A useful little article by Michele A. Berdy from the Moscow Times (once again via the excellent Taccuino di traduzione).

Addendum (March 2020). Might as well provide some excerpts:

One of my favorite interjections is aga, which is a rather low-brow sign of agreement, something like yup, sure, you got it, uh-huh in American English. — Ty kupil khleb?Aga. (Did you pick up bread? — Uh-huh.)

Another good interjection to know is fu, a kind of all-purpose expression of disdain, disgust or displeasure. Ty chital statyu v Izvestiyakh? Fu! Gadost! Nenavizhu kompromat! (Did you see the article in Izvestia? — Yuck! Disgusting! I hate smear articles!) When you use it to refer to a bad smell or something revolting, in English you say Phew! P-U!

Ai-ai-ai, said with a wag of the head, means “shame on you,” and is expressed in English as Tsk tsk. Brys! Fu! or Kysh! are what you shout at your cat when she’s on the countertop and about to dive into your chicken dinner. In American English we shout Shoo! or Scat!

And then there’s Au, which is both a call for someone you are looking for, or a response to the call. For example, when you walk in your colleague’s room and say Sasha! he can respond with Au, pronounced as a diphthong. In English you might say, “Here I am.” or “Yes?” But when you get separated from your fellow mushroom hunter in the woods, you call out Auuuuu!, elongating the syllables and letting them float on the wind. […] When translating Au!, ignore the dictionary suggestion “You-hoo!” In fact, take out your thickest marker and cross it out. Even though it’s close in sound, trust me — no one has used this in English except as a joke since 1942. Most of the time we just shout out the person’s name, making the syllables last a few seconds: A-a-a-a-lex! Su-u-u-san! Not as universal as Auuu!, but it does the trick.

Note that ага, which she transliterates as “aga,” can be pronounced [mhm] (with the mouth closed), [əhə] (with open mouth), or [aga], a spelling pronunciation.


  1. I protest the resolute and blatant move to deem “yoo-hoo” obsolete!..:)

  2. I have added excerpts from the linked article and an explanation of ага (which can be pronounced various ways).

  3. January First-of-May says

    can be pronounced [mhm] (with the mouth closed)

    …a pronunciation that occasionally gets spelled угу instead.

  4. Yes, those written forms confused me for a long time. (But so did English “tsk” and “er.”)

  5. The origin of ai ai ai (or ay ay ay or, closest to my own pronunciation, ai yai yai) seems to be extremely unclear. I had thought of it as a Yiddishism, until I noticed that one of the main characters in The Gods Must Be Crazy (the sole Afrikaner in the main cast) says it a lot, which suggested it might be common West Germanic. It could still have come into Russian via Yiddish, but other proposed etymologies are totally different.

    According to Urban Dictionary and this Stack Exchange question, it comes Mexican Spanish. If that is accurate, it suggests an entirely different origin from the central and eastern European version, despite similarities in usage.

    The OED for ai says: “Imitative. Compare earlier aie int..” For aie: “Imitative. Compare earlier ay int. and the foreign-language forms cited at that entry….” (Both are defined essentially the same, “An exclamation of surprise, regret, pain, etc., often used in imitation of foreign speakers of English.”) For ay [defined as “Ah! O! (Now the common northern exclamation of surprise, invocation, earnestness.)”], the etymology listed is:

    In the later ay me! adopted from, or influenced by, French ahi, aï, Italian ahi; compare Old French aymi! Italian ahime! Spanish ay de mi! The Middle English ey, ei was probably a natural ejaculation; nothing similar is found in Old English: the Middle High German and modern German ey! is probably of independent development; and though there is greater possibility of its being an adoption of Old French , this would almost certainly have given ay, ai, which are not found even as variants in Middle English The modern northern dialect ay! eh! or eigh! /eː/ is probably the Middle English ey!, but may be merely the earlier a!, as Old English is now wae = /weː/ in the north.

    In typing this, I experienced an interesting phenomenon of phonological interference. When I meant to type <i>ai</i> (or similar), every time I actually started out typing <ai or <aie or <ay, because the words to appear in italics were pronounced the same way as the letter i in the italics tag.

  6. David Marjanović says

    I’ve repeatedly seen ai-yi-yi in English on teh intarwebz.

    There used to be all manner of ei in German. They all seem to be obsolete – and are not to be confused with ey, which has been teenage slang in parts of Germany since the 1970s or so and is pronounced as the English FACE diphthong.

  7. Aye-yi-yi is another version that I remember mystifying me in my youth (“what on earth is /ai.e ji ji/ supposed to convey??”).

    Fu is surely related in some fashion with Nordic fy, perhaps further Finnish hyi.

    In Finnish ai conveys either mild but sudden pain (‘ow’) or surprize (‘oh’). Incidentally, English oh would be the soundlawful outcome of a Proto-Germanic *ai…

  8. Russian has ага, угу, эгэ, ого, only иги is absent (also ыгы, but this spelling is so weird that it would have been spelled иги anyway).

  9. PlasticPaddy says

    There seem to be a combination of two cries in ay/oy. The first means “listen to my lamentation/pain” and the second means “listen to my irritation/anger”. Perhaps PIE speakers distinguished these cries by means of a now-lost pitch accent.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    Nah. Different laryngeals. One begins with the “sore throat” laryngeal, the other with the “hiccup” laryngeal.

  11. Lars Mathiesen says

    FWIW, Danish has av as the reaction to pain (originally a contraction of åh ve!, it says), øv for disappointment, æv for disgust, åh for surprise , and fy to scold the cat (not that it cares).

  12. David Marjanović says

    Fu is surely related in some fashion with Nordic fy, perhaps further Finnish hyi.

    And German pfui (which seems to be dying out). FYLOSC compromises: fuj.

    Incidentally, English oh would be the soundlawful outcome of a Proto-Germanic *ai…

    …That would actually explain why oh is so much rarer in German.

    One begins with the “sore throat” laryngeal, the other with the “hiccup” laryngeal.

    Then we need different ablaut grades, too, though: *h₂aj (e-grade), *h₁oj (o-grade)…. ^_^

    æv for disgust

    Backwards it’s German: wäh, pronounced with the tongue sticking out or at least touching the lower lip. (…I guess that’s a linguolabial vowel: [væ̼].)

  13. Given English hey, we can clearly also infer the existence of a laryngeal-retaining substrate in northwest Europe. 😉

  14. John Cowan says

    And German pfui (which seems to be dying out).

    But surviving well (160 COCA hits, 1.5 million ghits) as English phooey/fooey, with etymological nativization (or more likely just loss of a difficult consonant cluster).

    Based on Archie’s evidence, Nero Wolfe said pfui despite being a Montenegrin (it’s known that his claim to be American-born was imposed by Stout’s publisher).

  15. Russian has тьфу [t’fu] or тьфуй [t’fui].

  16. John Cowan says

    Does Russian tolerate /pf-/?

  17. Sorta. There is “pfennig” and maybe a few other German(ic) loans, but not much. тьфу is a conventional spitting sound.

  18. David Marjanović says

    There’s no conventional spitting sound in German.

  19. And German pfui (which seems to be dying out).
    It’s still used in everyday speech as a command for dogs, meaning „don’t do / touch / eat that“, but otherwise it’s become purely literary.

Speak Your Mind