What do you say when you stub your toe? In English, we exclaim ouch, ow or yeow when we hurt ourselves. The Germans and Dutch say something similar: autsch or au, in the case of German, and au(w) in Dutch. Sudden pain provokes a different sort of sound (variations on /aɪ/) from French, Arabic and Chinese speakers: aïe (/aɪiː/), آيْ (/aɪ/) and 哎哟 (/aɪ jəʊ/). The Japanese word for ouch is even further from the English: 痛い ( /iˈtai/ ).
What about when you’ve escaped something bad? For English speakers, phew can express relief. /u:f/ is the sound several other languages use to express the same emotion – French, Russian, Arabic and Dutch among them.
And how do you express disgust? If we discovered a fly in our soup, we might exclaim yuck, ugh or eww, while the French would say berk, the Germans and Dutch bah, the Russians фу (/fuː/) or брр (/brr/) and the Egyptians خْس (/xs/).
Some exclamations are less like normal words than just sounds that we make: groans, shouts, yelps, snorts and so on. They help us convey a vast range of emotions and reactions to things: surprise, shock, pleasure, excitement, disgust, anger, pain, uncertainty, scepticism, cold … and more! They can be onomatopoeic; and as such their spelling is often tricky and variable.
How much exclamations are characteristic of particular languages, and not human sounds generally, is apparent when we compare equivalents in different languages: sometimes they are similar, often not. As well as differences in expressing emotions, we might also express what we hear differently too. While cats sound similar across many languages, words for other animal sounds can be very diverse. Take dogs, for example: they say woof in English, ouah in French, гав (/ɡʌf/) in Russian, عَوْعَوْ (/‘aw ‘aw/) in Arabic, and 汪汪 (/wæŋ wæŋ/) in Chinese.
And different varieties of English, e.g. North American English, Indian English and Scottish English, also have exclamations that are specific to them. Here are some examples from the online version of Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary:
Let’s look in detail at another South African exclamation that has gained currency in the last couple of decades: the exclamation eish. It is pronounced /eɪʃ/ and is used to express a range of emotions such as surprise, annoyance and pain.
Exclamations like these that are specific to particular varieties of English, can tell us interesting stories about the places they come from. Eish has come to English via mixed languages that include words from Afrikaans and African languages. And these mixed languages developed as youth and street languages in the townships of South Africa – a township under apartheid being an area in which non-white people lived, e.g. Soweto, near a white-only community where they went to work.
While the word eish started its life as township slang, since the abolition of apartheid in 1991, it has been used more and more widely throughout South Africa, particularly among the younger generations.
It is a versatile word which can be used alone, at the beginning or end of an utterance, or be inserted for emphasis in the middle of a sentence. Here are some citations from the Oxford English Corpus showing something of the word’s richness and range:
Eish ja, we did start off with cold feet, I must be honest.
Eish man, love at first sight.
Is it possible to get a link for the tribute show they did on Monday? I missed it and I soooo wanted to see it eish.
It is really good eish.
I know as a fan I should defend her but eish sometimes it’s hard, cause she does things I don’t agree with.
The variety, versatility and expressiveness of exclamations make them an exciting part of the English language and an interesting point of comparison with other languages. If exploring these words makes you go ‘wow!’, you might want to go and look at the ‘More Like This’ cross references on exclamations and animal sounds. You will find sets of similar expressions, and Premium users can download activities to practise them.
Eish is not yet in the online version of Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary but is coming soon.
Janet Phillips is a Senior Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries & Reference Grammar department. She has been editing bilingual dictionaries and grammar reference materials for learners of English for more than 20 years – wowee!