point that these records are; we don't have a large supply to choose from.
    – HDE 226868
    Feb 25, 2016 at 21:39

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