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D.D. writes:

You know the way people in comic surprise say “What?!” on a high-pitched note? Do you know where that comes from?

This seems to be a natural communicative consequence of the word's meaning. At least it's been around in English for a while, and similar uses of comparable words seem to exist in other languages as well.

The OED identifies (what I think is) the sense D.D. has in mind:

2. a. As an exclamation of surprise or astonishment (sometimes mixed with indignation): usually followed by a question.

?c1200 Ormulum (Burchfield transcript) l. 19429 Whatt abraham. whatt Moysæs. Whatt tiss & tatt profete? Ne sæȝhenn þeȝȝ nohht drihhtin godd. Inn hiss goddcunnde kinde?
a1250 Owl & Nightingale 1298 Hwat, heo seyde, vle, artu wod?
1377 W. Langland Piers Plowman B. xiii. 184 ‘What?’ quod clergye to conscience ‘ar ȝe coueitouse nouthe After ȝeresȝyues?’
a1400 (▸a1325) Cursor Mundi (Gött.) l. 10456 Quat? wenis þu i be a fole?
1412–20 J. Lydgate tr. Hist. Troy i. 2900 What, hath sche nat fro deth and fro distresse Preserued þe, and ȝit þou takest noon hede?
1590 R. Harvey Plaine Percevall sig. B3 What, what, latine in the mouth of a plaine fellow?
1633 J. Ford 'Tis Pitty shee's Whore iv. sig. H3 What crying old Mistresse!
1639 J. Clarke Paroemiologia 303 What againe? quoth Paul when his wife made him cuckold the second time.
1749 H. Fielding Tom Jones V. xv. vii. 244 ‘O, Mr. Jones, I have lost my Lady for ever.’—‘How! What! for Heaven's Sake tell me.’
1810 G. Crabbe Borough xxii. 301 None put the question,—‘Peter, dost thou give The Boy his Food?—What, Man! the Lad must live.’
1847 Ld. Tennyson Princess ii. 25 What! are the ladies of your land so tall?
1886 S. Baring-Gould Court Royal xii ‘What!—not Sunday clothes?’ ‘Sunday is nothing to us.’ ‘What! no go-to-meeting clothes?’

In Latin, Lewis & Short give us an analogous sense for quid?:

1. Quid? how? why? wherefore? quid? tu me hoc tibi mandasse existimas, ut? etc., Cic. Fam. 2, 8, 1: “quid hoc?” id. Tusc. 1, 11, 25: “quid? eundem nonne destituisti?” id. Phil. 2, 38, 99: “eloquere, quid venisti?”

The first of those examples is from one of Cicero's letters to Caelius — D.R. Shackleton Bailey translates this "Quid?" as "Really?", but it seems to be an instance of the sort of thing D.D. has in mind:

Quid? tu me hoc tibi mandasse existimas ut mihi gladiatorum compositiones, ut vadimonia dilata et Chresti compilationem mitteres et ea quae nobis cum Romae sumus narrare nemo audeat?

Really! Is this what you think I asked you to do — to send me pairings of gladiators, court adjournments, Chrestus’ pilfering, all the trivia which nobody would dare tell me when I am in Rome?

French has quoi as an interjection, which WordReference treats as equivalent to English what as an interjection, with a plausible example:

quoi interj (marque d'étonnement)       what interj

Quoi ! Tu n'as pas encore fini tes devoirs ?
What! You still haven't finished your homework?

Readers should be able to tell us whether there are similar uses of a wh-thing word in other languages, including non-IndoEuropean ones.

Update — a relevant earlier posts, also in response to D.D.:

"Hwæt, the parking-spaces …", 6/14/2012


  1. Victor Mair said,

    December 3, 2020 @ 6:58 pm

    In Sinitic:

    Rhetorical shénme, shéme, shěnme, shěme 什麽, 甚麼, 甚麽 and 什么 "what? huh?". Even though the second syllable is marked with a neutral tone, it can be pronounced with a high pitch to express incredulousness.

    Corruption of medieval 是物 (MC d͡ʑiᴇX mɨut̚, “why”) (Yuan et al., 1996: 318–324).

    Used to express surprise or anger — what?!

    In Japanese:

    From spoken Middle Chinese 恁麼 (nyimX muɑ, “what?”, archaic, literally “think + something tiny and insignificant”). The spelling shifted to include the Chinese synonym 什麼 (modern Mandarin reading of shénme), while keeping the inmo reading for 恁麼, instead of the expected shūma reading for 什麼.

