In English, a 'gasp' exclamation seems to be the only word spoken while inhaling. Though it is sometimes implied that the expression is not voluntary, it typically is in most conversations.

I was curious though, are there other languages and cultures that actually speak more complex words while inhaling? It seems entirely possible, even if the articulation is somewhat limited. Does anyone know of any examples?

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    There are several varieties of ingressive sounds. Click consonants use ingressive mouth air and voiced implosives use ingressive throat air. The Swedish backchannel conversational marker (equivalent to English "uh huh") is a breathy vowel with ingressive lung air.
    – jlawler
    Mar 11, 2014 at 20:10
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    Note that the OP is asking specifically about speaking while inhaling, which would technically limit the relevant answers to pulmonic ingressive sounds. Several of the answers below are therefore not directly relevant. Mar 12, 2014 at 12:27
  • I wonder whether the OP was deliberately meaning to include only pulmonic ingressive sounds, or ehtehr "while inhaling" was a more loose term indicating air going inwards rather than outwards? Mar 12, 2014 at 13:32
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    The mischief in me wants to suggest Tenacious D's 'inward singing' youtube.com/watch?v=HeKx6EuMZWM&feature=kp (caution, may contain rude words) Mar 12, 2014 at 15:14

9 Answers 9


Yes, in such a case you would be talking about Ingressive sounds (the air flows in), whereas most languages are typically egressive (the air flows out).

It occurs in Scandinavian languages, sometimes in English (the gasp you talked about), and Brazilian Portuguese. As stated in the article:

Speech technologist Robert Eklund has found reports of ingressive speech in around 50 languages worldwide, dating as far back as Cranz's (1765) "Historie von Grönland, enthaltend… " where it is mentioned in female affirmations among the Eskimo.

You will find more concrete examples in the page linked above.

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    Yes, in certain southern dialects of Norwegian the standard word for yes ja is pronounced with ingressive pulmonic air. My linguistic textbooks considered those sounds edge cases and I don't believe they've been found in wide use (besides a handful of phonemes) in any language.
    – sventechie
    Mar 12, 2014 at 1:04
  • @sventechie Yes, some of these examples seem not to be widely used, but I wanted to share some of them here in order to avoid leaving the answer without any information at all. If you feel like it, we can further expand my answer to treat each case more in depth, albeit briefly, in order to present a more accurate answer. :)
    – Alenanno
    Mar 12, 2014 at 9:20
  • I think your answer is good. But it is worth noting that since they only occur in 2--5 words per language and never contrastively (e.g., there is no egressive word ja in Norwegian that means something else) they are not considered phonemes. I'd be interested if there are polysyllabic words spoken ingressively, since all the Scandinavian words (ja, nej, ju, etc.) I know of are monosyllabic. Any ideas?
    – sventechie
    Mar 16, 2014 at 23:44
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    @sventechie It is contrastive, at least kinda, in that ingressive "ja" is the backchannel marker, and egressive "ja" is the word for "yes". Aug 29, 2019 at 8:40
  • @OmarL While it’s true that the ingressive ja is more common in backchannelling, the distinction is not clear-cut. The backchannel marker can be egressive, and a positive answer to a question can be ingressive as well. It’s similar to yeah and m-hm/uh-huh in English. All three can be used for both purposes, but yeah is much more likely to be lexical and the others more likely to be backchannelling. May 20, 2022 at 16:31

In Icelandic, people often say the word "yes" (já) while inhaling. But like in the examples of Swedish and Norwegian, this is a special case.

