mmhmm etc.

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Kumari Devarajan, "Ready For A Linguistic Controversy? Say 'Mmhmm'", NPR 8/17/20018:

Once upon a time, English speakers didn't say "mmhmm." But Africans did, according to Robert Thompson, an art history professor at Yale University who studies Africa's influence on the Americas.

In a 2008 documentary, Thompson said the word spread from enslaved Africans into Southern black vernacular and from there into Southern white vernacular. He says white Americans used to say "yay" and "yes." […]

Ugo Nwojeki, a professor of African-American studies at the University of California, Berkeley, says he "always assumed" that the word was African. Lev Michael, a linguist at the same school, says that "doesn't seem very plausible." Roslyn Burns, a linguist at UCLA, says "it's hard to say."

I've got nothing to add to the disagreement about origins. But I do want to point out that there's a broader morpho-lexical context. Consider the two-syllable pattern

(X)Y. XY

where the Ys can be

  • [ʌ̃] (as in "nun"), usually nasalized, or
  • [m̩] (a syllabic labial nasal)

and the Xs can be

  • [ɦ] (a voiced "h", as in "ahead")
  • [ʔ] (a glottal stop)

So in addition to the "mmhmm" discussed in the cited article –[ʔm̩.ɦm̩] in IPA —  there's another positive version, with an open neutral vowel —  [ʔʌ̃.ɦʌ̃] in IPA, usually spelled something like "uh huh".

And there are two parallel negative versions: [ʔm̩.ʔm̩] (no common spelling?), and [ʔʌ̃.ʔʌ̃] (usually spelled "uh uh").

A syllabic [n̩] is also possible: [ʔn̩.ʔn̩] and [ʔn̩.ɦn̩].

There are maybe-related variants like "nuh uh" and "uh oh", and things like "aha" whose relationship to these items is even more unclear. The assenting version is sometimes abbreviated as monosyllabic [ʔm̩] (unless that's just a different form).

And I'm leaving out a wide range of prosodic variation. At least in the negative forms, either the first or second syllable can be stressed , where stressing the second syllable generally gives the impression of greater emphasis. (My intuition says that the positive forms are generally stressed on the second syllable, though I think there's an emphatic version with a rise-fall contour on a lengthened second syllable.)

Variations in pitch contour, tempo, and voice quality are also common.

Like the forms spelled "huh", "uh", "hmm", "mmm", as well as various communicative tongue clicks, lip smacks, sighs, grunts, and so on,  these forms aren't consistent with the general phonotactic patterns of English.

And the meaning space is complicated, in ways that can make written versions problematic. Thus Loren Cassani Davis, "Hmm vs. Mmm vs. Mhmm", The Atlantic 9/17/2015:

When texting or using instant messaging, I often write "mmm" as shorthand for a sound of agreement (imagine me nodding, sagely, thinking "yes," "totally," "I'm on your wavelength").

To my horror, a colleague recently told me that she's been interpreting my "mmms" as ominous. While I thought I was being supportive (mmm implying "mhmm"), she thought I'd felt unsure (mmm implying "hmm") because of a friend she has who used "mmm" this way a lot. It made me wonder, how many other people are misinterpreting my gestures of approval? And how many displays of caution have I brazenly pushed through, thinking the other person was on board?

Update — A few relevant earlier posts:

"Young men talk like old women", 11/6/2005
"Another Breakfast Experiment", 11/8/2005
"Huh", 2/4/2010
"Huh?", 11/9/2013
"Um/Uh update", 12/13/2014
"Labiality and femininity", 12/26/2014
"Apparently this is not an April Fool's joke", 4/4/2015

 



43 Comments

  1. David Marjanović said,

    August 18, 2018 @ 7:19 am

    Such extralinguistic quasi-words are widespread the world over. You need to look no farther than German for [ʔm̩ˈhm̩] "yes", [ʔḿ̩ʔm̩̀] "no" (note the invariable tones!) and [ʔãˈhã] "oh, now I see" (with rhinoglottophilia and central instead of front vowels).

