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 . 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 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 , 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?


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Justin (Parasite) Says: March 16, 2006 at 9:34 am

    LOL! The amusing part to me is that you took so LONG to learn the sounds. For me — that is the FIRST thing I picked up. I was saying on the order of hundreds of 嗯’s a day in China a LONG long time before I dared say anything which required me to actually open my mouth and articulate speech (at least to anyone outside of my closest social circle). The problem I face now is that I started liking the Chinese sounds so much, that I forgot how to express the same meaning in English with a sound, and hence to this very day am using all the Chinese ones with my family, etc.. My poor mum didn’t understand at first (and it took a while before I even noticed the reason why!), but I think she has deciphered most of’em by this point, so I really have no reason left to stop using them. (I do remember a few English ones OF COURSE, like nuh-uh!, etc. but there are many which I cannot remember to which language they belong.)

  2. A new linguistic quest: to determine the system of grunted communication in each language!

  3. My Chinese students laughed a lot when I said “eh?” in their English class in response to a word I didn’t quite catch. They thought I was speaking Chinese!

  4. Justin,

    I’m guessing you came to China without having formally learned Chinese first? Formal language instruction frequently neglects this kind of vocabulary.

  5. 嗯 is extremely addictive, I find that each time after I stayed in China, it takes some weeks before I get rid of it. Especially the single 嗯 along with a single nod of the head (just back-to-front one way) goes together very well.
    I’ve also gotten addicted to 哎呀 and its little brother 哎哟, as well as the wonderful Hong Kong habit to end little bits of sentences with 啦. Okay la!

  6. I have witnessed entire phone conversations take place in which the person used one word 嗯 . It is my belief that the person on the other end was also using only this word. Remember that it has 3 tones, so in fact it is 3 words.
    Another good one is the exclamation for shock that sounds something like wa-so.

  7. John, which books did you use when you were studying Chinese? The most popular series here in Taiwan is Practical Audio Visual Chinese. Starting in the second book, nearly every chapter has a section of vocabulary words titled “歎詞跟語助詞 Interjections and Particles”. In chapter 1, it introduces 嗨,噢,嗯, and 啦. 诶 and 嘛 are in chapter 2; 哎喲 is in chapter 3, 哇 and another usage of 嗯 appear in Chapter 4, etc…

    I honestly didn’t know what to do with them all was using them in weird and unnatural ways for a long time. Heck, I probably still am.

    Matt, once in Jiayi I heard one side of a cellphone conversation that was literally nothing but 嗯s, 好s and OKs for 3 full minutes (or whatever the comercial break in an NBA game is). The guy just kept going “好好….okay好好okay…嗯嗯okay好…”.

  8. im a Chinese and im leaninig English now, im never know how to respond “what’s up” naturally

    • baopuANDu Says: October 11, 2012 at 5:15 am

      I like to say, “Oh, lot’s of stuff!” and then just awkwardly look at the other person awaiting further questions.

  9. Nai Xin: just say ‘what’s up?’ back. Or you can say ‘not much, what’s up with you?’ For some reason nobody ever says that they are actually doing anything when you ask them that question. The response always seems to be ‘not much’ or ‘nothing.’ It’s the strangest greeting exchange in the English language

  10. Matt: That scene in Cell Phone where Ge You imagines that sort of telephone conversation should be required viewing for the grunt unit of Chinese classes.

    There’s something off-balance about the surprise market 咦 that endears it to me.

  11. I’ve had a conversation myself that completed after about 30sec, just the school confirming that I’d teach that night. Then for about a minute all that came out of my mouth was what follows: 嗯嗯, 是, 嗯嗯, 是,嗯嗯,好的好的,是,嗯嗯,是这样,嗯, 是这样,嗯,在见,是,是,是这样,好的,晚上见,嗯嗯,byebye.

    I just remembered another foreign teacher and I joking about the grunting. We were staying in a hotel while the apartments were renovated, and had just returned from dinner, carrying on this conversation. As we’re walking down the hall, he starts grunting, completely inaudible. Just plain old grunts. He grunted two or three time, and lo and behold the 服务员 comes down the hall to ask what he wants.

  12. My favorite Chinese grunt is the ‘hn’ sound that comes at the end of sentences where you are asking someone for confirmation, like, “这个楼很大, hn.” I’m not sure of the character, as I’ve never actually seen anything written in a dialogue using it before. It starts with an ‘h’ sound, has a little short ‘o’ vowel followed by an ‘n’ sound pronounced through the nose and ends, I think, with a kind of ‘g’-like glottal stop.

    After hn my favorite grunt is the one my students make everyday when I do something they aren’t expecting. It sounds like a rising ‘unnh’. I think this one is indicated in Chinese with a 唉 (which is usually pronounced ‘ai’ or ‘ei’, but here unnh). It’s an incredibly funny sound to hear because it is almost always collectively uttered. For instance, it is winter and you take your heavy coat off in the classroom, or do some other such foolish thing like drink cold water. This will elicit a collective unnh, because students in Shandong, where I live, are not accustomed to seeing anyone take their coat off in a classroom in winter or drinking cold water, which as we all know, gives you instant 拉肚子.

  13. I don’t find that you have to open your mouth to use the Japanese un, assuming you’re talking about the same thing I think you’re talking about, which is more like mmm and often accompanied with a head nod. I learned this from watching a lot of Japanese movies and found myself using it right off the bat when I was in Japan. The Japanese understood my meaning as clearly as if I had said hai. I also used it a lot to mean something more like “okay” which seemed to work too.

