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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 '14 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. – musicallinguist Mar 12 '14 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? – GreenAsJade Mar 12 '14 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) – StackExchange What The Heck Mar 12 '14 at 15:14
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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 '14 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 '14 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 '14 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". – OmarL Aug 29 '19 at 8:40
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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 '14 at 4:08
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    Danish too, since it's being left out. – dainichi Mar 12 '14 at 6:57
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    Newfoundland (and some other pockets of the Canadian Maritimes) English also has ingressive "yeah". – Fred Sep 23 '14 at 18:47
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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. – musicallinguist Mar 12 '14 at 12:34
  • Oh interesting. I never realized I was inhaling when saying "tsk", but it turns out I am! – coffeematt Mar 12 '14 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. – musicallinguist Mar 12 '14 at 18:23
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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 '14 at 10:05
    • 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. – musicallinguist Mar 12 '14 at 12:33
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    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. – musicallinguist Mar 12 '14 at 12:31
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    I found this in Cape Breton.there was no pause between the exhale and inhale as the sentence continued. Fascinating little pocket of linguistics.

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    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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    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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