A question on "I dunno"
August 8, 2017 7:59 PM   Subscribe

I am a frequent user of the "I dunno" sound, where you slur together the three syllables until it is one elongated vowel going from low tone to high tone to rising tone - like Homer Simpson, but not quite - I'm talking about when the utterance is characterized entirely by the rising and falling tones, and the mouth doesn't articulate at all. The vowel can be nasal (mm-MM-mM) or not (uu-UU-uH). Is the meaning of this utterance immediately apparent to non-anglophones hearing it for the first time? Are there equivalents in other languages, where the entire phrase gets reduced to a single aspect of variation, not just truncating/shortening the words?
posted by btfreek to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Hmm. Fantastic question. Have to admit, though, I had to listen to the clip to see what the actual sounds were you were talking about. I'm not good at putting random sounds into letters, but here in the northwest US, what I'd say/hear is closer to mm-ih-oh or mm-ih-mm, if it even has identifiable syllables to it... but it definitely has that low-high-low pattern to it. (In short, Homer's version sounds funny to me, even though I understand it.)

(In comparison, there's the uh-UHHH one, or mm-MMMMM, with a shorter, quieter sound followed by a longer, louder, more emphasized one.) Does this sort of thing have a name?
posted by stormyteal at 8:25 PM on August 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Japanese has something sort of similar with the affirmative 'hai' which gets shortened to an "uhn", like "mm" for yes in English.
posted by ananci at 8:35 PM on August 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I tried to record the sounds I'm talking about here (autoplaying audio - the first one is uu-UU-uH, the second is mm-MM-mM, it unfortunately sounds like I recorded it inside a bathtub)
posted by btfreek at 8:39 PM on August 8, 2017

French has a version of "oui" that's essentially an inhale.
posted by JimN2TAW at 9:04 PM on August 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Shave and a haircut, two bits. Don't play that on your car horn in Mexico.
posted by bricoleur at 9:19 PM on August 8, 2017

I do some work internationally, and my contacts (speaking English, French, German, Spanish, or Italian as their primary language) have pretty much all done this in some form to express either confusion or agreement, in a way that is different from the American uu-UU-uH, but is somehow completely understood by both of us. I can't figure out how to replicate the sound without talking to that person again as I'm doing it, but I distinctly remember noticing it at the time the first time it happened and thinking about how universal it seemed. Granted, my experience doesn't deal with languages that already rely on rising and falling tones to manage general communication so perhaps it's not universal but at least among Romance/Germanic languages it seems common.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 9:21 PM on August 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

bricoleur: "Shave and a haircut, two bits. Don't play that on your car horn in Mexico."

For anybody else who was confused, this Straight Dope forum thread goes into more detail.
posted by Rhaomi at 10:29 PM on August 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

The deja vu was almost unbearable for me. Took a while digging around, but I found someone asked a very similar question almost 2 years ago, almost to the day!

What do you call this? mm MM mmmm. Anything else like it? MM mm mmmm.
posted by oxisos at 10:44 PM on August 8, 2017 [7 favorites]

Not sure if this exactly answers your question as stated, but check out internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch's tweet thread (with lots of references and slides) about verbal gestures
posted by librarina at 1:34 AM on August 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Whistled language and talking drums are extreme examples of this: in languages where pitch and rhythm carry a lot of information, you can distinguish quite a few fixed phrases by melody alone — enough to have simple conversations or send messages.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:59 AM on August 9, 2017

Tumblr has you covered - these are vocables, a form of non-lexical utterance, and every language has some. (emphasis added.)
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:44 AM on August 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

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