    [(myl) The distribution across languages may shed some light on the question of origins. I don't think that I've heard equivalent quasi-words in French, at least not the Isle de France version. I'll ask some friends about various African languages — but no doubt we'll hear from commenters about the situation in languages around the world.]

  2. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 18, 2018 @ 7:23 am

    There's also "m-m-m" with the pitch contour of "I don't know" and with the same meaning. That has no parallel containing [ʌ̃] that I know of. Some teenagers are accused of never opening their mouths when they talk to their parents or teachers, saying nothing but "m-hm", "'m-'m", and "m-m-m". (My spellings.)

    I say "mm" when listening somewhat as Loren Cassani Davis does, to indicate agreement, sympathy, or comprehension. I've been criticized for that—"It's just a grunt." Speaking of NPR, I've noticed that from NPR and other radio interviewers in recent years. I find it inappropriate in that situation, maybe only because it didn't happen or I didn't notice it earlier.

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 18, 2018 @ 7:43 am

    Not to forget that pawkie auld Scotch word 'Imph-m', which seems to be accented on the first syllable, to judge by the poem I linked to. Does the "p" represent a glottal stop?

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    August 18, 2018 @ 8:03 am

    Trying (by introspection) to picture my own usage(s) of the "(h)mmm" family, I am fairly sure that I use members thereof only when I am not really participating in a conversation, but feel the need to offer some form of verbal input just to reassure my collocutor that I haven't entirely lost interest. My wife, on the other hand, when in conversation with (almost) any member of her extended Chinese/Vietnamese family over the telephone, utters /m̩̀ḿ̩/ at extremely regular intervals (while listening, rather than while speaking, obviously) to the point where I have on more than one occasion sought to reassure her that the telephone connection will not automatically clear itself down if she says nothing for more than 20 seconds …

  5. Ellen Kozisek said,

    August 18, 2018 @ 8:13 am

    I saw this article linked somewhere with the odd claim that mmhmm isn't in "the dictionary". They needed to check a different dictionary or try a different spelling.

  6. Oatrick said,

    August 18, 2018 @ 8:31 am

    @jerryfriedman Re NPR: (To myself…until now…) i refer to this as the Stamberg Effect. If i recall, they've had pieces where Susan Stamberg discussed including uh-huhs & mhmms in her interviewing style. It was revolutionary compared to other network news anchors in the 1970s.
    The purpose is to make the interview feel/sound like a conversation, rather than a flat exchange of question, statement, question, statement. … Of course she has had a massive influence on the reporters/hosts who followed her, so now they all do the same thing. Often to excess…

  7. AntC said,

    August 18, 2018 @ 9:21 am

    Davis's I often write "mmm" as shorthand for a sound of agreement is I think a very dubious practice.

    Like her colleague, I'd interpret it differently to Davis' intent. If I wrote it myself, I'd also put punctuation and/or an emoji.

    I do write "hmm?" (intending rising intonation) to mean: I rather think I disagree with you, but I can't bring any strong arguments to mind within the response time needed for social media.

  8. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 18, 2018 @ 10:09 am

    I remember hearing something like "mhmm" for "yes" as a Jewish child in pre-WWII Poland, whether the speaker spoke Polish or Yiddish. African origin? What's next? That laughing or yawning came from African slaves?

  9. Gassalasca said,

    August 18, 2018 @ 12:56 pm

    The sound itself is quite common in Serbian. But it think 'mhm', even in informal writing, is pretty recent.

