Speak English Like a Native: How to Talk Nonsense
English culture is full of theater, music, poetry, and literature. English as a language can be elegant and beautiful. A skillful English speaker can paint pictures, share visions, sway crowds, and move the listener to laughter or tears. If you want examples of exquisite ways the English language can be used, go read Shakespeare or Emily Dickinson, or for that matter, my poetry book ‘Dance against the Wind’. Finding examples of good English is not difficult.
The English language can also be awkward, stumbling, confusing, and vague. English is full of words that don’t mean anything, words that are used to mean everything, and words whose only function is to inform the listener you are about to speak. Most native speakers aren’t Shakespeare. Even really elegant speakers and poets can have off days. Real English doesn’t always follow the neat structures you will find in your grammar book.
So what is an English student to do? Close the books and step out of the classroom. If you really want to sound like a native speaker, you need to learn how to speak nonsense.
There are several types of nonsense words that English speakers use. That is to say, there are several words or phrases that basically mean nothing but serve a purpose in talking. There are filler words to avoid silence. There are changing the subject words. There are 'I'm listening' words to keep a conversation going. And finally there are made up words that may or may not be meant to make sense.
Changing the Subject
Changing the subject is another way that English speakers use nonsense words. Suppose you are talking to a friend. You are talking about books. Then you remember you wanted to ask your friend about a party. You aren't talking about parties.
You: 'Isn't 'Pirate Perdita' a great book?'
Friend: 'Yes! Pirates are fun! So are dinosaurs! Do you like dinosaurs?'
You: 'Yes. There's a party this weekend.'
Friend: 'What? A Pirate Perdita party? What are you talking about?'
As you can see, just jumping into a new subject doesn't work very well. It's confusing, and awkward. Luckily, English has a remedy for that! We have words that don't mean anything except 'I'm about to talk about something'. The most common word is 'so'. 'So' can be used even if you weren't talking at all a moment ago. Another common word to change the subject is 'anyway' or 'so anyway'.
Friend: 'Do you like dinosaurs?'
You: 'Yes. So anyway, there's a party this weekend.'
Friend: 'What party?'
Much clearer. Changing the subject words and phrases can help ease confusing shifts in conversation. Scroll down to see a chart on nonsense words.
The first type of nonsense words are used to fill silence.
Silence in the middle of a sentence doesn't work very well in English. Spoken English has a rhythm to it. If there’s a pause, it’s because it fits the pace of the rhythm. It means that one thought is complete and another is about to begin. We don't want to pause when we are in the middle of a sentence. For a better understanding on English rhythm, check out this English lesson on Sentence Stress.
So what do speakers do when they start talking before they think? When they forget a word? They will insert phrases and sounds into the sentence to avoid silence. Um, uh, er. These aren't even called words; they’re sounds. 'like, you know, that is to say...' These are all phrases that are used to avoid silence. Another option is to repeat a word like a broken record until they know what to say next.
‘It’s in the the the, you know, the closet.”
Scroll down to the chart for examples of filler words and statements.
Is Anybody Listening?
The third type of nonsense words take the place of a conversation. They mean 'I'm listening'. It lets the other person know they are being heard. It tells the speaker to keep talking. Or it tells the speaker 'I'm not really listening' if the listener is obviously looking at something else. It's a way of having a conversation without having to really speak.
This type of nonsense words is shown in the picture above (scroll up).
Scroll down to the chart with all the different types of nonsense words.
Made Up Words
Finally, sometimes English speakers make up words. There are a few reasons to do this.
- The speaker wants to sound smart. Smart people use long, sophisticated words. Sometimes a speaker will attempt long words without knowing what they mean, and inevitably use the wrong one or a similar sounding word that means something different.
- The speaker is very young, or wants to sound young, and mixes words up. The television series 'Rugrats', which features a group of babies, is fond of using this type of nonsense word. Most of this kind of nonsense word is a combination of two words. For example: prezactly, a combination of precisely and exactly.
