Four years ago today Language Lounge went live with a column about sound symbolism. As an anniversary observance we return to the topic this month, begging the indulgence of readers to venture out on a limb with us.

Our inchoate ideas about this small corner of sound symbolism began earlier this year, when we were in the middle of a bout of binge singing: over the course of three months we sang with various choirs and orchestras in eight performances of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the "choral symphony," whose last movement is a choral setting of Schiller's poem An die Freude (or "Ode to Joy," as it is usually expanded by translators). This was a pleasantly intoxicating experience, during which we observed:

  1. The English word joy and its nearest German equivalent, Freude, though sharing no identifiable ancestor, contain the roughly the same diphthong.
  2. Throughout the choral movement of the Ninth Symphony, Beethoven almost never fails to mark notes in which this diphthong is sung as sforzando — that is, suddenly loud.
  3. Stripped of its consonantal companions, the sound represented by this diphthong is viewed as constituting a word in English, and is recorded in dictionaries as the exclamation or interjection oy or oi.

Merely coincidental, or bizarrely significant? We decided to take the latter as our working hypothesis, and thus entered a semantic quagmire from which we have not yet emerged. Those who have used Google to try to locate information that they hope exists will be familiar with the phenomenon. Prudence guided us to abandon the quest at every turn, but each morsel of information we came across only served to pique our curiosity further, while still failing to answer the burning questions:

  1. Is there any reliable pattern of sound symbolism associated with diphthongs? Or more narrowly,
  2. Is there evidence that certain people of northern European descent find it a life-affirming experience to shout or sing /oi/ and so have invented a variety of contexts for doing so?

The quest for sound symbolism in diphthongs did not bear any gratifying fruit, though there were some interesting red herrings (see links below), and curious intertwinings with the narrower question (read on). The matter of oi/oy is thorny; we started our quest in dictionaries, a time-honored method of research in the Lounge.

English dictionaries differ in their treatment of oi/oy, and display, to some degree, a bit of national bias. The American dictionaries that treat the diphthong in isolation tend to take an easy way out: they lemmatize oy, list Yiddish as the language of origin (most of them noting oy veh as the full form), and define the word as an exclamation expressing some combination of the following (curiously, mainly negative) emotions:

  • dismay, pain, annoyance, grief  (Random House Unabridged)
  • exasperation or dismay (Merriam-Webster)
  • surprise, pain, grief, worry (Webster's New World)

British dictionaries, perhaps less reverent of Yiddish and more reverent of Cockney, have a different approach: they tend to lemmatize oi, class it as an interjection, and do not identify a language of origin — implying, perhaps, that Britons vocalize the sound quite naturally.

Are we talking about two different words here? Well, you might think so, but then the OED takes you on an unexpectedly merry chase. There, we find oi defined as an interjection used to attract attention — an experience that can easily be borne out by a visit to any East London street market — or to express objection or annoyance. This entry cross-references to oy, which in turn is noted as being derived from hoy. What does hoy mean? Turns out that it's:

A cry used to call attention; also to incite or drive beasts, esp. hogs. . . In nautical language, used in hailing or calling aloft.

And where does hoy come from? Why, it's "a natural exclamation."

Now, just what is a "natural exclamation"? Is it something that a caveperson would produce unprompted? And who gets to decide this? We scoured the OED for other such creatures and found that a number of words are deemed to be natural utterances and exclamations (one word, ay, is actually a "natural ejaculation"). The pattern of all words so designated in the OED is that they are classed as interjections and they contain only one syllable, typically with one or no consonant sounds. Their vowel may be simple, or a diphthong. In other words, they collectively seem to represent a sort of proto-language, an alphabetic recording of the utterances and vocalizations that might be expected to issue from the human voice box before it produced organized language.

This observation set circuits firing in the Lounge brain around two topics: glottogony (the origins of language) and onomatopoeia, a phenomenon associated with some language origin theories, and with primitive human attempts at naming things. We set our sights on words in Merriam-Webster's 11th that have "imitative" in the etymology: "imitative" is the M-W black-box word, the one indicating that no further explanation for the origin of a word is necessary because they've taken it back to human mimicry. M-W11 lists 281 imitative words, denoting all sorts of sounds: ahem, burp, clank, ding, and so forth.

Now here was something interesting: the vast majority of these words contain only simple vowels, not diphthongs. This applies not only to words associated with noisy inanimate objects, but also to words that denote the cries of animals, such as caw and moo (but there are notable exceptions, such as oink and meow). Echoing this pattern to some degree, a Polish researcher has found[1] that simple vowels are statistically more salient in English onomatopoeia than diphthongs.