    Imported into Japanese by Zen monks who had studied in China. Generally restricted to use by Zen practitioners.


  2. dfan said,

    December 3, 2020 @ 7:01 pm

    "What?" as a question is as old as the hills, but I presume D.D. is referring to a stretched-out falsetto "Whaaaaaaaat?" that feels like it entered popular culture about ten years ago. Usually the speaker is being disingenuous and isn't actually surprised at all. For example: "I noticed that someone ate all of the cookies in the cookie jar." "Whaaaaaaat?"

  3. John Swindle said,

    December 3, 2020 @ 7:10 pm

    You asked for it. For starters,

    Spanish: ¿Qué?
    German: Was!
    Russian: Что? (chto?)
    Mandarin: 什么?(shénme?) (variously written)
    Cantonese: 乜嘢? (mat1 je5?)
    Japanese: 何 ?(nani?)

    … all work. They may not all be equally common.

  4. Helma Dik said,

    December 3, 2020 @ 7:18 pm

    For the idea of extraordinary pitch, compare the Anc. Greek cognate τί (neut.sg nom/acc), carrying an acute accent that conventionally never changes to a grave, a feature not shared with any other word.

  5. John Swindle said,

    December 3, 2020 @ 7:43 pm

    Okay. I see. Cantonese 乜嘢? (mat1 je5?) and Japanese: 何 ?(nani?) don't really end on a high note.

  6. dfan said,

    December 3, 2020 @ 7:44 pm

    Here's an example of what I'm talking about: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JNh-1lIbDTY

  7. MWarhol said,

    December 3, 2020 @ 8:03 pm

    The apotheosis of the "elongated what" to which dfan refers was reached in the supremely silly 2015 film "Tex Montana Will Survive!":


  8. Bloix said,

    December 3, 2020 @ 8:17 pm

    The performative "Whaaaat?!!" may be new but the genuinely surprised "WHAT?!!" is much older.
    Go to 1:20 of this clip from Harold and Maude (1971) for an example. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ZzNlA9uZ0g

  9. PB said,

    December 3, 2020 @ 8:39 pm

    As a native (Swiss) German speaker, I can confirm that a surprised "WAS?!" is quite common and natural in German as well.

  10. V said,

    December 4, 2020 @ 2:21 am

    Bulgarian "к'во" (kvo?) with a rising pitch, shortened from "какво?" (what?). The [v] tends to get devoiced if produced too quickly.

  11. .mau. said,

    December 4, 2020 @ 2:29 am

    in Italian we say Cosa?, which is an abbreviation of "che cosa?". Actually the word comes from Latin causa. In the past we could also say Che?, which is the parallel of "What?", but I'd say that this use ended in the XIX century.

  12. V said,

    December 4, 2020 @ 4:30 am

    Actually in some Northern and Eastern dialects the [v] transforms in to an aspiration on the [k], now that I think about it.

  13. Robot Therapist said,

    December 4, 2020 @ 4:47 am

    >>Dfan: I presume D.D. is referring to a stretched-out falsetto "Whaaaaaaaat?" that feels like it entered popular culture about ten years ago. <<

    I remember when I first heard that falsetto "what" (1975) and who it was.

  14. Bob Ladd said,

    December 4, 2020 @ 7:27 am

    What .mau. said about Italian – if you Google "cooosa", you will get (in addition to a series of "Did you mean…?" suggestions) various images of surprised faces saying "COOOSA?!" and the like. Comparable results in German if you Google "waaas". Presumably you could test this in the same way for any language with a significant internet presence.

  15. Cervantes said,

    December 4, 2020 @ 7:42 am

    Actually I would say that in Spanish ¿Cómo? (How) as an interjection of surprise is more common than ¿Qué?

    I think the implication is "How is it that. . . " or "How could it be . . ." ¿Cómo es? is also used as we would use "What?" to express that you didn't understand something.

  16. Dan Milton said,

    December 4, 2020 @ 8:09 am

    Does the much disputed “Hwaet” that opens Beowulf belong here?

    [(myl) See Walkden, G. (2013). The status of hwæt in Old English, English Language and Linguistics 17, no. 03 (2013): 465-488. ]

  17. Giles said,

    December 4, 2020 @ 10:38 am

    In Portuguese (European, don't know about Brazilian) "o quê" — so also "what", though with "the" before it. Portuguese tends to use "the" everywhere, though — "this is the my partner" — so it's not particular to this phrase.

