Apparently this is not an April Fool's joke

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  1. Mara K said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 3:12 pm

    I wonder whether native speakers of Swedish are as confused by English speakers' (or at least American English speakers') use of mhm and uh-huh as backchannel affirmatives.

  2. Kory said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 3:27 pm

    I think positive pulmonic ingressives are pretty common throughout the Nordic countries. Finnish uses it (for both jo and niin, if I remember correctly), and Norwegian has it for ja. I slip into the inhaled niin when I'm speaking with Finns. Old habits &c.

  3. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 4:24 pm

    Japanese has うん "un" for "yes" and ううん "uun" for "no". Despite the spellings, these are (to my ear) both nonvocalic. The first is a short "m" and the second is a longer "mmm", with a higher pitch in the middle than at the beginning or end.

  4. Marc Naimark said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 5:00 pm

    I thought this was not uncommon. I know that French speakers (in particular women) often say "oui", pronounced more as "way", while inhaling sharply.

  5. Marc Naimark said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 5:02 pm

    Nothing to do with Metz. I think this is done all over France.

  6. Marc Naimark said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 5:11 pm

    A YouTube humorist's list of peeves about language. At about minute 1:15, he speaks of the "oui aspiré". He demonstrates with a guy, and says that an annoying aspect is that it makes the guy sound like "a secretary or a (female) toilet attendant". He notes that it's the only word (in French) that you can say while breathing in.

  7. Mark Mandel said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 7:56 pm

    Several of the comments on Unilang, on the post that Marc Naimark links to (Oui inspiré, from his second (5:02) post, indicate that the ingressive "oui" and German ingressive "ja" are primarily used as backchannel (see also the video from 1:24), like American "m-hm"; and that some of them are primarily used by women.

    This phenomenon is apparently long known, though not well known. Wikipedia(I know, I know, but I need my supper)'s article on Ingressive sound ( refers to quite a few languages, unfortunately mostly without citations. Particularly relevant are

    1. "Pulmonic ingressive sounds are generally paralinguistic, and may be found as phonemes, words, and entire phrases on all continents and in genetically unrelated languages, most frequently in sounds for agreement and backchanneling." (§ Pulmonic speech)

    2. "Speech technologist Robert Eklund has found reports of ingressive speech in around 50 languages worldwide, dating as far back as Cranz's (1765) "Historie von Grönland, enthaltend… " where it is mentioned in female affirmations among the Eskimo." (§ Distribution)

    3. A subsection on Inhaled affirmative 'yeah'

    Now, is there an IPA diacritic for ingressive pronunciation? Should there be? … Never mind, found it: IPA symbol 661, a full-height down-arrow, represented in Unicode as U+2193 ↓ — which, according to proposal, predates and must be distinguished from the raised half-height down-arrow for tonal downstep, IPA 517, which is part of the proposal.

    So we can say, in accordance with established coding, that the Northern Swedish backchannel affirmative is [↓φp̚ ].

  8. Victor Mair said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 8:40 pm

    This sound is called a "pulmonic ingressive", and the word it is used for is the "pulmonic ingressive affirmative".

    Off and on, I've lived in Sweden for more than a year, and I know lots of Swedes, so I have personally witnessed this sound on many occasions.

    My dissertation adviser, Patrick Hanan, often made this sound when I was conversing with him. Pat was from New Zealand, but I believe that he was of Irish descent, so, in his case, perhaps we could refer to this sound as "The Gaelic Gasp".

    See "The Gaelic Gasp* and its North Atlantic Cousins: A study of Ingressive Pulmonic Speech in Scotland".

    Pat's wife Anneliese, who was German, also had this sound, but maybe she picked it up from Pat. The first few times I heard Pat make this sound, I thought he was having some sort of seizure and was worried for him. After awhile, I started to do it myself once in a while, especially while I was in Sweden, though it always felt like a very unnatural phoneme, even when I pronounced it myself.

  9. Leo E said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 8:53 pm

    A similar sound exists in the Northwestern speech of Ningxia. I had no idea what to think when I first started hearing it, but then realized it was common. I looked into it a little after finding this out, but can't remember exactly – are there other Sinitic varieties that have the ingressive affirmative? It was actually more of a space filler, or a way of soliciting agreement or checking for understanding. Maybe even an ingressive version of 啊 a. I remember finding that certain types of Mongolian had it, and was wondering if it was historical influence.