  10. PeterL said,

    August 18, 2018 @ 3:13 pm

    Japanese "un" (うん) and "n-" (んー):
    https://eow.alc.co.jp/search?q=%E3%81%86%E3%82%93&ref=sa
    https://eow.alc.co.jp/search?q=%E3%82%93%E3%83%BC
    [you can ignore the entries about "poop", which derive from unrelated "unchi" (うんち)]

    OTOH, Japanese "uh" as a pause is "eeto" (ええと)
    https://eow.alc.co.jp/search?q=%E3%81%88%E3%81%88%E3%81%A8
    For some reason, when I used this, it amused native Japanese speakers.

  11. Jackson said,

    August 18, 2018 @ 4:30 pm

    In Bulgarian, variations on this theme are quite common. Something along the lines of [ɑ̃:əɐ] with a high-low-high pitch pattern is used very often for agreement.

  12. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    August 18, 2018 @ 5:12 pm

    Coby Lubliner is of course right about mhm for 'yes' in Polish. There are also the glottal-stop forms for negation, both with various nasals and various vowels. On top of all that, there is the two-syllable form [ˈɲɛʔɛ] for nie 'no'. It's considered infantile but in widespread use. All of them are super-useful in an introductory phonetics course with Polish students to demonstrate [h] and [ʔ] in Polish (neither are phonemic).

  13. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    August 18, 2018 @ 5:17 pm

    Oh I can see I clicked "Submit" too soon – sorry!

    [ˈɲɛʔɛ] is noteworthy because its prosody is evidently modelled on [ˈʔm̩ʔm̩]. The "grown-up" form [ɲɛ] complies with normal Polish phonotactics.

  14. Allen Thrasher said,

    August 18, 2018 @ 5:58 pm

    I remember a book, In English, by a Czech linguist discussing such less articulate expressions expressing things like agreement, disagreement, approval, disapproval, or getting attention. He as I fallibly recall maintained that they were to be found in every language (though his examples, as again I fallibly recall, were from Czech and English). In every language their phonology does not fit into that of the rest of the language, and in written language must be represented by some rather stylized approximation. For instance, in English "ahem" represents a sort of deliberated discreet cough, and in turn some people trying to get someone's attention actually say "ahem," rather than coughing. He gave other examples of this influence back on spoken language from the written language. I stumbled across this book by serendipity and do not remember the author or title, only the author's nationality, so I am sorry to say I cannot supply the information, and I have not the slightest idea how to do a catalog search using Library of Congress subject headings. But perhaps someone will know or remember, and some my find the book helpful.

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    August 19, 2018 @ 3:35 am

    Not a book per se but a thesis by Denisa Šmejkalová of the Faculty of Arts, Department of English and American Studies at Masaryk University, entitled Two Czech translations of Jack Kerouacʼs On the Road: a study on translating "written orality" in first-person narrative". Could this be of what you were thinking, Allen, or might she perhaps have gone on to write a whole book on the topic, do you think ?

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 19, 2018 @ 8:15 am

    Incidentally, "He says white Americans used to say 'yay' and 'yes.'"

    The word transcribed as "yay" is what is normally spelled "yea", I guess. It reminds me that the Whole Foods (grocery store) in Santa Fe has a sign up encouraging applications for jobs there: "Calling all yay-sayers." That must be based on "nay-sayers", but does it refer figuratively to people who say "yay", "yea", or both?

  17. Michael Watts said,

    August 19, 2018 @ 8:28 am

    I don't agree that there is no common spelling for the closed-mouth negative; to me, the affirmative response is spelled "uh huh" (no hyphen), and the negative response is spelled "uh-uh" (with hyphen), regardless of the implementation detail of whether the person's mouth was open or closed when they spoke.

    I am aware of no spelling for the "I don't know" tonal contour; I would expect it to be written out as "I don't know".

    mhm is known to the Chinese, though I was assuming it was an Anglicism. They spell it 嗯哼.

