Ingressive Speech.

A correspondent writes: “I use an ingressive sound when I say ja in Norwegian. I don’t have a sense of how common this is across the spectrum of languages, but it is absent in the other ones I speak.” He included a link to this The Local piece about the phenomenon in Swedish:

Northern Swedes have the unique ability to give their assent with a simple inhalation – a sharp sound of apparent shock, often mistaken by foreigners as a gasp of surprise. Perhaps not strong enough to suck up dust, but strong enough to shock a foreigner.

In fact, many a visitor to Sweden can remember the first time they came across the “northern vacuum”, a short, sharp noise pronounced like “shhh” but while breathing inwards. Let’s spell it “Shoop”. […]

According to [Linköping University’s Professor of Phonetics Robert] Eklund, the phenomenon is called “ingressive speech” or “phonation”.

“Ingressive speech is when people produce language – sounds, single words, or even entire phrases – while breathing in,” he explains.

For Swedes, “shoop” is reserved exclusively for “yes”, and Eklund estimates that Swedes make the sound once for every ten yesses they say.

Eklund has collected data on the phenomena from around the world, concluding that the sound is not so unique, and is even found among donkeys and purring cheetahs.

In the human race, ingressive speech is often cited by proud Swedes as unique to Sweden, especially to northern Sweden, but Eklund’s research suggests otherwise.

“In Norway they say it only happens in Norway,” Eklund laughs.

In fact, ingressive speech takes place in every continent, in as many as fifty languages. In Canada and the US, some people even use it in the same way as the Swedes.

“But in the Philippines and Greece boys used it when flirting with girls to disguise it from their fathers,” says Eklund.

Interesting stuff, and I agreed that it was worth a post (thanks, Jeff!).

Bonus: Betty Everett sings the Shoop Shoop Song, a classic of my youth.

Comments

  1. My Norwegian aunt does this. I always assumed it was a personal quirk.

  2. Robert Everett-Green says:

    This is very common in Nova Scotia. The name for it is not.

  3. Stefan Holm says:

    Some background facts:
    1) In Swedish there are two ways to say ‘yes’ depending on whether the question is positive or negative. ‘Have you done your homework?’ requires a ‘ja’. ‘Haven’t you done your homework?’ requires a ‘jo’.
    2) In northern Sweden this ‘jo’ has become standard even in answers to positive questions.
    3) The northerners are infamous for being extremely taciturn and ‘economic’ in speech.
    4) The ingressive ‘shoop’ is simply the ‘jo’ pronounced while inhalating.

    There are multiple (pet) theories about this. Some refer to the cold climate forcing people to save energy by talking as little as possible and use even the inhalation phase of respiration for communication. Others point out the scattered population which make people overall unaccustomed to speech. There is also the self-propelled myth about the silent, macho northerner living in solitude among wolves, bears and -30°C – Hollywood knows the type.

    (The video in your first link is by the way a commercial for ‘Norrland’ beer. They regularly use the taciturnity of the Norrlanders in their marketing.)

  4. John Emerson says:

    I frequently use inarticulate noises instead of simply words, and people have found this bizarre. Besides uh-huh and uh-uh for yes and no, I use Nn or Mm for “Really?” or “That’s interesting” or “OK, I heard you”, and “Nnnnn….” for doubt, and Aaaaah… for strong doubt. My piano teacher thought I was a barbarian.

    I have no idea how much my Norse-American environment influenced my character, but I suspect quite a lot.

  5. I’ve heard this sort of ingressive intake in South American Spanish, too. It’s an open-mouthed intake, without any frication. It’s a way of agreeing with a point without interrupting the other speaker. I have only heard women using it.

    I don’t have the sources by me, but I recall that one Formosan language was once claimed to have a phonemically distinctive ingressive pulmonic consonant, uniquely among the world’s languages. On further investigation, the claim was narrowed from covering the entire language, to one dialect, to an idiosyncracy of one speaker.

  6. I feel like I’m damaging my vocal cords when I try to voice while inhaling. Voiceless inhaling is of course no problem. Are these ingressive sound voiced or unvoiced?

  7. Trond Engen says:

    When I try to reverse a [z] it feels like choking.

    The Swedish/Norwegian one is unvoiced, at least as far as I’ve heard. But then, it’s the in-breath version of an unvoiced sibilant.

