A linguistic dissection of 7 annoying teenage sounds

Voiced alveolar stop and breathy-voiced low back unrounded vowel — better known as duhhh

The next time you find yourself wondering about the highest use of linguistics, or enduring the insulting grunts and groans of petulant adolescents and wondering how such noises could even be described, bring the two worlds together. Clearly, linguistics exists just so we can give a technical description of those hard-to-spell sounds that erupt from callow youths. Here are seven examples (with three bonus variations).

(And to hear what these sound like, check out the video below.)

1. Breathy-voiced long low back unrounded vowel with advanced tongue root
This is usually spelled something like auuggghhh. It's the classic teenage sound of utter exasperation. The eyes are usually angled upwards, sometimes in contrast with a downward movement of the shoulders. "Breathy-voice" means that the vocal folds are wide apart, giving a very "chesty" sound. "Advanced tongue root" means that the back of the tongue is moved forward to make a larger resonating cavity behind it. "Low back" means the tongue doesn't rise anywhere in the mouth (compare this with "eee," which is high front). "Unrounded" means the lips aren't rounded.

2. Glottal stop, reduced mid central unrounded vowel, long glottal fricative
This is the little sister of the sound above: A small sigh of exasperation, usually emitted in conjunction with eye-rolling. It's hard to spell because the "long glottal fricative" is just "hhhhh," but if you put the reduced mid central unrounded vowel before it, which we would usually spell u as in up, we get uhhhhhh, which is something different. A variation on this starts with an alveolar click with unreleased velar coarticulation, what we spell as tsk.

3. Creaky-voiced long alveolar glide with mid front unrounded vowel and glottal stop
This is that dry, sarcastic, short version of "yeah" — you could spell it yyeh, I suppose. The opening glide is held long, and then the vowel cuts off quickly. "Creaky-voiced" is the phonetic term for that low, growly tone that young women often trail their vowels off in and that you may have seen called "vocal fry."

4. Voiceless velar affricate
This is that dismissive sound made at the back of the mouth — you could spell it something like kkh. "Velar" means at the back of the mouth; "affricate" means it starts with a stop (in this case [k]) and becomes a fricative (when voiceless, a hissy sound like "f" or "s"). In this case, the fricative is the sound you see spelled ch in German or Gaelic.

5. Voiced alveolar stop and breathy-voiced low-back unrounded vowel, sometimes with advanced tongue root
This is normally spelled duhhh. The vowel is a low-mid back unrounded sound, sort of like the vowel in "or" but without the lips rounded. The breathy voice is used to give an extra dull sound. Sometimes the tongue root is advanced to make it even hollower. A variant is to make the vowel a diphthong ending with a high front vowel, sort of like duhhyy. The idea is to sound as stupid as possible. Of course, the stupidity they are communicating is not theirs; it is attributive — specifically, they're attributing it to you.

6. Glottal fricative and breathy-voiced mid-low central unrounded vowel, repeated
Teenage girls don't usually make this sound, but teenage guys do, often to irritate teenage girls. It's just a low, perverted laugh, often spelled huhhuhhuh or hehhehheh. Yet again it's breathy-voiced, reminding us just what an important part heavy breathing plays in the teenage experience.

7. Pulmonic ingressive nasal velar trill
This is another boys-only sound, what I would normally call a "grunting snot inhale" or, for short, "hoarking." It's "nasal" because the tongue is blocking off the mouth at the back and the air is coming in through the nose; "pulmonic ingressive" means inhaling; a "trill" is like rolling an r, but "velar" means you're rolling not the tip of your tongue but the flap that opens and closes your nasal passages. Don't confuse this with the other kind of "hoarking," which usually follows on this and is followed by spitting; that one is a simple voiceless labialized uvular fricative, (usually long, of course). Does either of these count as a speech sound? If it's being used to communicate an attitude or an imminent threat of expectoration, a case may be made that it's communication, not just a physical act.

The syntactic analysis of all of these utterances is pretty straightforward: they're interjections, which means they don't play a part in a sentence; they are independent utterances, often expressed as interruptions — usually interrupting what you're saying.


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