Glottal stop: [ʔ-h] and [ʔ-ʔ] to express "yes"/"no"

Discussion in 'All Languages' started by Sidjanga, Mar 17, 2009.

  1. Sidjanga Senior Member

    German;southern tendencies

    When answering to a thread in another sub-forum here, this way of expressing "yes" and "no" came to my mind as a possible example, as it is very normal for me and my linguistic environment.

    But then I realised that I had actually never paid any attention to how regional or international this habit may be, if speakers of other languages or people in other countries also make use of these rather informal, non-verbal ways* of expressing basically the same as "yes/yeah" or "no", respectively, which consist of nothing but two glottal stops for "no", and a glottal stop followed by /h/ for "yes".

    [ʔ-h], rising intonation - "yeah"; or interspersed in the conversation in order to convey "I am listening and following you"
    [ʔ-ʔ], falling intonation - "no"

    (in between there's just some undefinable shwa-sound)

    Those utterings may be made with your lips open or closed, and are usually used when you do not really want to "say" something, e.g. when you are reading or are otherwise busy and actually do not want to be interrupted (if it is not, in the case of [ʔ-h]/yeah, used to signal that you are listening and following your interlocutor).

    Where else do you also use those utterings with the meanings mentioned?

    Where do you not use them, or would not understand them to have those meanings?

    * depending on how you choose to define a word
    Last edited: Mar 17, 2009
  2. Flaminius

    Flaminius coclea mod

    capita Iaponiae
    日本語 / japāniski / יפנית
    Hello Sigianga,

    We have discussed casual "Yes" and "No" in the Japanese forum a while ago. I am still not sure what the best IPA representations are but the casual "Yes" and "No" are uttered with a smoother falling intonation than the English [ʔ-ʔ]. The major difference between the two is the length of the vowel in-between, with a longer vowel for "No."

    It's slightly on a tangent but I am wondering how to represent [ʔ-ʔ] and [ʔ-h] if they are uttered with the mouth closed. Are we to mark those consonants as nasalised? :confused:
  3. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    Even though my mother tongue is German, as is yours, in my environment (= Austrian German) both those mean rather "no".
    (And both are pronounced with a very short "a" in the middle. Due to syllable structure, and the fact that else Austrian colloquial speech and dialects don't make use of the glottal stop, this indeed could be considered a word standing "outside" the linguistic domain as local phonetics and phonology do not apply to it.)

    [ʔah] and [ʔaʔ] with falling intonation mean a very harsh "no": "definitely/certainly not", or also "big surprise": "you don't say so!".

    [ʔah] with rising intonation expresses strong disagreement (but counts as a question, thus there's room for doubt), and it can also mean "big surprise" as with falling intonation; but with rising intonation the final consonant always is [h], and never [h].

    Or at least that's how I understand them. But probably you mean with the "yes"-meaning what I describe as "you don't say so!" - or similar.

    (And I only know those from German - I haven't encountered them in another language so far.)

    Oh - and an afterthought: there are also utterances commonly used which indeed mean just "yes" and "no" in Austrian German, these are pronounced with an indefinite vowel (shwa) in the middle which else don't exists in Austrian speech:

    [ʔəʔə] = no (= also [[ʔmʔm])
    [ʔəhə] = yes (= also [ʔmhm])

    The versions with "m" do not contain a vowel - "m" is syllable peak there.
    Last edited: Mar 18, 2009
  4. akaAJ Senior Member

    New York
    American English, Yiddish
    I hadn't thought about it in terms of glottal stops, but in American English "uh uh", accent on the first uh, means "no", and "uh huh", accent on huh, means yes. The vowel is as in English "up", not really a shwa. Neither has a rising inflection. For "uh uh" the first, accented uh is probably a full tone higher than the second uh.

