Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Thu Dec 9 02:25:27 UTC 2004

At 8:27 AM -0800 11/29/04, Dave Robertson wrote:
>The presence of glottal stops in ("uh-huh" and) "u[n]h-uh" seems like poor
>evidence for borrowing.  Two reasons come right to mind: First, English has
>glottal stops elsewhere, especially at the beginning of a syllable--Think of
>an emphatically uttered "I *am* *American*."  And the farther you get from
>the literary standard, the more glottal stops you'll hear in US English.
>Second, English interjections and allegro forms make use of other sounds
>uncommon in or missing from our phonemic inventory, such as nasal vowels.
>Some of the other Wolof evidence presented is fairly compelling, but "uh-uh"
>is harder to make a case for.
>--Dave Robertson (UVic)
Actually, while I'd be the last one to cry Wolof, and I really don't
have any firm conclusions to draw on the origin of "uh-uh" (the
negative "grunt") and "uh-oh", two points are worth making in
response to this note, which I am just getting around now to
responding to.

(1)  The point, I think, of stressing the role of glottal stops in
the above cases is that they're what we used to call phonemic here.
You can't pronounce "uh-oh" or "uh-uh" (negative grunt) in any
dialect of English without them, while the other items (stressed
vowel-initial contexts, _bottle_, _kitten_, etc.) can certainly be
pronounced without glottal stops and retain their normal
interpretation.  And for the record, I'm not familiar with a glottal
stop in the affirmative "uh-huh" (or its closed-mouth counterpart),
but only in its negative counterpart, which I transcribe "uh-uh" (or
*its* closed-mouth counterpart).

(2) For those interested in pursuing the "Out of Africa" line on
these, you might want to check out the threads on "uh-huh" both on
the ads-l and Linguist List archives, in response to my original
query back in '95, reproduced below.  Actually, now that I look at my
records, I see I never did produce a summary on Linguist List despite
the many intriguing responses I received, from Africanists, German
speakers, and others.   But I'd be happy to attach the file of my
correspondence with respondents to anyone requesting it.


Date:         Tue, 10 Oct 1995 21:22:22 EDT
From:         Larry Horn [using defunct e-mail address]
Subject:      Who's got the right one, baby (UH-HUH)?

This query concerns not soda, pop, soda pop, coke, or soft drink, but 'uh-huh'
and its negative companion, 'uh-uh'.  Spellings are of course approximate, but
I'm following the OED Supplement and J. C. Wells (Accents of English, vol. 3:
Beyond the British Isles, 1982), who describes them as follows, in a section
devoted to borrowings into Am. Eng. via the 'creole, African-derived
substratum' of Black English.  (I use @ for schwa, V~ for nasalized vowel,
M for voiceless bilabial nasal, and ? for glottal stop.)

          There are also the grunts sometimes spelt UH-HUH and UH-UH
          respectively.  The first, 'yes', is phonetically ['@~h@~, 'mMm],
          hence nasal or nasalized; it usually has a rising tone pattern...
          The second, 'no', is ['?@?'?@, '?@~?'?@~, '?m?'m], sometimes with
          a lengthened final segment, an initial [h], and/or a final extra
          glottal stop; it is not necessarily nasal, and has an accented
          final syllable, with an obligatorily falling tonal pattern.
                                                       (Wells 1982: 556)

Wells goes on to assert that the positive "grunt" is 'quite at home in
Britain', while the negative uh-uh is a recent import from the States or West
Indies--via Africa.  This split-source hypothesis seems odd to me, given
how closely the two forms (each with its open and close-mouthed versions)
track each other in modern (American) English.  Wells is also close-mouthed
himself on just WHAT African source he has in mind for 'uh-huh'.  Nor is the
OED much help:  it just indicates that each is of [Imitative] origin.
One wonders:  Imitative of what?  As one of my students reminds me, there's
also a variant of the negative "grunt" that can be transcribed as 'nuh-uhn'
(modulo the usual arbitrariness of these spellings).
I assume, without any particular evidence, that this represents a
relatively recent blend of our (Afro-)American 'uh-uh' above with the initial
n- of so many negative adverbs and particles.  Can anyone out there clarify
any of these histories or geographies?


P.S.  I love Webster's (NID3) solution to the phonetics of 'uh-huh':  within
the usual backslashes we find not the usual symbols or any approximation
thereof, but the prose statement \a disyllabic sound with m-sounds at the
beginning & end, an h-like interval of voicelessness between, & heavier stress
on the first member...\     (Incidentally, I'm not sure I agree with Webster's
and Wells in finding uh-huh primarily stressed on the initial syllable.)  As
for uh-uh, it doesn't seem to be in Webster's at all, despite its appearance in
Dashiell Hammett's Maltese Falcon (1930, cited by the OED).

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