  8. I’m sure we’ve done this Germanic female intake of breath to mean “yes” before. Anyway, it’s really dangerous. I’ve nearly choked once or twice when I was imitating it and I sucked in a crumb. Perhaps it’s anatomically safe for women and not for men. It’s done in Norway and no doubt the rest of Scandinavia as well as Germany, but for some reason my English grandmother did it too and it’s not common in England.

  9. The South American version is voiceless, basically a gasp.

  10. They do this in Ethiopia, too.

  11. David Marjanović says:

    I’ve never encountered this.

  12. FWIW, Catford in, “A Practical Introduction to Phonetics,” says, “The glottalic suction stops . . . are very rare in languages of the world. But another type of glottalic suction stop — known as voiced implosive — is not uncommon in African languages, some American Indian languages, and some languages of South and South-east Asia.”

    But, these are different ingressives from those described in the post. (I think the difference is laryngeal vs pulmonary.)

  13. I have read that in ‘Wegia it is fairly gendered: wimmins do more of this. I have heard with my own ears an Icelandic woman also do it.

  14. It’s a women thing in (north) Germany too. Though perhaps not as frequent as in Norway, where it’s something like skiing or eating cod roe and redcurrants (they don’t all do it all the time, but they certainly could in emergencies).

  15. This is a distinguishing feature of speech in Cape Breton and other parts of the Maritimes.

  16. There’s some discussion of this in the comments to this post of mine (which also refers to a comment by AJP Crown on an old Language Hat post about click consonants). Scandinavia seems to be where it’s most prevalent, but a similar phenomenon is reported in various other places, including Ireland. See also: Robert Eklund’s Ingressive Phonation & Speech Page.

  17. I first noticed this in Norway. In Trondheim, at least, it seemed males did it as much as females. It got my attention every time, because I always initially mistook it as an expression of amazement (it really sounds like a shocked gasp), but it functions much like “uh-huh” in English–as an interjection while someone else is talking, to indicate, “Go on; I’m listening.” And when you’re telling a mundane story and your listener keeps seeming to gasp in amazement, you notice it.

  18. One major difference between click languages and the Scandinavian examples is the click ingressives are phonemic.

  19. I lived in SE Sweden a long time ago (sjuttiotalet) and heard it there (always from females) so I was surprised to read about it being a northern thing. Like des (Desmond?) von bladet I have heard it in Iceland too.

  20. This is common in Finnish too. But it doesn’t sound much like “shoop” — it’s just an inhaled [jo:].

  21. Stephen Bruce says:

    It’s common in French with oui, and I’ve heard some Russians doing it. I also associate it more with women. I’ve never heard it from native English speakers.

  22. Oh, that’s right; my high school French teacher (male, and American but very fluent in French) would do this is French. And I should add that when I noticed Norwegians doing this, it was during English-language conversations, as I don’t speak Norwegian. So in that sense it may not even be a form of ja, since I doubt they would have said ja while we were speaking English.

    Also, my French teacher’s use of it was exactly like the Norwegian use as I experienced it: an interjection to show you’re listening.

  23. Please note that for the purposes of this discussion Denmark is not part of Scandinavia — ingressive noises as meaningful tokens are outside the experience of Danes and cause only confusion until acculturation has occurred.

  24. Kári Tulinius says:

    I’m an Icelander. I was discussing ingressive speech with my Finnish girlfriend just the other day. In Finland it’s very limited, similar to Swedish. In Icelandic it is used more generally to signify intensity of emotion. Sometimes entire phrases are spoken “on inhalation,” as the Icelandic idiom has it. Most often it’s used to signify shock or surprise, both happy and unhappy, but I’ve heard it used to convey heavenly joy and deep sadness. It’s stereotypically a feature of feminine speech, but I’ve heard males of all ages do it.

  25. Danish varies a great deal (people from parts of Jutland are given subtitles on Danish TV). Despite what Lars says, some Danish speakers do use ingressive speech for ‘jo.’

  26. I just read a 2015 article on pulmonic ingressive yes/no words by Peter Sundkvist, “Using the World Wide Web to Research Spoken Varieties of English: The Case of Pulmonic Ingressive Speech”. He presents instances of it in audio and video recordings from Ireland, the north of England, Shetland, Orkney, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Maine, and even British Columbia (how it got there, he doesn’t say). He says it is amply documented for Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish, and presents examples (in English translation) for Icelandic, Faroese, and Swedish.

    The book it comes from, From Clerks to Corpora, is freely downloadable as a PDF.

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