  18. F said,

    August 19, 2018 @ 9:06 am

    Chiming in to say that "mmhmm" (for some reason usually spelled угу) and [ɐɦɐ] (corresponding to "uh huh", not "aha") and [ʔm̩.ʔm̩] exist in Russian as well as (from previous commenters) German and Polish, and so does a Polish-like [ˈnʲe̞ʔɐ]. On the other hand, my grad school classmates from Australia used a different system more similar to Japanese (short [ʔm̩] for agreement.) This would seem to support the hypothesis that this ended up in American English through widespread German and/or Jewish immigration.

  19. Lameen said,

    August 19, 2018 @ 9:14 am

    The origin is definitely problematic, but these words are certainly attested in West Africa. For Tondi Songway Kiini (Mali), Heath documents ʔoNhoN (low-high)"yes" and ?oN?oN (high-low) "no" (? = glottal stop, N = nasalisation). Whereas the English forms are phonologically totally anomalous within English, the TSK forms fit fairly well within the regular context of TSK phonology.

  20. DaveK said,

    August 19, 2018 @ 11:37 am

    A related term that may originate with Black English (at least that's where I've heard it most) is "mm-mm-mm" said with an ascending pitch, as a reaction of appreciation or surprise, such as just being told an item of gossip. I've taken the meaning as "this is interesting; please tell me more".

  21. Antonio said,

    August 19, 2018 @ 1:51 pm

    At least in Mexican Spanish people sometimes say "ajá" for yes.

    Here's a (defunct) blog using it in the title

    http://ajasiaja.blogspot.com/

    ("Uh huh, yes, uh huh")

  22. Y said,

    August 19, 2018 @ 11:34 pm

    Did mmmkay arise spontaneously from okay, or as a portmanteau word with mmhmm?

  23. loonquawl said,

    August 20, 2018 @ 3:35 am

    I remember a documentary about the American health care system, where the call center employees shilling for a manufacturer of cancer medication were instructed to mislead callers by going 'mhmm' in reply a question that by law needed a yes, but in truth would have had to be answered by no. – The employees were hoping that a 'mhmm', intented to be understood as 'yes' but clearly phonetically not a yes would not be considered a lie juristically.

  24. John Swindle said,

    August 20, 2018 @ 7:03 am

    This shouldn't be so hard. I suppose it's hard because "mm hmm" and its kin haven't been regarded as words and therefore haven't been recorded for history.
    Did they come to America with English settlers? If so, their presence in American English is explained.
    If they did not come to America with English settlers, where did they come from? Did they first appear in parts of North America settled by particular groups? Would that be Germans, Jews, Czechs, Poles, Russians, Serbians, or West Africans? And did they fit the native language(s) of any particular group(s)? I'm not a linguist, so I won't insist on the obvious—that they are indeed West African—but what's the reasonable alternative? That they're some kind of linguistic universal?

  25. ajay said,

    August 20, 2018 @ 7:46 am

    according to Robert Thompson, an art history professor at Yale University who studies Africa's influence on the Americas.

    And who better to answer the question? It's not like there's are "linguaologists" or something out there. If the art historians say so, that's as good as we're going to get.

  26. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 20, 2018 @ 1:26 pm

    For any seemingly distinctive feature of black American culture, there is often one hypothesis that (perhaps fancifully) points to a West African origin and another that (perhaps fancifully) points to a regional British origin, with an additional subhypothesis about why it failed to persist even regionally among American whites of British ancestry. I imagine some phenomena are accurately explained by one of these genres of explanation and others by the other, which knowing which is which requiring careful case-by-case examination of the evidence, but my impression is that scholars (especially when the issue is outside their own subspecialty!) sometimes tend to fall into a position of virtually always preferring the African-origins theory or virtually never preferring the African-origins theory. From what I know of him, Professor Thompson seems more likely to be in the former camp.

    FWIW, things may have changed more recently, but back in the '80's (when Prof. Thompson definitely had a higher profile on campus than anyone in the linguistics dep't) I'm not sure the Yale linguistics faculty had anyone whose primary research interests involved AAVE in particular or AmEng dialect variation and history in general. The sociolinguistics class in which I was first exposed to the scholarly study of AAVE was taught by a fellow from the anthropology department whose own fieldwork I believed focused on … maybe Indonesia, or at least somewhere in that general part of the world.

