What's the quick gasping noise that Danes make while conversing?
December 29, 2006 4:33 AM   Subscribe

When talking, Danes sometimes make a quick gasping noise that's very distinctive but difficult to describe. Can anyone explain this odd habit? Does it have a name? (More details inside.)

Danes do this when speaking English also; it doesn't seem to be limited to Danish-language conversation.

If you have a DVD of the Danish film "Italian for Beginners," there's a perfect example 12 minutes 20 seconds in. The woman makes the noise right after saying "Jørgen Mortensen."

As far as I can tell it seems sometimes to serve as a verbal nod of sorts, the equivalent of an American saying "yeah" occasionally to let you know that he's paying attention to what you're saying. Other times it seems to serve as a kind of verbal punctuation, emphasizing what the gasper has just said.

Please comment if you know anything at all about this.
posted by Ø to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
do you perhaps have anything on youtube that could illustrate your point? I lived near the border between denmark and germany for close to twenty years and I can somewhat get by in dansk but I fear I am not getting what you are talking about just yet...
posted by krautland at 4:41 AM on December 29, 2006

The Swedes do this too. It seems to be exactly as you suggest: either a "yeah" or a "uh huh", depending on context. My wife, who is Swedish, does this when she's speaking to other Swedes: it sounds like a softer version of the gasp you get putting a cold key down the back of someone's shirt.
posted by DangerIsMyMiddleName at 4:48 AM on December 29, 2006

In Sweden, it's only common in the north (so I'm a bit surprised to hear that Danes do it).
posted by martinrebas at 4:54 AM on December 29, 2006

I've searched the web and found it referred to as a "schvuu" sound, but I'm not sure if it has any real name. Apparently, it started as a way of saying "jo" (meaning yes) while inhaling.

(I've only searched pages about dialects in northern Sweden; I'm not sure if it's used differently in Denmark).
posted by martinrebas at 5:14 AM on December 29, 2006

Is this what you're talking about?
posted by bricoleur at 5:32 AM on December 29, 2006

krautland: I'm searching Danish television podcasts for an example, but am not having much luck. This reminds me that I don't think I've ever heard it in formal speech (e.g., a newscast); maybe it's limited to informal conversation?

DangerIsMyMiddleName: Thanks for the data point; I wasn't aware that Swedes do this also.

martinrebas: Great detective work! I'm intrigued by your mention that it's only used in the north. Does it have any class associations in Sweden?

Also, another bit of information: Women seem to make the sound more than men, at least in Denmark.
posted by Ø at 5:37 AM on December 29, 2006

bricoleur: yes, that's exactly what I've been trying to describe!
posted by Ø at 5:42 AM on December 29, 2006

It's a pulmonic ingressive "yeah" ... I've encountered it in Ireland too.
posted by kmel at 6:16 AM on December 29, 2006

The phenomenon you're talking about is called back-channeling in linguistics. Most languages have some sort of back-channeling — that is, some way to let the speaker know that you're listening without actually interrupting to say so — but inhaling isn't always part of it. It's usually plain old exhaled "mm-hm" in English, f'rinstance.

(Now, while "mm-hm" seems a lot more ordinary than your Scandinavian gasping noise, they do have something in common: neither one can be mistaken for an interruption. The Scandinavian gasp isn't a legitimate way to start a word in any Scandinavian language, and "mm-hmm" isn't a legitimate way to start a word in English. So with either sound, if you hear it, you know your listener isn't starting a sentence of her own. She's just agreeing with you, and you can keep talking without worrying that you're holding the floor too aggressively.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:44 AM on December 29, 2006

Same phenomenon exists in French, with an ingressive "ouais" (yeah); used particularly when you're listening to someone else tell a long and engrossing story of some sort.
posted by agent99 at 6:54 AM on December 29, 2006

Yes! My mom does it. It's like saying "yup" while inhaling.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:01 AM on December 29, 2006

Norwegians do it too. I've lived both in Denmark and in Norway, it's exactly as you describe - verbal punctuation or agreement. Generally used to show that they're following the thread of the conversation.
posted by arcticseal at 7:15 AM on December 29, 2006

Icelanders do ingressive too.
posted by Utilitaritron at 7:26 AM on December 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

How strange! I've heard Mainers do it. Never knew it had a name until I read the wiki.
posted by SteveInMaine at 7:30 AM on December 29, 2006

Heard it done in dutch, too, but not as generally as the scandinavians seem to do it.
posted by Skyanth at 7:37 AM on December 29, 2006

I hear it in Germany sometimes as well. I'm in the Hamburg region which is not too far from Denmark. Hmmm.
posted by chillmost at 7:54 AM on December 29, 2006

It seems to be fairy language independant, you just need to talk while inhaling. I've heard it in France, and in Canada.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:33 AM on December 29, 2006

I do this in English, usually while intoxicated and listening to an engrossing story. Of course I can also whistle while transitioning from exhale to inhale and back again (which may be incredibly common, but hey, so was making the inhaled sound we're discussing, I thought).
posted by empyrean at 8:34 AM on December 29, 2006

My ex-wife is native of Denmark, came to the 'States at 21 years old, so she speaks both Danish and English fluently. She's lived in the U.S. for just over 10 years now, so she's picked up on a lot of the subtleties of the American language (and culture) by now.

When she's speaking Danish, she does the "back-channeling" thing, but when speaking English, she says "mm hmm", "yep", and "uh huh" like any American. Her Danish relatives, conversely, all use the back-channeling thing for both Danish and English -- but they all live in Denmark, so they haven't picked up that it's not an American expression at all. So it's a subtle language thing, IMO.

FWIW, Ø, you show that you have a good grasp of this in your [more inside] section. Not sure what your question is, really, unless you just wanted a confirmation of your own take on it. I think you've got it nailed. (And I didn't know it had a name, either!)
posted by LordSludge at 9:21 AM on December 29, 2006

The thread isn't useless without sound files because we know *exactly* what's going on.

I pick up sympathetic accents when I travel (annoying, I know) and during my time in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, I picked this up quite readily.
posted by crickets at 9:39 AM on December 29, 2006

I wish I could upload the audio, but I can't. I had a woman who did this for two hours on some audio I had. I thought she had a speech impediment, but it did kind of sound like a strange "yup, yup" breathed in. Now I know. Thanks.
posted by Listener at 10:51 AM on December 29, 2006

I know exactly what you mean, because when I was in Germany my host parents did the exact same thing. It really sounds exactly like a gasp, it doesn't really seem like part of the language to me.

Sorry though, I never did figure out why they were so shocked all the time.
posted by !Jim at 1:52 PM on December 29, 2006

I'm a midcoast Mainer and some of my family members do this. My central Maine friends do it also.

The Wikipedia entry linked to above states that this is usually transcribed as "ayup." But that is not correct. The "ayup" sound is more like a rising inflection "ya" with a glottal stop and then a small exhale.
posted by initapplette at 3:01 PM on December 29, 2006

Yeah my norwegian stepfather does this. It's kind of like a hiccup right? I think it's said at the end of a statement to signify some kind of definition like "what I just said is undeniable". Like "don't try and argue me on this point because I just did the hiccup and I know I'm right". I don't know. This probably doesn't help at all.
posted by greta simone at 8:17 AM on December 30, 2006

Thanks for all of your answers!
posted by Ø at 8:51 PM on January 1, 2007

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