I would like to know whether nasally produced sounds like "Mmmm" or "Hmmm" constitute verbal or non-verbal language. Essentially I am a language testing professional, operating within very narrowly defined boundaries of permissible interaction. In this case verbal interaction is forbidden, but body language is encouraged.

I am attempting to resolve the issue of whether the words above are part of body language or not. I would like to make it clear that these sounds are nasal in nature, produced with the lips sealed and can convey multiple meanings. They are distinct from other sounds like "uh", "ah-ha" or "eh" that would be produced using the mouth. In addition the nasal "hmmm" is different from the "hmmm / h'm" or "hem" which is produced as a slight cough. I appreciate you taking the time to deal with this query.

  • 3
    The term "non-verbal" can mean either of two things: not using language/words; or, without making any sound with the mouth. Which do you intend here? Either way, "Mmmm"/"Hmmm" is not a part of the English language (so it's non-verbal in the sense of being non-linguistic), but is a part of paralinguistic communication. May 31 '12 at 13:34
  • So, were you asking for chinese or english? This question is still rather unclear.
    – Alenanno
    Jun 1 '12 at 15:15
  • For English. However the people doing the speaking are usually Chinese. I am now thinking it would probably be best classified, as Gaston Umlaut suggested, as paralinguistic and as Musicalinguist suggested, as non-verbal. It is not however body language so I can't define it as such. Rather nebulous stuff. Jun 1 '12 at 23:43
  • @Alenanno What makes you think he could be talking about Chinese? I don't see any particular language mentioned in the OP.
    – Zgialor
    Mar 15 '15 at 23:22
  • @GastonÜmlaut Could "mmm" and "hmmm" be considered interjections? Sure, monosyllabic English words don't usually have syllabic consonants, but interjections don't always follow the normal phonotactic rules of a language; c.f. "yeah", which has the checked vowel /æ/ in an open syllable.
    – Zgialor
    Mar 15 '15 at 23:24

The premise that there are only two modes of communication — verbal communication and "body language" — and that these two categories are complements of each other is fundamentally flawed.

The term verbal communication refers to communication involving words, and the term body language refers to communication involving visual cues involving parts of the body. But there are ways to communicate using sounds that are non-verbal, and as a linguist I would argue that signed languages, which are completely non-vocal and involve movement of the body, fall under the category of verbal communication.

There is a whole dimension of language called prosody that is outside of the domain of the pronunciation of consonants and vowels. This term covers variations in pitch, loudness, and rhythm in speech, all aspects of speech that can be controlled by a person without opening her mouth or moving any articulators. It has been shown that babies become sensitive to the prosody of their mother's native language while in-utero and can distinguish it from the prosody of other languages as soon as they are born.

We also control the pitch, loudness, pace, and timbre of our speech to indicate pragmatic things like our intentions, attitude, and expectations, and also to convey emotions and mood.

Consider for a moment a patient in a hospital who has been in a horrible accident and is confined to a full-body cast with her jaw wired shut. How would she communicate with the hospital staff and with visitors? Not with body language, that's for sure! And not verbally. I would call it vocal communication. She could use mm-HM and MM-mm (with the appropriate pitch contours) for "yes" and "no", respectively. She could indicate pain or discomfort with higher, shriller sounds and pleasure or delight with longer falling sounds (think of the sounds we make when we are getting a great massage or eating something yummy).

She could let people know she was questioning something or being emphatically sure about something by raising the pitch or making it fall, respectively, at the end of a given "utterance". If people had the right context in mind, she could even convey exact words and phrases by "saying" them with the appropriate stress and rhythm without opening her mouth. For example, if it were clear to her mother that she wanted her to get someone, it might be enough to utter "mmm-m-m-MMM-mm" for "Doctor Mendoza". If she were feeling extra creative, she could even hum songs with certain key lyrics or titles to get certain messages across.

I would be hard-pressed to put any of the above examples into the category of body language, especially since they could be used over the phone! I think your study needs to take into account modes of communication that are both non-verbal and non-"body" and you need to decide whether or not such means of communication are permissible in your experiment.

As a side note, whether or not the mouth is open should not be used as a criterion for anything. Many linguistic speech sounds are made with the mouth closed--in fact it's the alternating open-closed state of the vocal tract that gives us consonants and vowels. And there are languages that allow whole words to be uttered with the lips together. For example, in Cantonese the word for "not" is pronounced [m].


"Mmm" is a vocal expression, almost a sound that many people of the USA (and possibly more places) will make... often times expressing that they like something, of find something appealing in a number ways.

"Hmm" is also a vocal expression, but in this case it represents feeling inquisitive, imaginative or otherwise pensive.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.