I always thought that the response to pain, which people usually express with 'ouch' or 'ow' is a natural response which is the same for all languages.

Although spelled differently the same and similar words are used in German and Finnish.

But after learning Afrikaans (where 'eina' is used) it seems to me that these verbal expressions are something that is taught and not a natural response.

Where do the English expressions come from, and why are the Afrikaans/Dutch expressions different since they are all Germanic languages.

  • In italian we say "ahia" for "ouch" (pronounced AH-EE-AH), the "ee" here is actually a semivowel sound [j]. – Alenanno Sep 27 '12 at 14:57
  • 3
    It seems natural that such things would have a cultural component, just like how animal sounds vary between languages despite being onomatopoeic in nature. – acattle Sep 27 '12 at 15:53
  • Also /itai/ in Japanese. – Mechanical snail Sep 28 '12 at 5:52
  • See en.wiktionary.org/wiki/ouch#Translations; /ax/ /ox/ /ai(a)/ /au/ look very common, and some others look superficially different but are probably sound-changed versions thereof (Armenian vax, Danish av). – Mechanical snail Sep 28 '12 at 5:55
  • The ones I can't immediately explain are Kimaragang: odoi, Malay aduh, Tagalog: aray, aruy, aguy, Vietnamese: úi da, and Japanese and Afrikaans above. – Mechanical snail Sep 28 '12 at 5:56

Looking at the origin of the two expressions you cite (ouch and ow) it does not appear that there is a clear and common development pattern (onomatopoeia for instance) for pain expressions:

Ouch is a relatively recently expression imported from the German language into AmE in the first part of the 18th century:

  • 1837, from Pennsylvania German outch, cry of pain, from German autsch. The Japanese word is itai. Latin used au, hau. (Etymonline)

Ow is much older, but its usage as a pain expression is more recent than ouch:

  • 14c. as an exclamation of surprise; 1919 as an expression of sudden pain.

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