  27. fish said,

    August 20, 2018 @ 8:35 pm

    "For any seemingly distinctive feature of black American culture, there is often one hypothesis that (perhaps fancifully) points to a West African origin and another that (perhaps fancifully) points to a regional British origin, with an additional subhypothesis about why it failed to persist even regionally among American whites of British ancestry."

    For the British-origin version, assuming we're not talking about attributes common to both black and white southerners alike (or just "southern" things that became associated with black American culture to northerners from the Great Migration, but still aren't seen as exclusively black down south), it does seem like one extra step to have to explain why it was brought over by one group (the white settlers), switched to being then associated with the other group (blacks) and only lost selectively among those whites who originally brought it, versus it originating from and brought over with that one group it's associated with to begin with.

    If the British-origin version needs that extra sub-hypothesis, was parsimony/Occam's razor ever used to argue for the African-origin alternative?

    But if some attribute of black American culture is not exclusive to black Americans (like mmhmm), that logic doesn't work and also doesn't help narrow it down.

    Another line of reasoning is other parts of the African diaspora — depending on how widespread it is shared and was shared among English-speaking Caribbean African descendants for instance.

    One common example argued is "kissing teeth" to show disapproval — that one I think is more widely accepted as African in origin.

  28. David Marjanović said,

    August 21, 2018 @ 8:01 am

    but what's the reasonable alternative? That they're some kind of linguistic universal?

    Yes, of course – like huh ~ hm, on which there was an open-access paper recently.

    Conversely, I have no idea what "kissing teeth" even refers to; whatever it is, then, it doesn't seem to be anywhere near universal.

  29. ajay said,

    August 21, 2018 @ 11:00 am

    Conversely, I have no idea what "kissing teeth" even refers to

    Basically a sharp intake of breath drawn in through lips and teeth that are sharply and slightly opened. The noise it makes could best be rendered as "tsssss" – a click caused by the tongue against the teeth or the palate (much like the click that is normally written "tut-tut"), followed by the hiss of air coming in. It's intended to show disapproval, or sympathy with someone who's describing something bad (again, much like "tut-tut").

    It is widely described as a peculiarly African or Afro-Caribbean habit, but I have no idea why. Calling it "kissing teeth" is a peculiarly Afro-Caribbean name for it, but the utterance itself seems to me to be pretty universal. It's basically a sharp intake of breath – and that seems very likely to be a universal, just like "huh" – through an almost-closed mouth to make it more clearly audible. I've heard people from all British ethnic groups and all ages doing it.

  30. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 21, 2018 @ 5:11 pm

    @fish: simple non-linguistic example. In the early 20th century as bridge became popular among white American cardplayers, its predecessor game whist (probably of British origin) became largely obsolete. When I was a kid, I was aware of whist as a card game played exclusively by characters in 19th century novels. But for whatever contingent reasons, the shift over to bridge did not occur to the same extent among black Americans, many of whom continue to play whist into the 21st century. Because we know the history, we are free from the risk of someone noticing a chance resemblance between whist and some traditional game played in West Africa and building an elaborate theory on it. In a linguistic context, you just need e.g.: a) a process by which a bunch of inherited near-synonyms for the same referent from multiple regional British dialects get weeded out with only one or two surviving, with it being largely random which survive and which are lost; and b) enough social separation between white and black speech communities that the result of that largely random weeding out process might end up a bit different, with those differences then persisting.

    But for the example here, I'm not even sure what the evidence is of some prior time period when "mm hmm" was widespread among black speakers of AmEng but not other speakers before it then spread out more broadly.