    Also afterthought. "mm hmm" (trace of shwa in h-mm) is a vague yes or simple sign "yes I heard you, continue"
    Last edited: Mar 18, 2009
  5. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    Right you are - I haven't thought of that in my post above, but of course I know those from English, and to my knowledge they are equal to the last two utterances I mentioned for German:

    "uh uh" = [ʔʌʔʌ] = no (= also [[ʔmʔm])
    "uh huh" = [ʔʌhʌ] = yes (= also [ʔmhm])

    Only that you have to replace shwa with the "up"-vowel. And "mm hmm" also seems to be equivalent.

    All those even sound quite similar in both German and English: well, actually this "English no" does not sound as harsh as the German one, but basically both are very similar.
  6. Joannes Senior Member

    Belgian Dutch
    -- gonna be a bit long --

    You're right, this is an international phenomenon. How international it is, is hard to tell, because, as you said, often this type of utterances will not be considered 'words' but rather paralinguistic utterances. Still, there seem to be languages in which they are the only words for 'yes' and 'no'. In fact, an American named Steve Parker once posited /heʔ(e)/ as a default phonological form for 'yes' in (generativist) Universal Grammar, which each language can then 'choose' to decline or accept (the unmarked case) –- yes, that's how Minimalism works :D. (There’s more: according to Parker, languages that accept this form for 'yes' would also adopt a number of phonological rules that are applicable to this 'yes'. You hear me, word-specific phonological rules. :rolleyes:) Anyway, to back up his claims he compiled a list of languages that have 'yesses' which matched his template (or which could easily be derived from it by applying some or all of the natural phonological rules that came along with it). Here is a link -- I'm afraid the article with the theory is not available online anywhere, but I could give you the title if you want. Interestingly, Parker says having avoided colloquial or paralinguistic 'yesses' in his list.

    Personally, I don’t believe in a default universal form for 'yes', but it is of course interesting that there may be a non arbitrary connection between form and meaning of words meaning 'yes' and we could wonder as to why there should be one, although it could never be proven, not anytime soon anyway. What is striking about the 'affirmation grunt' in all its forms is that their phonology is minimal. Often, you don't even have to open your mouth to pronounce them (=> syllabic nasals, nasal vowels), /h/ and /ʔ/ are pronounced with the least of articulatory movement, and the vowels that occur are close to neutral position. But why should we have a 'yes' that has a minimal articulation? Parker argues that "there is some survival value for humans in being able to answer certain types of questions with a minimal expenditure of effort and energy." I don’t buy it.. I think these 'yesses' could have grammaticalized out of paralinguistic back-channels. I can come up with a number of reasons why it would be a good thing for a back-channel not to be phonetically very salient:

    1. You don't want to suggest a speaker turn (that is, back-channels are used to let the speaker continue, not to interrupt him or her)
    2. Since a back-channel doesn’t need to have a specific lexical meaning (but just a pragmatic one: 'still listening, please continue'), it doesn’t need a clear phonology that can be distinguished from other lexical items (which is probably a reason why within many languages there are different possible ways of pronouncing the affirmation grunt)
    3. Back-channels are used a lot. (Someone who did research on back-channels had a sample of 79 American English conversations in which um appeared to be the 6th most frequent item – after I, and, the, you and a !)

    How do we get from a back-channel mechanism to a full 'yes'? First of all, humans are humans: when they don't agree, they will want to interrupt :D – a back-channel does the opposite. Also, people often disagree when they don't reason the same way, when you do follow the same reasoning, you back-channel. The thin line can also be demonstrated by 'yes' particles that did not evolve from back-channels: English yes (< gea 'yes' (< demonstrative) + si (3PL subjunctive of beon 'to be')) and French oui (< oïl < Lat. hoc ille (fecit)) are both sometimes used as back-channels -- in this function their weaker variants yeah and ouais are perhaps even more common, which is an argument in favour of the minimal-articulation-for-back-channels theory.

    A-ny-way, not all too far-fetched is it?

