L-H* L-H% means, “I dunno.”
Posted by Neal on May 23, 2006
Isn’t it amazing that the somewhat defensive and impatient intonation of “I don’t know” is so distinct that you don’t even need to pronounce the sounds to say it? You can just say, “uuUUuu,” or if you’re chewing a mouthful of food, just hum, “mmMMmm,” and you’re done! For the phonetically inclined readers, it’s this intonation (represented to the best of my ability in the ToBI notation):
I don’t know.
The * indicates the main accent on the entire phrase (on I); the % indicates the phrase boundary. The L-H represent the low initial pitch on these accents, followed by a rise. Don’t is unaccented.
I was reminded of these minimal ways of expressing one’s ignorance when I read Mark Liberman’s post on Language Log, reporting on the research of Daniel L. Everett. Everett reports that in Piraha~, in various social situations, humming (as well as whistling, yelling, or chanting) can be used to express any message–including, one presumes, “I don’t know”.
I’ve never noticed other phrases that can be said in English through intonation alone by humming or whistling. Well, there’s the wolf-whistle, but I’m not counting that because its pitch contour doesn’t correspond to some spoken message like the “I dunno” hum does. Can you think of any?