When searching up weird sounds or expressions in languages like Swedish, you may have encountered this video clip by The Local (Sweden) in Umeå, eastern Sweden:
In fact, this video has been shared over many articles online, showing off how Swedish has this weird sound to express agreement, with some articles going into more depth than others. and some might be a tinge more misleading than others. So let’s explore this issue!
Playing the clip again, we spot a pattern in this expression for ‘yes’. This is often referred to as an ingressive sound, or a sound made when air flows inwards through the nose or mouth. These words sound like a “shwoop” but ingressive, yet, there is not really an agreed way of transcribing it. Some people use ‘.jo’ with the period to signal this inhalation, but others write the sound ‘jʉ’, ‘schvuu’, or ‘schwup’. The featured image represents my take on it, but do not take this transcription as totally true.
While some sites report its use primarily in Northern Sweden, this is rather misleading, to say the least. The ingressive yes is used by Swedes from south to north, except that it does get more often used the further north one travels. Swedish-speaking Finns may also use the ingressive yes too. This leads us to this question:
Is it really unique?
The short answer is, no. Not even close. Ingressive sounds have been used in expressions in some regional variants of English and other Germanic languages, as well as French, Finnish, Estonian, Khalkha Mongolian, Ewe and some Togolese languages, and some Austronesian languages. Each of these incorporate some form of ingressive sounds when expressing the affirmative ‘yeah’ or ‘yes’. This does not however, serve to downplay this rather special characteristic. Ingressive sounds really are interesting phonemes, more so because many of us do not quite associate ingressive sounds with the most commonly spoken languages in the world.
But, why is this used?
While the ingressive yes is not really used in all situations to mean, well, yes, it does show some form of agreement with what the speaker is saying. This agreement, however, is “weaker” than the other Swedish words for ‘yes’, you know, ‘ja’ or ‘jo’.
One proposed function for this is known as “backchanneling”, where a listener responds to what is said to them using interjections or other verbal or non-verbal means. Backchanneling is not unique at all; perhaps each language has their own form of backchanneling. This includes a prominent example known as aidzuchi in Japanese, which was covered on The Language Closet here.
But why ingressive? Several known verbal forms of backchanneling are spoken while exhaling, like the expressions we see in aidzuchi. Some theories have developed over the origins of the ingressive yes, including a more environment or climate-based thing where speakers cope with the cold by not opening their mouths too much while speaking to communicate.
While it sounds plausible, this theory faces several problems. For one, the distribution of ingressive sounds is quite geographically widespread, even as a component of phonological inventories in some languages in Asia, South America, and Africa. Some of the climates these languages are spoken in may be arid like the desert climates across the Gobi and Namib, but some are not quite like those we see in Scandinavia. It may be argued that these phonemes could have arisen independently, but it still prompts the question: Which factors could influence the use of ingressive sounds in languages?
This post started off as sort of a “fact-checking” piece, after reading some articles overstating how “unique” the ingressive yes is in Swedish, when this is hardly the case at all. But it left me with some questions left unanswered. What is the history behind the use of ingressive sounds in languages like Swedish, and why have these not really entered the phonological inventories of these languages? Why are they more or less restricted in its extent of use? Or are we missing out on something that could help us piece this picture together? It has been seven years since this clip was published, but yet finding accessible literature on this is rather limited. Perhaps it would be worth a study into this linguistic quirk, to achieve a better understanding of how we came to speaking as we do today.
Featured image: What the ingressive sound kind of sounds like to me, represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet notation. I am most likely wrong about this notation, but it is worth a shot at trying to transcribe it personally.