  31. Philip Taylor said,

    August 22, 2018 @ 3:08 am

    My (white, British) parents and their friends relatives continued to play whist during much of my early years (i.e., up to the start of the 60s), and I/we knew no-one who played bridge at that time. Possibly it was a class thing — we were most definitely working class, perhaps our betters played bridge.

  32. Jonathan Haslam said,

    August 22, 2018 @ 6:13 am

    @Oatrick Training in the UK as a radio journalist in the 1980s, we were told specifically not to "um" or "er" when we spoke, asked questions, etc. and to stay silent when an interviewee spoke, nodding like crazy instead to encourage them. We also edited out excessive "um"s, "er"s and long pauses in the responses of interviewees. The thinking was that, though we don't notice these things in real life, on radio they become intrusive and distracting.

  33. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 22, 2018 @ 8:37 am

    In case anyone wants to look into the history any more, James Nicholson's Scots poem "Imph-m" seems to have first appeared in book form on page 146 of his Kilwuddie and Other Poems in 1863. In a footnote he calls the sound "That compound nasal affirmative indulged in by those who do not choose to open their mouths and say Yes."

    An early American reference is in American Notes and Queries of May 10, 1890: "What can possibly be the origin of
    the almost unspellable couple of sounds so
    often used in the West, particularly by
    women, for 'No?' As near as I can represent it, it is 'mp-m,' with the rising inflection on the first and the falling on the
    second sound, the whole being made with
    closed lips. C. H. A." (I've corrected what may be OCR errors in punctuation and adjacent spaces and closed up end-of-the-line hyphenations.)

    Searching for "unspellable" in that link will find you that and a reply that starts, "From my earliest boyhood down, perhaps, to the present
    period, there have been very common in
    Lancaster county, if not the entire State of
    Pennsylvania, a sort of utterances, between
    a gutteral and a nasal, made with closed lips,
    that were representatives of both no and yes.
    They were entirely 'unspellable' sounds,
    and, in our early days, school urchins were
    in the habit of challenging each other to
    spell them, but they were as unspellable as
    the stridulations of a grasshopper. The affirmative grunt was accompanied by a slight
    vertical motion of the head, and the negative
    by a transverse or horizontal motion."

    I haven't looked for all the answers. There's one that mentions the poem "Imph-m".

  34. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 22, 2018 @ 8:50 am

    John Swindle: I'm not a linguist, so I won't insist on the obvious—that they are indeed West African—but what's the reasonable alternative? That they're some kind of linguistic universal?

    Or there something between "universal" and "one origin"? (I don't know why West African.) Similar things arose independently but not everywhere?

    J. W. Brewer: I feel, but can't support, that the whist played by some African Americans is related to the simple game that Phileas Fogg played, but is more elaborate.

    Possibly I'm confusing that with versions of checkers, though. Some black kids in my school in suburban Cleveland used "checkers" to mean a game with "flying kings" and other exciting features—compare "Spanish draughts" in the Morehouse, Frey, and Mott-Smith Hoyle. My simple "checkers" was their "chess-pool". As I recall.

    Or maybe not I'm not confused. The Internet feels that the game popular among African Americans is bid whist.

  35. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 22, 2018 @ 8:51 am

    Actually, there seems to be some evidence above that I am confused. But the facts look okay at the moment.

  36. Geoff Nunberg said,

    August 22, 2018 @ 1:12 pm

    I don't have a strong view on the origin, either, but I think it's a mistake to assume that modern "mmhmm" emerged as a replacement for "yea" or that the absence of explicit citations in historical records means it wasn't around in earlier stages of English. In fact you find passages like the following in 19th c. British fiction:

    Tom grunted assent. " So, master, if so be, you'll give the same, why, I'm your man , and am ready to be otf with you in a jiffy."
    Thomas Hamilton, The Youth and Manhood of Cyril Thornton, Edinburgh, 1829

    'Papa, the house has been very dismal since poor mamma died' (papa grunted assent), 'and still more dismal since Amelia married' (papa grunted assent more emphatically than before).
    Arthur Locker, Sweet Seventeen, London 1866

    Joel murmured assent at the opening of this speech, but lost all that followed.
    "Gabriel's Appointment," The Argosy, (London) 1877

    No way to know exactly what noise those grunts and murmurs corresponded to or how far back it went. It may or may not have been a "mhmmn," but it for sure wasn't a "yea."

