When I spent six months in Germany during my graduate days as an exchange scholar, in the very first week of my arrival, I happened to attend a talk; it was delivered by a Russian professor in German (who prefaced his talk with this sentence in English — “Since both my English and German are horrible, and since it is Germany, the chance of my being misunderstood in German is less. So…”). In the entire talk, I got only two things — one was a reference to the classic paper of Ramakrishnan and Youssouf and the other was the word “Aber” since at every second sentence, towards the end of the sentence, the volume would gradually decrease, and the very next sentence, he would start with a booming “Aber” — pronounced “aaabah”, and within the first five minutes, I understood that Aber meant “But”.
I guess this is not an uncommon experience; anybody who attends a technical presentation knows about the penchant of different speakers for using different words to start (or, to end)a majority of sentences.
Over at Seed, Michael Erard writes about one such word (link, also, via Chad at Uncertain Principles) — “So” and what it tells about what the use of the word tells about the scientific endeavour itself:
… can such a tiny word reveal anything about the metaphorical underpinnings and conceptual structure of scientific endeavors? In the 1990s, Columbia University psychologist Stanley Schachter counted how often professors said “uh” and “um” in lectures and found that humanists said them more than social scientists, and natural scientists said them less frequently of all. Because such words mark places where a speaker is choosing what to say next, Schachter argued, natural scientists’ low hesitation rate underscored the hard facts they were communicating. “So” can be said to have the inverse relation for exactly the same reason. It relays a sense of accuracy and rigor. One doesn’t have to worry about what to say as much as when to say it. “So” is the organizing device for a logic-driven thought process.
Former Microsoft engineer Alex Barnett wrote on his blog that “so” was a “delaminater” word. To him an idea was a concrete object, much like an onion. “So” was the word a speaker used to convey that another layer was peeling back. This metaphor implies that ideas have a kernel that one could reach with enough “so”s, a notion surely enticing to the problem-solvers and the goal-oriented. I prefer to think of “so” as a vehicle across a landscape of knowledge. It lies not so much in between points on a terminal trajectory, but more on perpetual journey across points of understanding. In this sense it shares some qualities with the infinite “why”s of a two-year-old. Another “so” can always follow the end of a thought. The trajectory is endless; the rabbit hole has no bottom. There will always be more questions for science to answer.
As a word that dwells in the lexicon of those who desire to understand and to learn, “so” is a marker of healthy intellectual tolerance. It is a hallmark of a robust cognitive approach to the world. But this is not to say that the “so” employed by professional explainers is all deduction and dialectic. It also implies an element of faith. This is the faith of any attempt to teach, argue, brainstorm, or present: the conviction that the person who is listening will understand what’s being said and comprehend its significance. More than anything else, this fidelity may spring from a need to communicate; a fervent desire to exchange ideas and, in turn, build new ones. This is an inclination characteristic of many people. “So” is just more frequent on the tongues of those who do it best.
Take a look!
PS: By the way, on an entirely different note, use of fill-in syllables such as uh, OK (which word, I am told I use often in my presentations), and, you-know, while lecturing and making presentations are considered bad; so, as much as there is a reason behind using “so”, its use should still be restricted. One way to do it is to use different words and constructions with the same meaning.