Revised: September 2021
When you try out a new foreign language you might be pleasantly surprised to find that the odd word is comfortingly similar to a word in English. Yet, the majority of what you learn will sound like gibberish at first.
But what about the instinctive noises and sounds that we all make? Surely these are the same all over the world? The truth is that even when you sneeze abroad you may need a translator just as much as a clean hankie and a dose of vitamin C.
The fact is, we’re so used to musing “umm” as we think, or shouting “ouch!” after stubbing our toe that it’s basically second nature. It’s hard to think about the idea that around the world, people have different reactions and sounds for these things, depending on the language they speak.
It may seem weird but those little noises we all make without thinking about it are as much a part of our language as the way we order food or how we talk about who our favourite reality show contestant is. If you have never heard someone kiss or express pain in a foreign language then you are in for a surprise.
Pain around the world
What noise do you make when you bang your thumb with a hammer or when a grand piano falls on you? Admittedly, falling pianos are rare outside of cartoons and slapstick comedies but it is always worth looking up when leaving a building just in case.
If English is your first language that you might say “ouch!” or “aww!” when you feel pain. You may even make a little “aarrgh!” sounds while everyone laughs at you. If you are Homer Simpson then you have an impressively wide range of expressions to choose from.
However, Spanish speakers will usually say “uy!” or “ay!” when they get hurt. The French react to physical pain with a heart-felt “aïe!”, with the Germans opting to let out an “aua” or an “autsch”.
The Arabic word for “doh! I just bashed my foot” is “akh!”, while a mangled up Dutchman will say “au!” and a pained Russian “oi!” Have you ever seen the subtitling on foreign versions of your favourite shows using these words?
There is a lot of similarity in how a lot of these sounds are made, as they often start with an open-mouthed “a” or “o” but there are also enough differences to show that this is a learned, cultural thing rather than an entirely natural sound we are born with.
Sneezing in different languages
Have you noticed that the language section in travel guides never tell you how to sneeze? What if you get a dose of hay fever in Hamburg or get the sniffles in Seville? How will the locals know that you are sneezing rather than shouting snot-filled obscenities like a lunatic?
While you might let out an “achoo!” at home, if you get surrounded by a crowd of sneezing Germans (generally not recommended to be fair) you can expect to hear a lot of “hatschi!” As for the Spanish, when they get a tickly nose they opt for an “achis!”
Full credit to the professional voice actors who need to translate Tom Cruise’s sneezes or Jennifer Lopez’s sniffles convincingly. I bet that wasn’t on the job description.
The Japanese way of sneezing is with “hakashun!” which might not be completely understandable to a Russian who usually goes with “apchkhi!” If you are planning a trip to Paris this winter it’s probably a good time to start practising your “atchoum!”
Most of these words are pretty similar sounding. Yes, I did just spend 10 minutes fake-sneezing in a variety of accents, now that you ask. Yes, people are now looking at me funny.
Did you know that deaf people all round the world sneeze silently?
A kiss is still a kiss
Is there anything more universal than a smacker on the lips from a loved one? “Mwah!” Sorry, what was that? That didn’t sound anything like a kiss?
Well, if you are Japanese then you were probably expecting a hearty “chu!” On the other hand, the French like nothing better than a good “smack!” and the Portuguese a “chuac!”
Perhaps of more pressing concern to most of us is whether to give one or two kisses on the cheek to an acquaintance from abroad. However, if you make a loud “mwah!” noise while air-kissing a foreigner then they may very well think that you are utterly bonkers.
Noisy drinking translations
Do you go “gulp!” or “glug!” as you swig down your favourite tipple? According to the Japanese you make a “goku goku!” noise, which is worth trying the next time you have a cup of tea and want to feel all exotic.
In Bulgaria the sound that people make when drinking is “glyok glyok!” Meanwhile, in Russian this is described as being more of a “bulk!”
So why do people think of a different noise for the simple act of drinking? Interestingly, it has been suggested that making a loud noise while drinking makes the liquid seem tastier, and it seems that we all want tasty drinks.
If you want to try this out then I can suggest going “gulp!”, “goku goku!” or “glyok glyok!” at home rather than at your work desk or in a fancy restaurant. My intensive research shows that you can expect to get thrown out of these places if you drink very noisily.
Even while we think it seems as though we make different noises depending upon our language. English speakers go for a solid “hmm!” when the cogs are turning creakily.
In Japanese this is “eeto!” and in French it is “euh!” Why not close your eyes and think for a second to see what noise you make? It’s almost enough to make you want to check out some video translation of people sitting about and thinking deeply, isn’t it?
The next time you travel abroad take some time to listen to the instinctive noises that you hear. Just try not to stand too close to the guys going “hakashun!”
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