  37. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 22, 2018 @ 2:07 pm

    The sequence "bid whist" seems to first pop up in the google books corpus c. 1910, so after Phileas Fogg, but the early American citations (in e.g. the Tuft University alumni magazine) do not suggest it was at that point being predominantly played in black communities.

  38. fish said,

    August 22, 2018 @ 8:40 pm

    For another example of a thing that could be an utterance that has an inkling of vague similarly cross-culturally but associated with one region, this time Asia, instead of Africa, are utterances of "Aiyoh!" or "Aiya!" that express "Oh no!" It's widespread and claimed to be associated with Singapore, Chinese and Indian languages. But enough things are similar like Ai yai yai! in Mexican Spanish that it almost feels like it's universal that a similar sounding expression of a surprise has some phonetic elements in common.

  39. fish said,

    August 22, 2018 @ 8:48 pm

    Regarding being between universality and one origin, would the famous consistency in "ma" and to a lesser extent "pa" mother and father words qualify? Or is that more solidly (at least the mother form) just one universal?

    What about onomatopoeia that's similar cross-culturally but not quite the same — how many independent variants of a dog barking for instance arose and spread and how does one count an "independent" invention of an form (is it one origin in multiple languages, origin per cultural region where the onomatopoeia is similar enough and diffused, one origin for humanity's first encounter with barking dogs?).

    Or expressions of pain and surprise like I mentioned in my previous post — "Ah!" and "Oh" and "Aye" in various proportions and combos seem ubiquitous among cultures and probably reflect something primal, but why would some cultures favor one form versus another and can you really count independent inventions each time a new form arises (I mean individuals probably spontaneously utter and invent new combos all the time)?

  40. John Swindle said,

    August 23, 2018 @ 12:36 am

    @fish: Regarding Chinese "Aiya!" and Mexican Spanish ""Ai yai yai!": The latter was also part of my Nebraska grandparents' Volga German in the 1950s. They might have been influenced by Mexican seasonal workers; but their pastor, swept up by his own sermon about the wonders of Heaven, is also reported to have fallen back on "Ai jai jai wie schön, ai jai jai wie schön, ai jai jai wie schön." (I don't know how to spell it.) My late mother and her sisters remembered the saying and used it with a laugh or a tear when things were too beautiful for words.

  41. John Swindle said,

    August 23, 2018 @ 1:03 am

    Sorry: "Oh boy, how beautiful, oh boy, how beautiful, oh boy, how beautiful." I don't remember hearing an exclamation mark in my mother's telling of it.

  42. David Marjanović said,

    August 23, 2018 @ 5:34 pm

    Calling it "kissing teeth" is a peculiarly Afro-Caribbean name for it, but the utterance itself seems to me to be pretty universal.

    Indeed, I use it to express shock.

    […] the almost unspellable couple of sounds so often used in the West, particularly by women, for 'No?' As near as I can represent it, it is 'mp-m,' with the rising inflection on the first and the falling on the second sound, the whole being made with closed lips.

    That's exactly [ʔḿ̩ʔm̩̀].

    Ai yai yai! in Mexican Spanish

    ¡Ay, ay, ay!

  43. BZ said,

    August 28, 2018 @ 1:22 pm

    When I came here from Russia I was glad to know "mm hmm" has the same meaning. However, its opposite, which is pronounced like "uh oh" but with the mouth closed does not exist ("nuh uh" is the probably the closest "translation", but the Russian word isn't limited to little kids like "nuh uh" is)

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