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    Likewise for Finnish joo. This seems to be a Scandinavian areal feature.
    – TKR
    Mar 12, 2014 at 4:08
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    Danish too, since it's being left out.
    – dainichi
    Mar 12, 2014 at 6:57
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    Newfoundland (and some other pockets of the Canadian Maritimes) English also has ingressive "yeah".
    – Fred
    Sep 23, 2014 at 18:47

There's another sound "in English" which is usually written as "tsk" which is the sound you make when you when indicating disapproval (tsk-tsk-tsk). So "gasp" is not the only ingressive sound used by English speakers :)

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    This is true, but the 'tsk' sound is not a pulmonic ingressive (i.e., it is not created by inhaling), so it is not directly relevant for the OP's question. Mar 12, 2014 at 12:34
  • Oh interesting. I never realized I was inhaling when saying "tsk", but it turns out I am!
    – coffeematt
    Mar 12, 2014 at 18:12
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    @user3281 you're not! You're creating a vacuum with your tongue, which causes the air to rush inward when you release it. But you can convince yourself that you're not inhaling by exhaling through your nose while making the 'tsk' sound. Mar 12, 2014 at 18:23

There are also the so called "click languages" of Africa. (The movie "The Gods Must Be Crazy" features a lot of it) The only ones I can name off the top of my head are !Xoon and !Kung.

  • They are also the only languages I know of where characters we use as punctuation are used as actual phonemes. E.G. "!" is an actual sound in !kung. It's a sound I can describe, but can't seem to wrap my mouth around. Basically do a tongue click against the roof of your mouth and blend into the x sound as in fox or box. This requires air ingress, but just into the throat, followed by an egress, again, just the air within mouth and throat, little lung action at all.

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      "Characters" are not "phonemes". I think you have confused language and script.
      – fdb
      Mar 12, 2014 at 10:05
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      Clicks are lingual ingressives (i.e., the inward airflow is created by tongue movement as opposed to inhalation), so they are not directly relevant for the OP's question. Mar 12, 2014 at 12:33

    The above-mentioned Wikipedia articles “ingressive sounds” and “implosive consonant” are not too bad as descriptions of the sounds concerned, but are not very comprehensive in their enumeration of the languages affected. They fail (for example) to mention that one major language, namely Vietnamese, has implosive ɓ and ɗ (orthographic b and đ) as part of its phonological system.

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      Note, though, that implosive consonants are not pulmonic implosives (i.e., they are not produced by inhaling), so Vietnamese wouldn't be directly relevant for the OP's question. Mar 12, 2014 at 12:31

    I found this in Cape Breton.there was no pause between the exhale and inhale as the sentence continued. Fascinating little pocket of linguistics.


    Just to add to the list of special cases, in French, when someone has made a big mistake, or if something really risky is ongoing, one can do an ingressive sound to signify the high probably that things go bad.

    Same sound when by empathy you imagine the hurt someone may feel, about an injury for example. And I would also use it myself to express my own pain.

    It is a sound close to f and ʃ, but done while breathing in air strongly. It remotely resemble the english 'phew', but with more intensity, no voicing at all, (and of course ingressive).

    I would list it as an onomatopoeia. Not as a dedicated word, but it conveys meaning. I would say it can mean pain or danger.

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      This exists in English, too, meaning roughly “Ooh, trouble!”. Japanese has a similar phenomenon where the air is usually drawn in intradentally (between the teeth) instead of labiodentally (between lip and teeth), and it’s used as a taboo-avoiding way of saying “No way in hell”. May 21, 2022 at 19:48

    In France many people say "ouais" (casual "yes") while inhaling. I found this page looking for other languages' examples and I found this very interesting, thanks.

    • +1. But I would not say that many. I found it hard to pronouce it this way, but after some try, I could do the "ouais" inhaling. I recognize it, but according to me it is seldom used this way: it gives another sense to the informal "ouais". Basically, the senses of "ouais" can be very different, emphasing/magnifying or not emotions like joy, boredom, etc... Ingressive "ouais" adds for me a distinctive meaning, close to either fear, or making fun of. I do think I would probably pronouce it myself this way unwillingly, inconsciously. Just my 2 cents, I spent only a few minutes thinking about it Dec 27, 2022 at 12:14

    Regarding the Scandinavian inhaled "ja" - this is at least in Norwegian pretty non-standard.

    The intended (usually comic) effect when uttered by an adult is maudling, whingeing or extremely insulted, mimicking a child trying to speak on both in- and outbreath whilst crying.

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