Monday 18 July 2011

nuh-nuh (2)

Friday’s blog garnered a very welcome wealth of comments. It appears that this defiant/mocking/taunting tune is indeed, if not universal, then at least very widespread. It seems to be found in all European languages (and their worldwide offshoots), though for example no one has yet reported it here for Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or any other non-European language.

How did I come to overlook the obviously related tune of Bye baby bunting? (Though the tune given in Wikipedia starts off with a narrower interval than the minor third we were discussing.)

I thought the most thought-provoking comment was one by MKR.
"Research seems to indicate that this exact constellation of two notes [viz., a falling minor third] (and its three-note variant) is the same all over the world, wherever children tease each other, on every continent and in every culture" (Leonard Bernstein, The Unanswered Question, lecture 1, "Musical Phonology"; starting at 27:00 in this video). Bernstein returns to the example in lecture 3, "The Delights and Dangers of Ambiguity" (at 08:45 in this video), where he attributes the prevalence of the pattern to its tonal ambiguity.

I watched the first hour of the first Bernstein lecture.

It seems to me that Bernstein’s discussion leading up to 27:00 involves some rather amateurish linguistics. The universals m and ɑ are not ‘phonemes’ found in all languages: rather, they are sound-types or phonetic segments that are supposedly universal.

Actually, though, and contrary to Bernstein’s claim, WALS reports thirteen languages with no nasals in their consonant inventory. (Some of these, it is true, may make use of m as a positional variant of some consonant that is otherwise not nasal.)
A total of 13 languages in the sample are listed as having no nasals in their consonant inventories. Some of these languages, such as Quileute (Chimakuan; Washington State), Rotokas (West Bougainville; Papua New Guinea) and Pirahã (Mura; Brazil), make no systematic use of nasality in their sound system at all; the last two have especially small phoneme inventories overall. The majority of these languages, however, do make use of nasality, but it patterns in such a way that simple nasal consonants do not need to be considered contrastive segments.

The Quileute language “is famous for its lack of nasal sounds, such as [m]”.

In Central Rotokas, we read,“nasals are rarely heard except when a native speaker is trying to imitate a foreigner’s attempt to speak Rotokas. In this case the nasals are used in the mimicry whether they were pronounced by the foreign speaker or not”.

In Pirahã, while there are no nasal phonemes, /b/, i.e. the consonant that is distinctively voiced and labial, is realized as [m] after a pause.

So Bernstein seems to be wrong about m, at least for Quileute and Central Rotokas. Likewise I am left wondering what evidence there is that, as he claims, “this exact constellation of two notes [viz., a falling minor third] (and its three-note variant) is the same all over the world, wherever children tease each other, on every continent and in every culture”.

It’s certainly a widespread, but is it a universal?


  1. Isn't there something similar to a rise-fall in the middle of the tune? I mean between the third and fourth "nuh" (Let's not forget the gossiping/mocking nature of that.)
    The simpler the tune the more widespread it may be (Who knows!).

  2. No, sorry, between the second and the third!

  3. I thought of Bye Baby Bunting, but dismissed the thought. Yes, the rhythmic phrasing is identical and the tune shares similarities. But it's surely impossible to sing it while attending to the words without changing at least one important note. The associations of the Baby Bunting text and the taunting tune are just too antipathetic.

    But could the taunting tune be (unconsciously) a sarcastic parody of a lullaby? Like (more consciously) prefacing a comment with 'Ah! Diddums!'

  4. I was born in Korea and spent childhood there, and while the said five note tune is certainly known and recognised in Korea, I really don't think it is often used there by local children. Personally I think it would come as a kind of Americanism (and by extension Westernism), and probably invoke images of stereotypical carefree American kids running around in a playground as seen in movies or TV shows like The Simpsons. I can't be completely sure though.

    One similar tune, however, that I do remember from Korea goes [AGAG (rest) EDED (rest)] which then is repeated (the third and fourth notes from each four note compound are a little bit longer than the first two). It can be sung with words or simple nah-nahs. One clear advantage this tune has over the 'American' one in Korean language situations is that it has room for much more syllables - even simple taunts like "A likes B" need the full 16-syllable length.

  5. For what it's worth, the lack of nasals in Quileute is an areal feature (shared by unrelated Wakashan languages Nitinaht and Makah and Salishan languages Lushootseed and Twana) in the Puget Sound area of the Northwest Coast. The loss of nasals is fairly recent, and nasals are used in some paralinguistic or narrative contexts, including baby talk and character names in myths and histories. So it's theoretically possible that Quileute could have a nasal taunt even though phonemically speaking the nasals have become voiced stops in the past couple hundred years.

  6. Professor Wells, I'm glad to know that you found my comment worthy of attention. In view of the musical interests that you have indicated in previous posts, I thought the reference might appeal to you.

    It has been decades since I watched Bernstein's Norton lectures, or some part of them, on television, but for some reason the business about the children's taunt stayed in my memory. More recently, I acquired a copy of the printed book of the lectures, though I have not yet read it. Still, it helped me to find the relevant passages. That Bernstein would get out of his depth both in his use of linguistic terminology and in his empirical claims does not surprise me at all.

  7. Nelson Muntz from the Simpsons, of course, has his mocking signature " HA-ha", which seems to mimic the first two notes of this phrase.

  8. I may have missed Jon's point about English versus Korean because I don't understand the alleged "disadvantage" of the English tune over the Korean one.

    In English at least, one can indeed say "A likes B" with a "nuh hunh" cadence as "Eh(1) lah(2)-eeks(3) bee(4)-ee(5)" (Numbers refer to the sequential notes of the nuh-hunh song.)

    The 5-note tune can then be creatively extended across many more syllables as in an example like "Bhupinder likes Anastasia" => "Boo-pin-der(1) likes(2) A-na(3)-steh(4)-zhah(5)."

    So the number of syllables isn't restricted at all. Of course, the more syllables in the taunt, the more it sounds ridiculous, thereby backfiring on the teasing brat. :o)

  9. Glen Gordon: I concede. I just kind of tried in my mind to set several Korean taunts that kids would make up to the five note tune and thought it was impossible because of the number of the syllables - but I guess that doesn't actually prevent the tune from being used.

  10. I'm surprised that nobody has consulted Iona and Peter Opie's 1959 The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren; surely they commented on this pervasive melody.

    Ella Fitzgerald recorded the nursery rhyme "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" to this melody in 1938; it's probably the traditional melody for the rhyme, which is attested back to 1879 (according to Wikipedia; source-checking would behoove the serious scholar). The song is apparently in Roud's Index at 13188; said serious scholar should go to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library (at and chase down all the references.

  11. I didn't see Jon's comment before leaving my comment on the first nuh-nuh post, but in that comment I described the same Korean taunt. I counted it as six syllables repeated twice (AAGAAG EEDEED) based on the default non-sense words 얼레리 꼴레리 /ʌl.le.ɾi k͈ol.le.ɾi/, but it can easily be sung with different numbers of syllables as needed to fit specific taunts.

    I've spent so much of my life outside of Korea that I cannot say for sure that the five-note tune is well known in Korea, but Jon's report that it is at least recognizable although still marked as foreign makes sense.

    I can definitely say that I can't ever recall hearing the five-note taunt set in Korean, and trying to imagine such a thing sounds terribly unnatural in my head.

  12. I grew up in Malaysia and went to an English-medium school, and am familiar to the tune in English. I have some Malay and Chinese. While I can fit some Malay taunts into the tune, it sounds strange. I can't fit Chinese taunts into the tune.

  13. I'd like to become a Wikipedia editor. But now I have to get a scholarship for college. THis article helped me a lot!


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