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Swedish Pulmonic Ingressives

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In northern Sweden, the word yes is widely communicated by a sound that’s reminiscent of someone sucking through a straw. It’s called the pulmonic ingressive. Linguist Robert Eklund calls this a neglected universal, meaning that it’s only recently been recognized as a sound that’s part of many languages around the world, even though it’s been around for a while. In one study, Swedes talking on the phone used ingressive speech when they thought they were speaking with a human, but not when they thought they were conveying the same information to a computer. This is part of a complete episode.

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  • I learned Swedish in northern Sweden.

    This pulmonic ingressive is more common and more pronounced the further north you go in Sweden, although you will hear it everywhere in the country.

    What I thought was interesting is that foreigners who settle in Sweden (and who learn Swedish well) eventually begin using this sound in the same way (and for the same purposes) as Swedes. It is not ‘taught’ in Swedish classes, but it one of the things people begin using because everyone around them is using it.

    I see a similar thing among foreigners who learn English in Texas— you know that their language learning is being reinforced and accelerated by good social integration with locals when they begin using “y’all” in the same way that locals do.

    Swedes will sometimes do this even while speaking other languages; I think because it is such an automatic and involuntary action, sort of like body language like gesturing or nodding your head while conversing.

    There are several variations. Usually it is used as either an affirmative answer to a yes/no question (such as “Did you finish your homework?”) or back-channeling (to convey the feeling that the listener is following another person’s story, instructions, etc.), somewhat like Americans might add “okay…”, “uh-huh…”, “right..”, etc.

    It is also used as a negative, both as a negative answer to a yes/no question, as well to affirm a negative when listening (back-chaneling), for example to express agreement with a negative statement such as “Naturally, you don’t want to run out of vodka on Valborg evening.” Then it sounds like “nay.”

    The Swedish pulmonic ingressives are mostly unvoiced (meaning that you hear only the air movement through the lips), but both the affirmative and negative versions are also commonly voiced (meaning that you also hear the vocal cords).

    In the northern half of Sweden, you will hear women use a two-syllable version as an affirmative answer to a yes/no question, or to confirm the correctness of a statement such as, “So I have to take a number at the liquor store?” There is a glottal stop between the syllables (meaning your throat closes sharply), and it is most commonly voiced. It sounds like “yah-ah” and sounds like a voiced hiccup.

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