- The speaker is talking about something that isn't real, like a fantasy world or alien planet. Sometimes, if a nonsense word gets used often enough, it will become a real word. J.K. Rowling made up the word 'Muggle' to describe a non-magical person in her fantasy books; now the word Muggle can be found in the dictionary.
No wonder the English language can be so confusing. We not only use words just to fill silence or encourage conversation, we can make words up as we go along! Unfortunately, there's no easy chart for how to use made up language. But the more English vocabulary you learn, the easier it will be to understand what is being said, even when the speaker is in fact speaking nonsense.
words or phrases
Filling the silence while you think of what to say
um, uh, er, that is to say, like, you know, I mean
Hey, um, I was wondering, that is to say, could you, I mean, could you tell me, er, where is the, um, the, you know, the bathroom. Please.
Changing the subject
so, anyway, right, well, so I was thinking, so anyway
I like hats. Right. So anyway, are you hungry?
uh-huh, right, go on, is that so? I'm listening, really, that's so true, yes, how interesting
'I know all about hats' 'really? How interesting. Go on.'
What's This? It's a...
A synonym is a word that means the same thing as another word. For example: small and little are synonyms.
Here’s a fun nonsense tongue twister: Is the synonym of cinnamon cyber men?
Words that mean Everything
So, you've forgotten a word. Everyone does it. Learning a new language is difficult. Languages are complex. English has an added level of frustration: it’s a word thief. What does being a word thief mean? It means that the word ‘synonym’ is a very basic part of the language. It means that there is almost always more than one way to say the exact same thing.
So what can you do? What can an English learner do to really sound like a native speaker? The same thing that native speakers do.
Everyone has words that they don’t know, even native speakers. Everyone has words we forget in the moment. Words that are on the tip of our tongue, unable to make it out. Words for objects that only specialists know, like the part names inside a microwave. Words for objects we’ve never seen before.
Luckily, the English language has words for these forgotten, unknown, maybe never known words. They may not always be ‘proper’ words. They might not all be in your English dictionary. But they get the job done. Want to sound more like a forgetful native speaker than an English student? The next time you don’t know a word or name, try one of these from the chart below. And when in doubt, use the generic 'person, place, or thing'.
What to say when you don't know the word
Unknown object: words that mean 'thing'
Thing, Thingy, Thingamajig, Thingamajiger, Thingamabob, Thingummy, Whatsit, Whatchamacallit, Doohickey, Doodad, Gizmo, Device
"What does this doohickey do?" "It goes in this thingamabob here." "I have the whats-it, should I put it by the doodad?" "Sure! We'll have this thing working in no time!"
Forgotten people names
Whatshername or whatshisname: what’s-his/her-name, what’s-his/her-face, so and so, that one guy, that one person
"I was talking to so and so" "Who's so and so?" "You know, old whatshisname, that boy who likes whatshername, the girl with the cats!" "Oh, you mean John." "Yes! That's the guy! Him!"
Forgotten place names
Place, that one place, whatsit place, whatchamacallit place
"I'm going to that one place." "What place?" "The whatsit, you know, the place with the books and the no talking." "Oh, you mean the library." "Yes! That's the one!"
English isn't always beautiful. Real English speakers don't talk like they are reciting a book lesson. We don't always think before we speak. We get nervous or shy and stumble over words. We forget words. If you want to talk like a real native speaker, it's important to understand the less glamorous side as well as the high literature.
Most importantly, it's important to know you don't have to be perfect. Native English speakers aren't perfect. We don't always have the right word. What we can do is speak around words that we don't know. We can stumble through an awkward sentence, knowing we'll get it out in the end. So be awkward. Forget words. Speak English anyway. You'll never get anywhere if you don't ever try.
Like Mir Foote's writing? Try her books!
The English language isn't all nonsense. It does contain beauty. Here's a poetry book I wrote. Read and enjoy!