  18. v said,

    December 4, 2020 @ 10:57 am

    Aspirated consonants — that could be a Northwest Caucasian (Circassian, probably) leftover from the Ottoman–Russian population exchanges.

  19. V said,

    December 4, 2020 @ 11:15 am

    I'm sorry for posting twice; I think it was between the Napoleonic wars and the revolutions of 1848: The Ottoman Empire and the Russian empire exchanged populations; Christians from Bulgaria were settled in what is now Ukraine, and Circassians were settled in northeast Bulgaria.

  20. Robert Coren said,

    December 4, 2020 @ 11:23 am

    @.mau.: Going back even further, I find in da Ponte's librettos for Mozart's operas (so, late 18th century) both che cos'è? and cos'è? alone as well as cosa? alone. I assume cosa when used as a noun in the course of a sentence to be equivalent to the French chose "thing", making che cos'è? more or less "What thing is this?"

  21. Oğuz said,

    December 4, 2020 @ 2:45 pm

    "Ne?!" in Turkish is just as common, and directly tranlates to "What?!".

  22. Noel Hunt said,

    December 4, 2020 @ 3:53 pm

    The Japanese expression なんだと (nanda to) would appear to be closer to the English expression; of course a plain なに (nani) is used similarly, but the quoted expression is perhaps more forceful. Clearly some material is elided in saying 'What!?' and the elision is made obvious in Japanese by と 'to', roughly 'thus', but to be understood as 'that', as in 'said that'. '[He/She/You/They said] what!?'.

  23. .mau. said,

    December 4, 2020 @ 5:10 pm

    @Robert Coren: yes, the origin is the sentence "che cosa è?" which would translate literally as "what thing is (it)?", but is the equivalent of "what's this?"

  24. Michael Watts said,

    December 6, 2020 @ 1:27 am

    if you Google "cooosa", you will get (in addition to a series of "Did you mean…?" suggestions) various images of surprised faces saying "COOOSA?!" and the like. Comparable results in German if you Google "waaas". Presumably you could test this in the same way for any language with a significant internet presence.

    I dispute that last sentence. You've directly addressed a longstanding question of mine about Chinese: can vowels be lengthened in this emphatic way, and, if so, how is this represented in writing?

    It is common to see 啊 "a" lengthened to 啊啊啊啊啊啊 "ahhhhhhhh" (or however many). This is easy, because the sound of the character consists solely of the vowel. But an exclamative "what?", even if lengthened in speech, cannot be written using the same trick, because the relevant characters include consonant sounds. (Compare 哈哈哈哈哈哈, which is definitely "hahahahahaha" and not "haaaaaaaaah!")

    For an open syllable, it would be possible to extend it with a different character representing only the vowel: 啥啊啊啊?妈啊啊啊疍!But I believe that this isn't done. For a closed syllable, you'd have to mangle the written form even more badly.

  25. Bob Ladd said,

    December 6, 2020 @ 5:34 am

    Michael Watts: OK, I amend that sentence to: "Presumably you could test this in the same way for any language with an alphabetic writing system and a significant internet presence."

  26. Michael Watts said,

    December 6, 2020 @ 10:56 am

    Bob Ladd, is it true that all languages with an alphabetic writing system feature emphatic vowel lengthening? Do languages without an alphabetic writing system also have it?

  27. Bob Ladd said,

    December 6, 2020 @ 12:41 pm

    Michael Watts –
    I have no idea. My original comment was simply that the word for "what" can be stretched expressively this way in Italian and German, and that anyone who was curious could have a look online to see if the same was true in other languages.

  28. Richard Dunham said,

    December 8, 2020 @ 10:34 am

    I think the closest analogue in Japanese to the usage in the Bojack Horseman clip is へー, which sounds like the English "hey" and can be elongated indefinitely. It is an expression of surprise reaction to someone else's statement.
    It was also the first joke someone taught me when I came to Japan. Since it is a homonym of 塀 (へい), fence, this exchange becomes rather punny:
    "The neighbor just put up a fence."
    "Really?" (Or "A fence?")

  29. Michael Watts said,

    December 17, 2020 @ 5:00 am

    A data point for the vowel lengthening discussion – Russians are happy to spell a lengthened "Nooooooo!" as "HEEEEEEET!", where E is of course the vowel "ye", the iotified version of Э.

    I suspect, though I have no evidence of this, that the intended reading is "nyeeeeeeet" and not "nyeyeyeyeyeyet".

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