Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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.
L-H*            L-H%

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?

11 Responses to “L-H* L-H% means, “I dunno.””

  1. Glen said

    Does the hummed version of “uh-oh” count? How about the hummed version of “nuh-uh”? Or are both those phrases too close to a hum already?

  2. bearing said

    Scolding: each syllable has a rising pitch: “unh-unh-UNH!”

  3. Rachel Klippenstein said

    Not exactly the same, but I was noticing the other day a particular intonation pattern that seems to apply to a certain kind of listening “mhm” and “yeah”. The intonation of each seems about the same, but the rhythm of the intonation differs between the two expressions. It’s something like a mid-low-high pattern. For “mhm”, the initial “m” is mid and the “hm” goes from low to high. I think each tone gets about the same amount of time. For “yeah”, the mid-low sequence seems to take about the same length of time as the final high; or to state the impression in musical terms, the mid-low sequence seems to belong to one beat and the high seems to belong to another beat.

    Another thing that’s not a exactly a phrase but has its own intonation pattern along the lines of those mentioned by Glen and “bearing” is the taunt in “na-na-na-na-na, you can’t catch me” – it’s quite understandable all on its own; rhythm as well as pitch is important.

  4. Bob said

    “Can you think of any?”


  5. Neal said

    Bearing and Bob: I agree that “unh-unh-UNH” and “mm-hmm” are good examples of nonverbal communication by way of humming or something like it, and they even have a distinct intonation pattern, but what I was looking for was something like this that also exists in a similarly intoned version with words. If someone had to put the hummed “mmMMmm” I described into words, I’m pretty sure he or she would translate it as the exact words, “I don’t know”, not “I’m not sure” or anything else. But for “unh-unh-unh”, what would the words be? Maybe, “no, no, no,” but I could also see someone translating it as “Don’t do that.” And if I were asked to clarify when I’d said “mm-hmm,” I’d restate it as “yes.” Unless of course, you meant Rachel’s “mhm”, which brings me to…

    Rachel: I think your version of “mhm” comes closer to what I was thinking about: indentical intonation, and put into words, “mhm” would probably be restated as “yeah.” The only thing that troubles me is that the intonation pattern is spread across two syllables in “mhm”, but only one in “yeah.” I don’t know if that’s significant or not.

    Rachel and Glen: I think the hummed versions of “(y)uh-huh/Nuh-uh” and “NA (na) na na NAA na” are so far the best examples of what I had in mind: they have the same intonation as the spoken versions, and could only be translated back into those very words (or some dialectal variant, i.e., “nya-nya-nya…” or “nanny-nanny-boo-boo”, but not, say, “I fart in your general direction.”).

  6. ACW said

    The wolf-whistle is an acceptable intonation contour for a whole family of lecherously complimentary exclamations, of which perhaps the least offensive is “Nice legs!”

  7. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    I’ve heard the “mmmMMMmmm!” hum used in an unrelated context: “This feels so good!” or “I’m comfy here…” It doesn’t seem to match the intonation of any relevant words, though.

  8. I remember when my sister and I were kids, I could hum “Are you going to eat that?” with my mouth full, and she would know immediately what I meant. The hummed intonation was exactly that of the spoken question, but I doubt anyone else would understand. I have a friend coming in a couple of weeks…maybe I’ll try it on her.

  9. Neal said

    Grey-Eyed Athene: I’ll be interested in hearing the results of your experiment. Of course, the context of a shared meal, gesturing toward someone’s plate, etc., tend to help get the message across. It’d be an even stronger result if you tried it at some other time, and your friend said, “What?! Did you just ask if I’m going to eat that?”

  10. mircea said

    Hi Neal. I completely see your point. But do you think that is *always* the case for understand that sound of “I don’t know”? Basically what I’m asking is, do you think, out of context, with that same mouthful of food, one could say that sound and the person hearing it will say, “What is the ‘I don’t know’ in reference to? Why are you saying that?”

    Just a thought.

  11. Neal said

    Mircea: Yes, that’s exactly what I think. In fact, I think I’ll try it with my wife tonight and see what she says.

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