Can an Inhaled Word Mean Something?

letters, man, blond, speaking

A surprising number of languages say yes—sometimes

If there’s one thing you thought you knew about talking, it’s that speech is produced by pushing air out of the lungs, not by breathing in. But is that always true? This video shows a particular sound that means “yes” in Swedish, and it’s produced while inhaling:

But it turns out that the Swedish inhaled “yes” sound is just the beginning—inhaled, or ingressive sounds exist in quite a lot of languages. And curiously, ingressives are especially often used for words meaning yes or yeah.

Ingressive pronunciation of a few words, especially yes and sometimes also no or longer phrases, is found in many of the Germanic languages: Swedish, like in the video, but also Norwegian, Danish, Faroese, Icelandic, and some Northern German dialects. The same thing happens in neighboring Finland, Lithuania, Estonia; among northern dialects in France, Austria, Switzerland; and even into Greenland.

What about outside northern Europe? Research by the linguist Robert Eklund shows that ingressives, often yes, occasionally other short words or sounds, occur in a wide variety of languages, from every single continent. (Well, not counting Antarctica, unless penguins suddenly start learning how to purr—that’s right, purring also involves ingression.)

A few examples from Eklund of languages with various forms of ingressives include Tohono O’odham, spoken in Arizona; the Spanish of Mexico, Colombia, Chile, and Argentina; Chichewa (in Malawi) and Afrikaans (South Africa); Kuot (Papua New Guinea), South Efate (Vanuatu), and Warlpiri, Youlŋu and Anangu (all Australia); and an ingressive “hiss” in Japanese. In a few of them, like Tohono O’odham and Argentine Spanish, speakers may even say entire phrases ingressively. (You can hear some examples of ingressive speech and see a map of reported locations, here on Eklund’s website.)

What about English? Well, it’s not completely mainstream, but a handful of English dialects do in fact have an ingressive yeah: it’s found in New Zealand, Ireland, the Scottish Highlands, Atlantic Canada, and in Massachusetts and Maine (where locals often spell it ayup). And there are a few ingressive sounds that are found across English dialects: an inwards hiss used to express pain and sympathy, an inwards “huh” sound used to express surprise, and of course inhaled numbers when you’re counting and don’t want to lose your place. More curiously, perhaps, Elkund notes that the founder of the Quaker movement, George Fox, “used ingressive speech to sound inspired, and that this was something that he taught his disciples.”

But what all these examples have in common is that the ingression is used paralinguistically—to say something that would have the same meaning if you said it while breathing out normally. So are there any languages where ingressives are used linguistically, where exhaled ya and inhaled ya, for example, might have a different meaning?

It would be cool, but we haven’t found any yet. Although occasionally linguists hear of a language that might have a distinctive ingressive sound or two, so far the accounts never seem to check out. The closest we come to inhaled sounds that actually affect the meaning of a word are click sounds, which are found in Xhosa, Zulu, and many other languages of southern Africa, but clicks are really not the same as proper ingressives.

So don’t worry—you can try out some ingressive speech for yourself and your words will mean exactly the same thing, no matter what the language. And perhaps you’ll even sound inspired.

Gretchen McCulloch is a linguist who writes popular linguistics, especially about internet language, for publications including The Toast and Mental Floss. She blogs daily at All Things Linguistic.

Previous Why Is It Called Soccer? Next The Origin Of Dog Days