  10. MH said,

    April 5, 2015 @ 2:49 am

    Languagehat post on this phenomenon:

  11. Swede said,

    April 5, 2015 @ 4:57 am

    It should be noted that this is exclusive to northern Sweden.

    Mara K: The confusing thing about the North American "m-hm" for native Swedish speakers is that in Swedish it is not an affirmative, but an expression of realization or surprise, more like "oh, I see!".

  12. Victor Mair said,

    April 5, 2015 @ 7:19 am

    From Håkan Wahlquist:

    I think it is widely used in that very area of Northern Sweden, but not that uncommon in other areas as well. When I think about it I also occasionally use it, then together with a “ja” or “jeh” It is an affirmative for sure, but to me, when I use it, it also gains a reflective character.

    That area of Northern Sweden still preserves old dialectical variants of Swedish which are almost incomprehensible to me, fascinating to listen to. There is another area in NW Dalecarlia where old dialects are also preserved among old people, thus disappearing, apparently conserving a lot of Medieval traits lost in modern Swedish.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    April 5, 2015 @ 7:20 am

    From Gertrud Fremling:

    The meaning is very similar to the conversational 'Um hum' that you hear so much here in the US and which you do NOT hear in Swedish. I think the examples given in the tape are the most extreme. I believe I might have used it, too, but together with some kind of "ja" sound.

  14. Gotta Love the Swedes | The Idlers said,

    April 5, 2015 @ 8:11 am

    […] HT: Language Log. […]

  15. AB said,

    April 5, 2015 @ 8:24 am

    I live in Stockholm and quite often hear a sort of ingressive "ja". But the extreme version shown in the video, pure sucking sound, seems to be strongly stereotypically associated with norrlänningar. Old joke:
    Q: How do northerners vacuum under the sofa?
    A: "Is it dusty down there?" "[sucking sound]".

  16. Mark Mandel said,

    April 5, 2015 @ 9:25 am

    AB: "norrlänningar" = 'Northerners'? nor + land +ing + ar?

  17. AB said,

    April 5, 2015 @ 10:33 am

    @Mark – yes!
    NB: One of the first hits on google for "norrlänningar" is a link to this video.

  18. JB said,

    April 5, 2015 @ 11:19 am

    Danish also has a similar ingressive affirmative instead of the usual "ja," which sounds like a gasp instead of the "sh" sound from the video. The first time I heard it, my Danish host mom was on the telephone and kept gasping, and I thought she had gotten some terrible news, but it turns out she was just backchanneling "yes." I associate it with women and Jutland, but I could be wrong.

  19. Warren Maguire said,

    April 5, 2015 @ 11:30 am

    Ingressive 'aye', often just as an ingressive [h], is very common in my Tyrone dialect of Irish English as a backchannel affirmative.

  20. Mark Mandel said,

    April 5, 2015 @ 12:34 pm

    @AB: Tack!
    Re:NB: Not unexpected. How often is that word used on the Web? and comparatively, how it must have been trending!

  21. jtgw said,

    April 5, 2015 @ 5:33 pm

    So what languages don't use a pulmonic ingressive pronunciation of "yes" or a semantically equivalent discourse marker? And is the pulmonive ingressive always associated with affirmatives? Or does it cover other kinds of discourse marker?

  22. Gunnar H said,

    April 5, 2015 @ 6:27 pm

    An anecdote on Scandinavian-American differences in non-lexical affirmatives:

    As a native Norwegian and second-language Swedish speaker, when I lived in the US Midwest, I found that locals would often be confused by my "mm-hm"-style "backchannel" affirmatives. (Which I used not only for backchannel communication, but also as explicit affirmatives in place of "OK" or "yes.") Quite frequently, it would cause the speaker to repeat or restate what they had just said, as if I'd said something like "huh?"

    I'm guessing it had to do with me using a rising intonation that made it sound like a question, but I was nevertheless always surprised that a two-part "mm-hm" would ever be interpreted as a signal of confusion.

  23. Jarkko Hietaniemi said,

    April 6, 2015 @ 8:21 pm

    Finnish colloquial "yes" is spelled "joo" (rhymes with "yaw", not with "you") and has quite similar pronunciation.

