"I don't think it exactly qualifies as language"

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From 9 Chickweed Lane (4/28/23):


Question from François Lang, who sent this in:   "Don't agonized screams have semantic or pragmatic content?"

Selected readings


  1. Felix Bernoully said,

    May 5, 2023 @ 1:06 am

    They do, but it's complicated…

  2. JPL said,

    May 5, 2023 @ 1:21 am

    They both have an indexical relation to a significance. The difference is that linguistic forms have an indexical relation to the semantic categories of the language system being used; the scream has an indexical relation to the pain being experienced by the screamer, essentially a relation of physical (biological) causation, which is interpreted as such by a hearer (i.e., that it indicates that the screamer is in pain, i.e., has been caused to scream by the pain). So, not language.

  3. Jerry Packard said,

    May 5, 2023 @ 4:17 am


  4. Andrew Taylor said,

    May 5, 2023 @ 6:09 am

    In my experience, the usual UK term is "her waters broke". Is the singular version the normal US usage?

  5. John Maline said,

    May 5, 2023 @ 7:22 am

    … one by one the corpses revived and began to speak in a guttural language which contained a much higher proportion of screams than any language known to the onlookers.
    Even Wellington looked a little pale.
    Only Strange continued apparently without emotion.
    “Dear God!” cried Fitzroy Somerset, “What language is that?”
    “I believe it is one of the dialects of Hell,” said Strange.

    Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

    One of my favorite quotes from that book.

  6. Ross Presser said,

    May 5, 2023 @ 8:27 am

    @Andrew Taylor: yes, in the US version "her water broke" is much more common; in fact I've never heard "her waters broke".

    Here's an ngram comparison for roughly the last century. ngram won't let us break it down by country but it's still informative that the singular has been much more common in books.


  7. Cervantes said,

    May 5, 2023 @ 9:02 am

    I don't think this is at all mysterious. Interjections are, by definition, utterances that don't participate in syntax — they have stand alone meaning, like the cries of birds or chimpanzees. This is a commonplace.

  8. David L said,

    May 5, 2023 @ 11:25 am

    @John Maline: Very guttural languages all of them, the dialects of Hell (apologies to Miles O'Brien).

  9. David L said,

    May 5, 2023 @ 11:26 am

    Double apologies — I mean Flann O'Brien, of course

  10. Michael said,

    May 5, 2023 @ 1:57 pm

    It's not directly relevant, but I've wondered about the cultural specificity of non-verbal utterances in terms of the sneeze. French and German sneezes (which tend to sound like "ahh-chiss") are distinctly different from American ("AHH-CHOOOO!!!"). I presume children in some cultures are taught from an early age to suppress their sneezes and in others to just let them out. Possibly screaming is similarly learned? Not necessarily language or syntax, but what would you call that?
    Quite apart from that, it seems to me that many agonized screams may include some amount of swearing, which I rather thought was implied in this comic.

  11. Cervantes said,

    May 5, 2023 @ 2:50 pm

    Sneezing is not an utterance or a speech act, lexical or otherwise. It's a physical reflex that happens to make a sound, but it has no semantic meaning. However, it is true that the onomatopoeic rendering of various natural sounds such as animal noises, thunder etc. varies among languages. All that seems an entirely different subject, however.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    May 5, 2023 @ 6:02 pm

    Many swear words have meaning, yet they are often uttered unconsciously as expletives and even as screams, e.g., "f*ck", "GD", "damn", and "shit", about which I shall have much to say in a soon forthcoming post.

    Ditto for exclamations of pain (e.g., "ow", "owch", etc.).

    Cf. "The sound of swearing" (12/7/22) and many other posts on slang, cursing, interjections, and so forth.


  13. David Scott Deden said,

    May 5, 2023 @ 10:54 pm

    I've rarely heard 'waters broke', 'water broke' is common in US midwest. I found this article very interesting: https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/exposure-to-chemical-from-babies-linked-to-aggression-69452 I am curious how it might relate to the Grandmother Hypothesis (post-menopausal infant caretaking) and alloparenting (extramaternal infant caretaking) in human but not in arboreal apes.

  14. maidhc said,

    May 6, 2023 @ 3:45 am

    Years ago I had a girlfriend, who, for the purposes of cultural documentation, grew up in upstate New York.

    Whenever she sneezed, she grabbed hold of her nose, so there was very little sound. I was brought up to sneeze freely, so I always thought that her sinuses were going to explode when she did that. It seemed to me that you could do yourself permanent damage that way.

    When I sneezed, unrestrained, she used to make comments like "That could solve the energy shortage!" or whatever.

    There could probably be a research study looking into this issue. (Tissue?)

