The Noises of
Noise #37: ‘Aaaaaaaaah’
In this bespoke series, Adjunct Professor of Phonetic Paralinguality, Belchburper von Chufflenuffle, examines the communicative and linguistic significance of that often overlooked type of sound, the paralinguistic noise. This month: ‘Aaaaaaaaah!’ as in ‘That’s a lovely cup of tea!’.
Human beings are genetically wired to sit back and relax. In fact, some of them are hard-wired to do nothing but sit back and relax (among them managers, politicians, TEFL teachers and sociolinguists). It is this inherent tendency, which is part of the long evolutionary development of homo sapiens, intertwined with opposable thumbs, a lowered larynx, increasingly complex social organisation, the use of visual symbols and burial ceremonies, that gives rise to this week’s universal, paralinguistic vocalisation: ‘Aaaaaaaaah!’.
For obvious reasons, ‘Aaaaaaaaah!’ often occurs towards the beginning of Dictionaries of Noises, coming before both ‘Aaaargh!’ and its non-rhotic variant ‘Aaaah!’. And this of course takes us to the nub of the issue: what does ‘Aaaaaaaaah!’ mean? Polysemous since at least 4,000 BCE, where records indicate it was regularly produced in Phoenicia both by mariners arriving at the port of Carthage and by aristocrats in receipt of a silver tray of delicacies,1 the 21st century has seen ‘Aaaaaaaaah!’ extend its semantic remit across all known demographics and a wide variety of social situations. These include over-60s sitting back on a sofa after a spot of gardening; late 30s/early 40s speakers waving goodbye as the last of their eight children leave home; teenagers finishing Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings for the first time; and death. So prolific, in fact, is ‘Aaaaaaaaah!’, that 2003 saw the founding of the Pan-International Society for the Spotting of Aaaaaaaaah! (PISS-Aaaaaaaaah!), whose primary aim is to document all uses of ‘Aaaaaaaaah!’ through the installation of closed-circuit cameras around the world.
However, tragically, not all human beings are able to articulate ‘Aaaaaaaaah!’ clearly. Workaholics, busy parents and senior executives often live lives of such extreme stress and busyness that the regions of the brain associated with the production of ‘Aaaaaaaaah!’2 can wither and in certain cases cease to function entirely. In such cases, medical science is now recognising the need for Aaaaaaaaah-deficit treatment, the foremost recognised intervention for which is a 6-month tour of the Mediterranean. In the UK, the NHS is controversially funding this treatment which, according to a spokeswoman for Single Mothers Aged 22 or Less, not only leads to the reappearance of ‘Aaaaaaaaah!’-type utterances within weeks, but also has a positive impact on the incomes of bars and clubs in southern Spain.
My own interest in ‘Aaaaaaaaah!’ was originally phonetic. I was intrigued by inter-speaker variation in the articulation of the [aːːːːːːːː] phone which for some speakers maintained a constant quality across the on average 3.2 seconds of delivery, whereas for others the vowel quality modulated within various parameters. My research throughout the 1970s was dedicated to determining what factors, social and/or cognitive, contributed to this. In my magnum opus, The Formatives of Aaaaaaaaah, I concluded that the primary causative factor for modulated [aːːːːːːːː] was the degree of tension or stress associated with the pre-‘Aaaaaaaaah!’ utterance activity: the greater the demand, the more modulated the [aːːːːːːːː] was likely to be. Indeed, in cases where exertion was classified as ‘Particularly Bothersome’, ‘Aaaaaaaaah!’ could be replaced entirely by ‘Ooomph!’, a paralinguistic noise of considerable complexity whose semantics are beyond the scope of this review.
Much remains to be done on ‘Aaaaaaaaah!’ Recent work from Hitchens and Witchens (2018) for example suggests that ‘Aaaaaaaaah!’ may be morphologically complex with the unarticulated ‘-h’ which is also found in ‘Oooooooh’ and ‘Yeah!’ adding some kind of intensifying meaning. However, we understand far more than once we did and any utterer of ‘Aaaaaaaaah!’ who catches themselves articulating this noise can rest easy that should they wish to know more about the sound, there is a substantial library of work which can be referenced. We’re not there yet, but we can at least sit back and relax a moment before pressing on with our work, and let rip with a well deserved ‘Aaaaaaaaah!’.
1 ‘Aaaaaaaaah!’ even had its own proto-letter, , which ultimately evolved into the first letter of the word ‘hammock’.
2 The Aaaaaaaaahrnheim region, named after Gertrud Aaaaaaaaahrnheim (1873–1881) has long been implicated in the production of ‘Aaaaaaaaah!’. Aaaaaaaaahrnheim discovered it by accident while relaxing in a field of cows in Saxony in the summer of 1881. She was tragically trampled to death moments later, and it was left to her younger brother Aaaaaaaaahrnold Aaaaaaaaahrnheim (1875–2013) to promulgate his sister’s discoveries and in doing so build an international career as a psycholinguist upon the insight.