  24. Mark Mandel said,

    April 7, 2015 @ 1:14 am

    Jarkko: but is it ingressive?

  25. Bean said,

    April 7, 2015 @ 9:03 am

    Having grown up in Western Canada and subsequently moved to Atlantic Canada about 15 years ago, I can tell you that the word "yeah" (but sounds more like "yut") is pronounced that way here, and here only (vs. the rest of Canada). You hear it particularly in Nova Scotia (which has strong influences from Scottish and some German) and I use it as a marker for Nova Scotian speech when trying to guess whether someone's from Nova Scotia or Newfoundland (depending on where in Newfoundland it takes some time to hear the difference). (New Brunswick is easy, they all talk super slow there, really loooong vowels.)

    When I was little, my father (Italian by birth but came to Canada in 1970), couldn't hear the difference between "uh-huh" and "uh-uh". So we got in the habit of tacking on the full word, "uh-huh-yeah" and "uh-uh-no", but he must have eventually worked it out because I haven't had to clarify for him in ages.

  26. Dan Lufkin said,

    April 7, 2015 @ 9:15 am

    All the Scandinavian languages have a special variant of ja that is used to respond affirmatively to a negative question. (Sw, Da, No jo, Fa, Is, )

    Talar du svenska? {Inhale} — Talar du inte svenska? Jo
    How common is that in other language families?

  27. Seonachan said,

    April 7, 2015 @ 10:21 am

    Regarding its use in Nova Scotia, and speaking anecdotally, I found it to be much more prevalent in Cape Breton than in Halifax (the two areas I spent the most time), and this may reflect a Gaelic influence as referenced in VM's link above. My former landlady in Cape Breton, a native Gaelic speaker, would speak this way all the time, not just in affirmation, but e.g. when counting (if she ran out of breath before the numbers stopped, she would just keep counting on the inhale, and back and forth again as necessary), or with sort of rote expressions like "Oh my goodness" etc. She would do this in English and Gaelic.

    Parts of New Zealand were also settled by Scottish Gaels, so there may be something to that connection.

  28. Lane said,

    April 7, 2015 @ 11:09 am

    The Danish version, which sounds like a mild gasp (a little like what the Swedish woman in the video says she would use for actual astonishment), is definitely not limited to Jutland. My wife (Copenhagen born-raised) and parents-in-law (southern Fyn island) both do it, too.

  29. Gunnar H said,

    April 7, 2015 @ 2:02 pm

    @ Dan Lufkin

    German has "doch," though I believe it's used a little differently. French has "si." So, apparently quite a few?

  30. Gunnar H said,

    April 7, 2015 @ 2:09 pm

    … but, considering that there's hardly ever any confusion between "yes (you are right)" and "yes (you are wrong)," while there is often the possibility of confusion between "no (you are right)" and "no (you are wrong)," perhaps the question should be whether any/many languages distinguish between different types of no in the same way.

  31. Dan Lufkin said,

    April 7, 2015 @ 2:39 pm

    I understand that Danish has an inverse nasalized uvular trill to express "I couldn't fail to disagree with you less."

  32. DF said,

    April 7, 2015 @ 5:11 pm

    Similar to Atlantic Canada, downeast Mainers say "ayuh" as in ingressive. More like "yuh." Meaning yes.

  33. DF said,

    April 7, 2015 @ 5:13 pm

    Some rural people in Maine also say, when agreeing with you, "So don't I," meaning "So do I." Very odd.

  34. Mark Mandel said,

    April 7, 2015 @ 6:57 pm

    DF: I've heard that too. I'm pretty sure it wasn't in Maine, but I can't think where.

  35. Mark Mandel said,

    April 7, 2015 @ 6:58 pm

    PS to prev. post: I've long suspected that it could have come from something similar to "And (so) don't we all(?)"

  36. Seonachan said,

    April 7, 2015 @ 8:33 pm

    Growing up in the northeast corner of Massachusetts, we said "So don't I" too.

  37. Ron said,

    April 8, 2015 @ 12:08 am

    @Marc Naimark: At about 1:00 in the video he mocks the drawling "way" (not ingressive) that I think of as Parisian valley girl. What do you see as the social difference between that and the ingressive "way" at 1:15?

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