  15. Victor Mair said,

    May 6, 2023 @ 4:02 am


    I always felt that, if you stifle your sneezes, you would damage your inner ears and eardrums.

    When I am by myself (e.g., at home alone, driving in my car, walking in the woods, etc.), I give full, horrendous force to my sneezes, and I find it to be supremely satisfying.

  16. Philip Anderson said,

    May 6, 2023 @ 6:51 am

    It’s always “waters” in the UK and Ireland , and I think Australia too. Wiktionary says both singular and plural are used in North America:
    I suspect the rarity of the plural, except in certain phrases (territorial waters, taking the waters), led to the change.

  17. Jonathan Smith said,

    May 6, 2023 @ 12:24 pm

    Google Books shows 19th century occurrences of both "water" and "waters" without a clear US/UK divide. so the trend is rather towards different conventionalizations over time.

    These early uses also occasionally use quotes around "broke" or "water(s) broke" an interesting indication of the novelty of the phrase (in some contexts) at the time

  18. Josh R. said,

    May 7, 2023 @ 7:48 pm

    Re: sneezing. In theory, sneezing should be as Cervantes says, "a physical reflex that happens to make a sound, but it has no semantic meaning." In practice, however, I think the culturally distinct onomatopoeia, have an affect on how our mouths instinctively process the sneeze.

    By way of example, a sneeze in English is typically "ah-choo." In Japanese, it is "hekushon." My wife and I sneeze 85% the same, but the remainder makes all the difference, as I tend to create an "oo" sound of various vocalization (depending on the strength of the sneeze), while my wife will often end a sneeze by directing the airflow through her nose. The initial intake of breath is more akin to an open back vowel with me, and a closed front vowel with her.

    I might not have thought anything of it, but then I realized that my six-year old bilingual daughter *code switches* her sneezes. If she sneezes while talking to my wife, it will be more akin to the Japanese sound. If while talking to me, it follows more the English sound.

    More directly on the original topic, this kind of code switching also occurs with utterances of pain. What's more is that it appears to be subconscious, and related to what linguistic "mode" my daughter is in. For example, when my wife brushes her hair, and hits a tangle, my daughter's reaction is "Itai!" the Japanese interjection. If I'm brushing her hair, it's "Ouch!" My first thought was that this was a conscious choice on her part, in order to clearly communicate to the each respective parent that their hair brushing hurt. But then one day I was talking to my daughter in English while my wife brushed her hair. And when my wife hit a tangle, it produced a rapid fire, "Ouch, ouch ouch!" It was only after this initial outburst that she said, "Itai! (That hurts!)" to my wife.

  19. Taylor, Philip said,

    May 8, 2023 @ 10:33 am

    I frequently sneeze, typically up to half-a-dozen times in succession (non-seasonal hay fever, not repeated colds !). I sneezed in the car today, covering my mouth with my hand so as not to spray the inside of the windscreen, and would transcribe the sound as /ptʃ/; later I sneezed in a supermarket, covering my mouth with a handkerchief, and the sound mutated into something along the lines of a simpler /tʃ/. If I were in the open air and had no need to cover my mouth, it would probably be more along the lines of the traditional /æ.ˈtʃuː/

  20. Daniel Barkalow said,

    May 8, 2023 @ 4:42 pm

    I believe the response lacks what Saussure called "arbitrariness of sign": a particular utterance in language has a particular meaning by convention, not because of its inherent properties. Unlike some other things that people sometimes shout, you can be sure that sound isn't also the name of a little town in Austria or a castle where the holy grail was rumored to be.

  21. Sybil Shaver said,

    May 8, 2023 @ 6:06 pm

    Sorry to leave a comment not related to the post, but the situation is weird. Apparently I’m shadow-banned from posting my grammar question on Twitter, for what reason I do not know. I even tried to @ Language Log.

    My question is about the (seeming) Online prevalence of the reversal of the meanings of « worse » and « worst », to the extent that « worst than » returns thousands of hits.

    please someone respond to this comment

  22. Chas Belov said,

    May 16, 2023 @ 2:02 am

    @Josh R: Absolutely wild (and way cool) about your daughter's code-switching sneezes.

    When I let go a sneeze I pretty much do pronounce "ah-choo" in the process, loudly.

  23. ajay said,

    May 23, 2023 @ 6:02 am

    The TV show Community had an episode in which one male character is mocked for having an unusually feminine sneeze (a sort of quiet high-pitched exclamation, something like "eef!") and another older male character takes it upon himself to help mentor and develop him towards a more masculine sneeze (a full-throated loud "hoooweuraakkhhfblfblfbl" if memory serves).

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