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I wanted to describe that 「えっと」 was similar to "Ummm" in English when someone is trying to think about what they are going to say, but I wasn't even sure if that was correct. Is that just a generalization? What does 「えっと」actually come from? Can it be considered to be a word or phrase?

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The general form is ええと. –  Dono Nov 25 '12 at 23:00
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@Dono Is that an answer? What do you mean "general form"? What is it based on? –  Chris Harris Nov 25 '12 at 23:05
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1) Is that an answer? No, answers go in answer section; this is a comment section. 2) What do you mean "general form"? You will find ええと in any number of common dictionaries, but えっと in extremely few. 3) What is it based on? Native linguistic ability. –  Dono Nov 25 '12 at 23:32
    
Might as well throw あのう in to the mix –  小太郎 Nov 26 '12 at 14:45
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「あのう/あの~」 is from 「あの(=that)」, right? But as for ええと I have no idea. I googled 「ええと」「語源」etc. but couldn't find anything... (This ええ is like "Eh..."? And the と is "and"?? Maybe???) –  Choko Nov 26 '12 at 22:16
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2 Answers

えっと is just a sound. Yes, it is like "umm" in English and it is used when you're thinking of what to say, hesitating, or otherwise trying to fill the silence with something before you speak. As Dono mentioned, you can find えっと's general form in the dictionary, so it can be considered a word.

There is some discussion of this on the internet here, but this discussion also boils down to it just being a sound.

えっと as just a sound is a satisfactory answer to me in terms of etymology. I'm not sure if the と in it is related at all to the quotation particle と, but I have to wonder if anyone is sure.

Basically your description of えっと as "umm" is fine, and the dictionaries define it as something that you say to think before saying something else.

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Though I agree that it's probably just a sound, I think it's interesting given constructions such as 「ええとですね」 –  rintaun Nov 27 '12 at 16:22
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えっと is related to 言えないと, which is no longer said. Over time,it's just become something we say to fill the silence when thinking, like "anno". In the Edo Times you would hear people say 言えないと, which would have sounded like, "yunaito" back then. Think of how 行かないと means "I have to go."

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Do you have any sources for this claim? Also, I don't see why you compare 言えないと which means "If _ cannot say" and 行かないと which means "If _ do not go". The parallel of 行かないと would be 言わないと. –  dainichi Dec 1 '12 at 2:48
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