April 29, 2004


In the April 19/26 New Yorker, David Owen describes a meeting in Phoenix, AZ, between two writers for the Hallmark greeting-card company and about 20 members of the public. After one of the guests shares a personal greeting-card story, Owen reports this exchange between Hallmark editor Michelle Keller and the audience:

"That's wonderful," Keller said. "And for being the first brave soul to share a story we would like to present you with the Hallmark Blushing Bears.' She held up a pair of white plush Teddy bears dressed in red outfits -- a popular item during this year's Valentine's Day card-buying season. Keller made the bears kiss by pressing their (magnetic) noses together, and a red light inside the female bear's cheeks glowed: a blush. When the other women saw this, they made a sound that is impossible to represent typographically but was approximately "Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww!" [emphasis added]

(That's 17 w's, if I've counted right).

It's odd to say that this sound is "impossible to represent typographically". In a sense, no sound can be represented typographically, except perhaps by printing all the numerical values of a digitally sampled waveform. However, Google finds 564 pages with one 'a' followed by 17 instances of 'w', and many of them seem to be instances of the same category of vocal display that Owen recorded, like this one (which comes up first for me):

Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww. Sounds like you need a hug *^_^*.

It's true that the number of w's is not standardized, but that just means that people have found many, many different ways to indicate this vocal display typographically -- and Owen is pretty far out on the statistical tail in the choice that he made:

# of w's
564 683 908 1600 2,030 3,550 4,290 5,610 7,860 11,500 16,500 31,100 57,400 131,000 330,000

16: Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwww Soooo cute!
15: awwwwwwwwwwwwwww its soooooooo cute!!!!!
14: awwwwwwwwwwwwww... sweet!
13: awwwwwwwwwwwww those rabbits are so cute!!
12: awwwwwwwwwwww *wipes a tear away*
11: ... awwwwwwwwwww....sweet!!
10: Awwwwwwwwww, what a cutie.
9: awwwwwwwww, bless you look so cute when you was younger.
8: Awwwwwwww This picture is so cute, I can't stop laughing.
7: AWWWWWWW! This is my best friend Eric's puppy- "Bonus". He's just too cute not to share with the world.
6: AWwwwww!! This was just the sweetest story!! I
5: Awwwww. How CUTE!
4: Awwww...Sweet...
3: Awww... You have to watch the slideshow of Annabella on Megan's blog. This little cutey is adorable

And so on...

"Aw+" -- however we decide to spell it -- is just as well-defined a category of vocal display as "wonderful" or "Keller" is. But it's true that it's a different kind of thing. It doesn't refer to a person, place or thing, it doesn't denote a predicate that can be applied to different arguments, it doesn't represent the grammatical relationship of various other words in a phrase. Instead, it expresses a certain feeling. In that respect, it seems somewhat like the communicative displays of animals. As David Hume put it:

It is evident, that sympathy, or the communication of passions, takes place among animals, no less than among men. Fear, anger, courage, and other affections are frequently communicated from one animal to another, without their knowledge of that cause, which produced the original passion.

We also share with animals the ability to express our "affections" with different degrees of intensity. By choosing 17 w's, Owen is trying to suggest a pretty intense -- or at least prolonged -- form of the vocal display spelled "Aw+".

However, if we look a little further in Google's index, we can see that it's not quite right to say that Aw+ "expresses a feeling," since it can clearly be used sarcastically or insincerely:

Now please answer my questions or can you not even do that? I know what I wrote and I don't have to read it again. Did I hurt your feelings, awwwwww poor baby. ...You need to grow up.

Rather, Aw+ conventionally purports to express a certain feeling. Or something like that.

It's often claimed that animals act deceptively -- a standard example is a parent bird pretending to have a broken wing to lead a predator away from its nest -- but it remains controversial whether this is ever done with a real intention to cause another creature to have a false belief. And I don't know of any purported examples of what one might call "animal sarcasm", though it's logically possible. Thus just a human might say "oh terrific, happy days are here again, tofu meatloaf for dinner!", similarly a dog might sarcastically wag its tail to express disapproval of being served kibble yet again. It doesn't seem likely.

There are several interesting questions about the human (American English?) vocal display in question. One is whether Aw+ is ambiguous, or whether there might be several different similar displays to be distinguished here, since one "sense" is an expression of pleasure in perceiving something cute (like most of the examples cited above), whereas another "sense" is an expression of sympathy for someone who is hurt:

Awwwwwwww, too bad, if ya want to cheer up, goto my HOMEPAGE!!!
AWWWWWWWW poor guy that is girl is mean!!!!!
awwwwwwww big hugssssss ~~~~ thats SUCKS when that happens

Both sets of examples represent a kind of nurturant maternal cooing, but the situations and the feelings seem quite different.

Finally, there's the question of how this vocal display varies across languages and cultures. I don't know the answer to this question, but I would guess that a similar vocal display is available to pretty much every human, but with somewhat different phonetic details.

Even in the case of American English, there's a phonetic question to which I don't know the answer. The sound that I associate with the typography Aw+ is a low-mid back rounded vowel usually indicated by IPA "open o" [ɔ], as in my pronunciation of the words in J.C. Wells' "lexical set" THOUGHT. But many Americans have merged the vowel in this set of words with the vowel in the lexical set LOT (so that caught and cot are said the same way), and pronounce all of them with an unrounded vowel that is something like IPA [ɐ] (or ever fronter to [a]). So do people who merge caught and cot pronounce Aw+ with [ɔ:]? or with [ɐ:] or [a:]? I think that they still use [ɔ:], but I'm not sure.

[Update 4/30/2004: Neal Whitman emails:

In my experience here in central Ohio, the answer to your question is no. In the intro lx class I taught last year, most students made no distinction between [a] and [open o], pronouncing both as [a], but when I asked them what they'd say in the presence of a cute little puppy or kitten, they produced the [open o] with no problem.

I suspect that this is the general situation.

Daniel Ezra Johnson emailed to point out that Google also reports sequences with "ah+" parallel to some of those with "aw+". He tried "ah+ baby", but as he points out, many of these use "ahh" etc. to represent a completely different vocal display. However, "ah+ how cute" works better. Thus we have

aww how cute     4,580
ahh how cute       368

with examples like

Ohh here's a picture of my goddaughter enjoying her first christmas, ahh how cute

As Daniel suggests in his note, this is as likely to be a different idea about the appropriate way to spell the sound [ɔ:] ("open o"), as a different idea about the right sound to make to express shared pleasure in perceiving something small and cute.]

[One other comment: Charles Darwin observed, collected and documented every fact that he could about every area that interested him. Yet his book " The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals" does not, as far as I can tell, mention the vocalization(s) we're discussing here. Perhaps this is because he paid much more attention in that book to facial expressions than to vocal displays -- I'm reluctant to believe that it could be because Aw+ was unknown in Victorian England, or in any of the other places where he would have had a chance to observe it.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 29, 2004 02:35 PM