There are some words that are, well, not words. Linguists have a lot of names for them, none especially clear-cut: interjections, exclamations, non-lexical conversational sounds. (For native speakers of American English, think “hmm,” “uh-huh,” et al.)
Interjection is the favored umbrella term. In English, they’re utterances like “shhh!” or “wow!” or that throat-clearing, cough-like sound we make when scoffing.
If you’re learning another language, an interjection is often the last thing you learn, but it often the most vital. After all, it’s the tiniest aspects of conversance—the filler words, the language-specific onomatopoeia—that demonstrate real fluency.
In this sense, interjections are the only words you can say that “show instead of tell.” They’re demonstrative: “If I say ‘my head hurts,’ you could reply ‘don’t lie, your head doesn’t hurt,’” Dr. Tim Wharton, a linguist at the University of Brighton in the UK and an expert on “utterance interpretation,” told Quartz in an email. “But if I shout ‘ouch!’, you can hardly accuse me of lying.”
“Non-words” are used in everyday conversation from Moscow to Mexico City, Guangzhou to Glasgow. (In the video above, Quartz editors and reporters give a few examples in their native, second, third, and even fourth languages.)
“Words are only one element of a whole set of tools humans use to communicate meanings,” said Wharton. “Sometimes, we don’t want to describe how we’re feeling, we want to express it more directly.”
It is this underlying, transcultural compulsion that inspires interjection. But part of what makes them interesting, according to Wharton, is the fact that they’re really not part of any language. They don’t necessarily abide by grammatical or phonetic frameworks. “The interjection ‘yugh’ ends in a guttural sound that is not even a linguistic sound of English,” he said.
Neither do interjections depend on other statements. “Typically, they stand alone, as utterances in their own right, which may be another reason to suggest they’re not part of language proper,” Wharton explained.
“In English, for example, you often hear ‘yay’, ‘yugh’ or ‘ouch’ as stand-alone utterances in their own right. But it would be fairly unusual to hear someone utter ‘dog’ or ‘beer!’ You could order a beer in a bar by shouting ‘beer!’ but in the UK you’d be just as likely to get punched!”
Furthermore, the meanings of interjections are “notoriously hard to pin down,” Whaton said. They are, in technical linguistic terms, “descriptively ineffable.”
What is the precise definition of an interjection? As they say in Italy, “boh!”