Learning East Asian Communicative Grunts
It took me a while to learn to grunt like an East Asian, but I feel much more comfortable here now that I can. Sure, I’ve been grunting like an American all my life. I may have learned the “annoyed grunt” from TV, but I’ve been saying “uh-huh” for yes and “unh-uh” (if that’s how you spell it) for no, as well as the special “nuh-uhhhh!” (reserved for childish arguments) ever since I was a kid. Oh, and don’t forget that “I dunno” noise we make that I’m not even going to try to spell out. I guess each culture has its own ways of communicative grunting, but outsiders have to learn these noises just like every other part of the language.
The year I studied in Japan I lived with a Japanese family. It took me a while to get to the point that I was actually communicating, but I remember very clearly the day my homestay brother Shingo said to me, “quit saying hai all the time. It’s way too formal. You need to learn how to say un (うん).”
It was like I was saying “yes” all the time and never “yeah.” It just wasn’t natural. By that time, hai was quite a habit, so it took a concerted effort to work un into my speech patterns. Once I did, however, it was so much more comfortable.
In China, the first communicative grunt I learned was 嗯. Interestingly, it sounds very similar to the Japanese affirmative grunt. I have to admit, though, that I find 嗯 the least articulate of any grunt-like communication, because unlike the Japanese un, it doesn’t even require you to open your mouth. But I guess that’s what makes it so comfortable too. It’s the linguistic equivalent of “lounging around all day at home in your pajamas.” (And we all know how many Chinese feel about staying in pajamas as much as possible.)
As much as I like the 嗯 of Chinese, I think I like 欸 even more. You may have to go to the trouble of actually opening your mouth, but I find it much more expressive. There are lots of tonal options, and plenty of room for creativity/personal interpretation. There’s also something about the utterance that just strikes me as so Chinese, too. I recently downloaded the song 吉祥三宝 on Micah‘s recommendation. Not only is the song really cute, but it contains an excellent example of the 欸 sound. In the song, the mother says it* to mean, “yes, dear?” and it’s not even Mandarin she’s speaking, and yet it struck me as just so Chinese.
My Chinese grunting makes me feel much more at ease in my environment. For the longest time, whenever I would bump into neighbors on the way out of the building and they’d greet me with a “going out?” (出去啦?) I never knew exactly how to reply. Sure, they were just making small talk, a casual friendly gesture, but I always found myself woodenly responding with the Chinese equivalent of, “It is, in fact, as you say, good sir. I am indeed going out.” It was the Chinese affirmative grunts which finally equipped me to respond naturally with the Chinese version of “yup.”
If you’re learning Mandarin, I heartily recommend you try to loosen up and get into the grunting if you haven’t already.
* Technically, I think the character closest in meaning would be 唉, but the mother definitely makes a “ei” sound. The father, however, definitely makes a “ai” sound. Still, if it’s not even Mandarin, who cares about these distinctions, right?