Date: Tue, 10 Oct 1995 21:22:22 EDT


Subject: Who's got the right one, baby (UH-HUH)?

This query concerns not soda, pop, soda pop, coke, or soft drink, but 'uh-huh'

and its negative companion, 'uh-uh'. Spellings are of course approximate, but

I'm following the OED Supplement and J. C. Wells (Accents of English, vol. 3:

Beyond the British Isles, 1982), who describes them as follows, in a section

devoted to borrowings into Am. Eng. via the 'creole, African-derived

substratum' of Black English. (I use [AT SYMBOL GOES HERE] for schwa, V~ for nasalized vowel,

M for voiceless bilabial nasal, and ? for glottal stop.)

There are also the grunts sometimes spelt UH-HUH and UH-UH

respectively. The first, 'yes', is phonetically ['[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]~h[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]~, 'mMm],

hence nasal or nasalized; it usually has a rising tone pattern...

The second, 'no', is ['?[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]?'?[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE], '?[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]~?'?[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]~, '?m?'m], sometimes with

a lengthened final segment, an initial [h], and/or a final extra

glottal stop; it is not necessarily nasal, and has an accented

final syllable, with an obligatorily falling tonal pattern.

(Wells 1982: 556)

Wells goes on to assert that the positive "grunt" is 'quite at home in

Britain', while the negative uh-uh is a recent import from the States or West

Indies--via Africa. This split-source hypothesis seems odd to me, given

how closely the two forms (each with its open and close-mouthed versions)

track each other in modern (American) English. Wells is also close-mouthed

himself on just WHAT African source he has in mind for 'uh-huh'. Nor is the

OED much help: it just indicates that each is of [Imitative] origin.

One wonders: Imitative of what? As one of my students reminds me, there's

also a variant of the negative "grunt" that can be transcribed as 'nuh-uhn'

(modulo the usual arbitrariness of these spellings).

I assume, without any particular evidence, that this represents a

relatively recent blend of our (Afro-)American 'uh-uh' above with the initial

n- of so many negative adverbs and particles. Can anyone out there clarify

any of these histories or geographies?


P.S. I love Webster's (NID3) solution to the phonetics of 'uh-huh': within

the usual backslashes we find not the usual symbols or any approximation

thereof, but the prose statement \a disyllabic sound with m-sounds at the

beginning & end, an h-like interval of voicelessness between, & heavier stress

on the first member...\ (Incidentally, I'm not sure I agree with Webster's

and Wells in finding uh-huh primarily stressed on the initial syllable.) As

for uh-uh, it doesn't seem to be in Webster's at all, despite its appearance in

Dashiell Hammett's Maltese Falcon (1930, cited by the OED).