Hummed "I don't know"

« previous post | next post »

Following up on yesterday's "Dinosaur Intonation" post, here's Ryan North performing four repetitions of the contour featured in his comic:

His comment: "I fear I may have over estimated how universal it is but it's common here in Southern Ontario and I've never encountered anyone in my travels who didn't recognize it, or at least who couldn't figure it out from context and then asked me about it. I'm really curious to see the results of this survey!"

A closer look, starting with the first rendition — first the audio, then a plot of fundamental frequency against time, with turning-points noted in Hz (= cycles per second):

This confirms my hypothesis that contour should have a final rise, which was left out of the description in panel 3 of the comic:

Ah yes, the "i dunno" hum: mid-range for "i", a note higher for "don't" and lowering a half step for "know".

As usual in speech, the pitch glides from one target to another in a way that makes the application of musical intervals questionable (see e.g. "Poem in the key of what", 10/9/2006;"More on pitch and time intervals in speech", 10/15/2006; "Puzzle of the day: The constitution in B flat?", 10/30/2007; etc.), but here are those f0 targets expressed in semitones (relative to the first value):

Point 1 Point 2 Point3 Point 4 (Duration)
89 Hz 232 Hz 128 Hz 183 Hz 436 msec
0 st 16.6 st 6.3 st 12.5 st

Ryan's three other performances:

And the durations and f0 target values for all four:

Version Point 1 Point 2 Point3 Point 4 (Duration)
Hum 1 89 Hz 232 Hz 128 Hz 183 Hz 536 msec
Hum 1 0 st 16.6 st 6.3 st 12.5 st
Hum 2 84 Hz 151 Hz 103 Hz 131 Hz 585 msec
Hum 2 0 st 10.2 st 3.5 st 7.7 st
Hum 3 86 Hz 174 Hz 95 Hz 139 Hz 482 msec
Hum 3 0 st 12.2 st 1.7 st 8.3 st
Hum 4 90 Hz 225 Hz 149 Hz 195 Hz 558 msec
Hum 4 0 st 15.9 st 8.7 st 13.4 st

This illustrates the obvious fact that the pitch intervals involved are variable — or rather, the invariances involved are not constant ratios of f0, as they are in music. (And there's more to say, some other time, about what the intonational invariances actually are…)

Future installments will survey others' versions of the hummed (and/or spoken) versions of "I dunno", an analysis of the alignment of the pitch contours with the words, and and finally the question of what (and how) the various prosodic choices "mean". So please continue to send me your performances, in varieties of English or in other languages.


  1. Laura Morland said,

    August 29, 2021 @ 8:32 am

    Thanks for confirming my initial reaction that the T-Rex was a bit off in his description of the "i dunno hum."

    I'm wondering whether other languages have something similar. French does not, as far as I know. The equivalent non-verbal expression in France would the famous "Gallic shrug," together with a "pulled face." See #2 in the video here:–Twylt6ls?t=38

  2. Victor Mair said,

    August 29, 2021 @ 9:21 am

    "OMG moments induced by allegro forms in Pekingese" (1/26/12)

    "Bur'ao" = Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) bù zhīdào 不知道 ("[I] don't know")

    "On swallowing and slurring in Pekingese" (5/3/19). And there are dozens of other Language Log posts about swallowing and slurring words in Mandarin.

    Going the other direction, why someone with severe tinnitus, like me, is largely reduced to relying on pitch contours to interpret the speech of others.

  3. Jamie said,

    August 29, 2021 @ 9:40 am

    Just came across a video where the speaker hums "you know" (or maybe "and so on") and appears to follow the intonation from the comic (i.e. without the final rise)

  4. Michael Watts said,

    August 29, 2021 @ 1:36 pm

    I think of the final rise as just being a rebound from the "know" note. Much like how Mandarin tone 3 is formally "dipping", but — in my opinion — better just thought of as "low", with a rebound where that's possible and not where it isn't.

  5. JPL said,

    August 29, 2021 @ 6:15 pm

    Wow! That was unexpected! That's not the "melody" I heard the three year old use, and I can't say I'm familiar with this one. The main difference to me is in the rhythm: In the one I heard (which had words, not humming), there were (if you'll excuse me for the moment) four "notes" of roughly equal duration, kind of like two beats with four eighth notes ("know" getting two of them); in this one it's like there are three notes, the first being maybe a dotted quarter note, the second an eighth note on the upbeat, and the third on the downbeat maybe a quarter note with an upward "smear" on the end. In my ad hoc inverse Pikean notation I would describe it as "1-4-2-3", so the first "note" lower than in my example. (I'm only using the analogy of musical notes to describe how I hear the (to me) striking difference in rhythm, not claiming anything further about music and intonation or how "notes" relate to acoustic facts; clearly the amplitude of the pitch intervals is a relative matter, not absolute.)