  14. Justin (Parasite) Says: March 17, 2006 at 10:18 am

    Oh but I did have formal language training before I went, a full 2 years worth! Still much more comfortable for such a generally anti-social small voiced person as myself to make noises as opposed to words, so as soon as I realized I could express the same meaning without opening my mouth — I consciously or unconsciously picked it right up.

  15. You can’t go wrong with 嗯really. It works quite well for broadcasting annoyance and boredom at inane statements too, and provides a handy response to the inevitable 你的中文真好 sort of comment.

  16. Mark,

    My first year I used a series by Yale (I forget what it was called), but between my first and second year the program switched over to Integrated Chinese. I studied from that book officially for one semester, and then off and on unofficially the second semester. I’m pretty sure 嗯 was never taught.

  17. 嗯…. I like to use that a lot too. It is “ng” sounds. I also like Aiya and aiyo a lot… I think it’s pretty cute. 🙂 However I noticed here in Chengdu , people answer the phone by “ha3 ha3 , ha3, ha3….” it sounds funny sometimes. I think they want to say “hao3” but kind of say it in a dialect way. Hence their “wei3” becomes “wa4”. 😉 Maybe it’s useful to make it a lesson .

  18. you can use 啊 with the four different tones like 啊2 for questioning,啊3 for big surprising,啊0(weak sound and just breath with your mouth open) for using at the end of your every question.It’s the best and the simplest way to be natural in response to the casual conversation with the Chinese.Good luck!

  19. Wow. I’m surprised that Integrated Chinese is missing such a big thing. I realize it’s not a perfect series, but I think that book one at least beats the heck out of PAVC book one.

    Does anybody here use BLCU Press books? Do they cover interjections and particles?

  20. Mark, Ive studied the BLCU books – pretty good stuff. They cover lots of grammar, today I learnt wu bu. The book gave three or four example of how to use it, but im still not sure.

    Ive gone through using mostly BLCU books, I find they are good for ‘serious’ studying. I use gao ji hanyu kou yu for learning conversation etc thats by Shanghai something uni.

  21. Matt, the “wa-so” sound is probably “wa-cao” which is on par with “holy shit.” (don’t know the characters) One of my friends hates it when I say it — I guess it’s not very classy, or she’s a prude?

    Anyway, I’ve adopted the rising “unhh” sound when I encounter something peculiar. I don’t think I’m going to lose that one anytime soon. It just makes so much sense. I do need to kick my “dui” habit, though.

  22. 水面風荷 Says: March 18, 2006 at 5:58 pm

    很有意思啊,我很喜歡你的文字. 我的msn是helenbaoyx@hotmail.com.

  23. isn’t “wo cao ” mean I f—? I don’t know… it seems that cao has that meaning…. at the beginning I thought guys were saying “welcome” in Chinese. Then they all laughed at me and I asked why and they said “NOT FOR CHILDREN”.
    Beijing Language and Cultural University has changed their name to Beijing Language Univerisity I think ? So it should be BLU books? Well they have good grammar, I agree.. but not easy for beginners. Too difficult… they often use to adademic words to describe and most people who haven’t learnt anything grammar or linguistics just don’t get it. I am using their “lu4” and they cover some useful phrases like “shuo1 bu shang3”. Nothing is perfect though….

  24. “Chinese Workbooks: Intermediate Chinese” by Yip Po-Ching and Don Rimmington, Routledge, reprinted 2003.

    On pgs 165 thru 169 it covers the idiomatic uses of ne 呢, and 170 thru 175 covers onomatopoei and interjection. He covers four versions/tones/meanings of 啊。The book is like a bible to me.

  25. it’s not wO cao, but wA cao. i guess you could translate it as wtf. but i’ve heard it at work before so i don’t think it’s that offensive.

  26. I would like to put my 2 cents in here.
    I assume everyone here knows pinyin.
    wo kao我靠, is something I here a lot of (I work in the Steel Industry).
    wo cao我操, by itself, rarely. If I do here it, there is a muted ‘nimade’ on the end of it.
    wo kao我靠,whenever I say it in front of my gf brings a swift rebuke for cursing, where as tamade (undirected toward anyone) does not. After 5 years of living hear I apologize for not being able to give a more definitive explanation, but a lot of people I have met just don’t know where the meanings come from.

  27. There seem to be some sentences in Chinese that are said at specific times which are not literal, exactly. For example, after a day with Chinese suppliers they would say 辛苦辛苦。 To which you are supposed to reply in a specific way. etc.

    It would be great, and quite helpful, to hear of similar sentences and the expected reply. Roy

  28. E. Felagund Says: April 30, 2007 at 1:13 am

    For those wondering about the cuss word “wa kao”:

    It’s derived from a Fujian dialect and means “I cry”.

    The significance of “kao” comes from another vularity “kao bei kao bu”, to weep (at their deaths) for your father and mother.

    Which probably explains the adverse reactions to its usage.

  29. My favorite Chinese grunt is the ‘hn’ sound

    Would that be 哼? Not sure, seems like it’s usually used for anger or exasperation.

  30. Thanks for an interesting perspective.
    Another weird grunt that I have problems getting used to is a Tibetan affirmative grunt that is made by voiced inhaling. In Russian that would mean being greatly surprised or shocked.

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