We hear them everywhere. We all use them. They know no socio-economic boundaries. They pervade our schools, our malls, our parks, even our very homes. From CEO to Professor to Manual Laborer, to Food Service Provider, everyone knows what they mean. They may differ between languages, but one thing is for sure, all dialects of the English language know them. They are the seemingly unintelligible grunts we use every day. Uh-huh (yes), Uh-uh (no), Huh? (What?), That sucking sound with your tongue that means “Tsk” (shame on you), the gasp (I’m shocked and/or scared!), the sigh (I’m bored and/or depressed), the groan (could mean anything, really), and that sound like a weak cough that means “I’m offended!” or “How dare you?” (I’m offended! and/or how dare you?).
Why do we use them? In some cases it isn’t any harder to use the real word. “Yes” and “No” are just as easy as “Uh-huh” or “Uh-uh” and even have less syllables. But sometimes it’s easier to use the sound instead of the word. For example, gasping instead of saying, “Oh my goodness sake, there is a serial killer in my sewing room and he has a gas powered chainsaw and is going to dismember me one limb at a time if I don’t run out of here as fast as I can, which isn’t very fast because I haven’t done the treadmill in awhile and I’m getting a little flabby around the middle”. It’s also easier to make that weak cough sound that means “I’m offended!” or “How dare you?” instead of saying, “I’m offended.” or “How dare you?”
However, great care must be taken when using these sounds. They shouldn’t be used when trying to sound especially polite or professional. Saying “Huh?” with a blank look in your eyes doesn’t show the same respect or intelligence as “I’m sorry, can you please repeat that?” These sounds can also be misinterpreted, as with that weak cough that means, “I’m Offended!” or “How Dare you?” How will they know which one you mean? You definitely shouldn’t use the sigh unless you are willing to answer follow up questions such as, “What’s wrong?” “What’d I do?” or “What is it this time, honey?” And a bad time to groan would be when a person does not WANT to know why. For example, don’t groan if the reason is that you just ate your mothers meatloaf and you know for a fact that you are going to have severe and crippling diarrhea because some already came out and now you have to go to the bathroom to remove your underclothing and you will be feeling a draft the rest of the day.
These sounds are as common as any word in the English language, but they deserve a little more thought. Perhaps one day we will even devise a way to spell that as yet unspellable coughing sound meaning, “I’m offended!” or “Shame on you!”…ukh!