    [(myl) There's clearly more than one option — several qualitatively different patterns, as well as quantitative variation as exemplied in Ryan's four performances. So send me your best imitation of the 3-year-old's version! ]

  6. Gunnar H said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 2:38 am

    Ryan's first version is almost exactly what I hummed when I read the intro.

    When I first moved to the US (from Norway via the UK), I was thrown by how people I spoke with misinterpreted my hums and grunts. In particular, a "uh-huh?" (actually more "m-hm?") that I used for "yes? please go on" was apparently understood as "what? please repeat." I don't remember having similar difficulty in England.

  7. Daniel J. said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 2:58 am

    As a teenager growing up in the noughties in Australia, we employed that hum a bit. Not sure where it came from.

  8. John Swindle said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 5:00 am

    I recognized Ryan North's second version immediately, but I don't immediately see how to apply it to the operatic challenge posed in the Dinosaur Comic in the preceding post. Oh, I'd have the character hum or even sing the theme in all its muddy complexity, to be echoed immediately in the orchestra (perhaps several times in succession) with something recognizably similar but modified to bring it closer to some musical scale. But what musical intervals would be recognizably similar? The ones mentioned here and in the comic don't quite convince me.

  9. WGJ said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 7:00 am

    Might the "Where are you" whistle be more widely used and/or recognized than the "I don't know" hum?

    And that whistle isn't limited to English either. For instance, thee German version "Wo bist du" has pretty much the exact same melody.

  10. WGJ said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 7:04 am

    And this was in the news just a few days ago:

    More Than 80 Cultures Still Speak in Whistles

  11. Mark P said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 8:04 am

    I have wondered about this type of communication and how many expressions can be communicated in the same way. “Yes” and “no” are obvious, but I think there are others. For example, there is a one-note expression that might be translated as “well … “ with the implication of doubt about something. Another that I use on my dog is a more emphatic “No!”
    I’m sure there are others.

  12. David Marjanović said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 9:55 am

    And that whistle isn't limited to English either. For instance, thee German version "Wo bist du" has pretty much the exact same melody.

    Native speaker of German here. I know what tune you mean: wo bist du is indeed sung in that tune to carry it across a greater distance – but so is any other phrase with three syllables. The tune alone cannot be made to carry the entire meaning.

  13. Jim said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 11:35 am

    This is also sometimes written "iunno" (or a partially-spoken version halfway between "I don't know" and the hummed version).

  14. Morten Jonsson said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 7:04 pm

    I'm thinking too much about what tune I use, so I don't know if I could do it naturally. But I just asked my six-year-old a question, and he answered with a hummed "I don't know." Two notes, the second about a whole tone lower than the first, with a little upward tail on the second.

  15. John Swindle said,

    August 31, 2021 @ 3:40 am

    Are there many different intelligible, hummed sequences for "I don't know," or are we hearing and reporting the same two or three sequences differently?

  16. Bryan Cole said,

    August 31, 2021 @ 5:57 am

    Here’s an example from the “Fruit Bat” episode of the kids’ show Bluey (produced in Queensland, Australia). (If the link doesn’t work right, it shows up at 2:07.)

    Bluey is on Disney+ and available in a bunch of languages; if anyone has some time on their hands and a subscription, they could go through and compare how the different languages “translate” that sound.

  17. Zeborah said,

    September 1, 2021 @ 4:58 am

    As another datapoint, Ryan's recording is exactly what I'm familiar with, and have almost certainly used myself, in New Zealand.

  18. Charles said,

    September 2, 2021 @ 1:04 pm

    I just wanted to mention SolReSol – the first every constructed language which uses solfedge as it's phonemes. That is: do re mi fa sol la si do. It can be written, spoken, sung or expressed as numbers.

    If one learns this language, everything can be sung. Or spoken. r expressed in counterpoint where one sings one thing but says another!

  19. Victor Mair said,

    September 4, 2021 @ 6:31 pm

    I should have mentioned this early on in the comments:

    "A Chinese analog to English 'you know'" (11/22/19)

  20. Nathan said,

    September 8, 2021 @ 10:36 pm

    I tried to listen to myself humming "I don't know" and it seems like only three points to me rather than four. Where I think the comic got it wrong was in saying that the third note is a half-step down from the second. In my case it's about a whole step, and nearly all of the examples in the tables above are even more.

RSS feed for comments on this post