    What's the deal with 'noes'? I don’t know. Motivated form-meaning connections can never really be proven but in the case of 'no' forms it's even less visible than with 'yes'. I can't come up with many reasons why you would want to have a minimally articulated 'no' either (except the mere will to utter it rather than not at all: for example a father when his clever daughter has decided to quickly ask him to borrow the car at the moment when he's on a ladder measuring something while he has a pencil in his mouth :D). Again, it is really hard to tell whether there are a lot of languages that have a paralinguistic 'no', because that's hardly been described. But I'd guess that even if there are, not too many of them would have grammaticalised into a 'full' 'no' particle for the simple reason that, contrary to 'yes', there is an obvious origin for 'no' particles: the regular negation mechanism.
  7. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    It is a nice theory, Joannes, well formulated and logical. I like it. :) I can't really contribute though; also it is a pity that Steve Parker, in that paper to which you linked, excluded paralinguistic words for "yes".

    Parker's conclusions don't sound convincing to me - to derive rules concerning the phonological shape of such "yes" words (which is done on a mere statistical basis, and with excluding paralinguistic words) just sounds so ... arbitrary. I think your explanation of "yes" as back-channels is much more to the point - especially as many of those paralinguistic words indeed still can be used as back-channels (that is true for those mentioned by me - in German: [ʔah], [ʔaʔ] and [ʔəhə]).
  8. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    Where I live, the most common versions are "unh-hunh" (unh = u as in nut, but nasalized) for "yes" and "unh-unh" (with the glottal stop) or "hunh-unh" (with initial /h/ but glottal stop in the middle) for "no". Both with the intonation patterns already described.

    I have noticed that a dog will seem to understand a series of nasal vowels separated by glottal stops as "no" without having to be taught, and in fact tends to respond appropriately more quickly to this vocalization than to a stark "No!".
  9. akaAJ Senior Member

    New York
    American English, Yiddish
    A regional difference, then, in AE. The nasalized "unh-hunh" corresponds more with the non-committal "mmm-hmmm", also nasalized, I'm familiar with. uh-HUH and UH-uh, not nasalized at all, are clear positive and negative where I live.
  10. OneStroke Senior Member

    Hong Kong, China
    Chinese - Cantonese (HK)
    I do it in Cantonese a lot (only 'yes', not 'no', and with a falling tone). In fact, I try not to do it when I speak in Putonghua, English and French, though to little success. Guess that will remain a quirk of my idiolect for a while.
  11. Awwal12

    Awwal12 Senior Member

    Moscow, the RF
    Will be completely understood in Russian as well, keeping the stress in mind.
    Last edited: Jul 28, 2014
  12. apmoy70

    apmoy70 Senior Member

    We have in Greek too:
    [ʔə'hə] --> yes
    ['ʔə.ʔə] --> no
    [ʔm'ʔm] --> yes
    ['ʔm.ʔm] --> no.

    Often the affirmation of [ʔəhə] or [ʔmʔm] is used in conjunction with the negation of the single pulmonic click consonant [|] accompanied by the simultaneous raising of eyebrows
    Last edited: Jul 28, 2014
  13. Словеса Senior Member

    It may be very simple, actually: these sounds may be associated in our minds with how some simple emotions express themselves and with what they feel to be alike to (those of repulsion and attachment/curiosity, respectively). This is why they should be so widespread and little-dependant on a language. It's like laugh or tears.
  14. Holger2014 Senior Member

    Perhaps Словеса is right, it might be something universal, like laughter - but even laughter seems to sound slightly different in different parts of the world... My impression is that in England, for instance, people often say something like 'okay' or 'alright' during a conversation while Germans tend to prefer this "[ʔm'hm]-sound" in similar situations. Sometimes these interjections just seem to signalize something like 'I'm listening' or 'I hear what you're saying' (not necessarily agreeing)...
    Last edited: Apr 16, 2015
  15. Qalawri New Member

    Whilst this may seem rather international, it is most definitely not used as such in most (if not all) of the Philippines. The reason for this is that the main way to say 'yes' in Tagalog and other languages is oo which is pronounced ʔoʔo and can sometimes be pronounced (especially when speaking very informally) as ʔəʔə.

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