 Interesting as this may be, it doesn't bring us any closer to answering the burning questions. We do, however, feel fuzzily supported in our original hunch, that oi is a marvelous sound, a gem in the treasury of human vocables, and we now feel more assured that uttering it brings great benefits. We now look for opportunities to enjoy it: we have been inciting the beasts about the Lounge with it; we have been hailing aloft. We've made it our stock response in moments of annoyance, dismay, exasperation, grief, surprise, and worry. Oy!

An interesting paper reporting on the effect of sound symbolism on perception of facial attractiveness, with much to say about vowel quality, is discussed here:

An intriguing paper called "Sex, Sound Symbolism, and Sociolinguistics" lurks behind the JSTOR firewall here:

This paper deals with aspects of sound symbolism and other phonostatistic (yes, that's a word) aspects of American poetry. It found, interestingly, that diphthongs are statistically more salient in poetry than in prose text.

[1] Sobkowiak, Wlodzimierz. 1990. "On the phonostatistics of English onomatopoeia", Studia Anglica Posnaniensia 23: 15-30.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday January 1st 2009, 12:57 AM
Comment by: Enrique M.
Thursday January 1st 2009, 5:32 AM
Comment by: Nathan L.
Thursday January 1st 2009, 5:50 AM
Comment by: Newton G. (Truro United Kingdom)
Oi! Is this not to attract attention only similar to Hey!

Oi! What are we talking about Hey! What do you think you are doing?

Primarily a sound. Is there anything further?
Thursday January 1st 2009, 6:11 AM
Comment by: Geoff J.
Its part of celebration as in "Ozzie Ozzie Ozzie Oi Oi Oi" ! It shouts we're here in excitement.
Thursday January 1st 2009, 9:58 AM
Comment by: Guillermo H.
Oí (hoy) es mejor que mañana...
Thursday January 1st 2009, 10:29 AM
Comment by: Maureen B.
Oi! Is also considered a style of person - Oi Boys - that generally listen and live the lifestyle of a branch of late seventies/early eighties punk: G.B.H., Sex Pistols, Exploited ect.
Thursday January 1st 2009, 11:22 AM
Comment by: Jerome S.
Oi, like, joy is attentive presence to another....continuously recalled immediacy...a beauty that saves...
Thursday January 1st 2009, 11:54 AM
Comment by: Phil S.
Might it also be related to the team name of Georgetown University, the Hoyas? Hoya came to be through the team supporters using the Greek phrase "Hoya Saxa" (What rocks!) to laud their stubborn defense. "Hoya" is the part that translates as "what" or "such." So, the team is "the Whats."

There's also "hoi polloi," in which "hoi" means "the." Hmmm.
Thursday January 1st 2009, 12:52 PM
Comment by: James M.
How about "Ahoy" (as in (Popeye's?)"Ahoy thar, maties!")? Clearly a nautical term . . .
Thursday January 1st 2009, 3:10 PM
Comment by: Harry W.
Try to think of how a "natural exclamation" (something that can be heard at a great distance against background noise) might evolve: If domestic animals made certain sounds, an exclamation using the leading sound might catch their, or their owner/tribe's, attention better than any random sound. Perhaps the Soundex trained readers can say what sounds might have triggered "Oi!" in various languages, but all I can think of at present is Oi!(nk). The evolution to Ahoy! might then follow.
Thursday January 1st 2009, 9:02 PM
Comment by: pattrice J.
"oi" in brasilian portuguese = casual hello
Thursday January 1st 2009, 9:02 PM
Comment by: Eve S. (Beaverton, OR)
1. Yiddish ‘oi’ and ‘oi veh’ are not exact equivalents. In my observation as an outsider, the Yiddish ‘oi’ can be used for expressing a number of (mostly negative) emotions, including surprise, while ‘oi veh’ literally means ‘oh, woe’ (as in "Oy, vey ist mir!" -- "Oh, woe is me!)and is generally confined to real or mock dismay.
2. As a hailer similar to English ‘hey’, ’oi’ is also used in Japanese -- from superiors to inferiors, seniors to juniors, elders to kids, to strangers who don’t seem ‘higher’ than oneself; between male friends, coworkers, kids, etc.
3. I believe that the diphthong in the Greek article for ‘the’ -- ‘hoi’ -- probably was _not_ originally equivalent to that in English ‘boy’. (See, for example: Wikipedia "Pronunciation of Ancient Greek in Teaching", subsection "Renaissance Scholarship".)
Try comparing the modern vowels in Greek with those in many English words derived from Ancient Greek. For example, ‘hubris’ would not be ‘hyu-bris’ or even ‘hoo-bris’.
Even the letter/vowel ‘upsilon’ would not be pronounced ‘uh’, or even ‘oo’. Instead, according to my college-days Greek grammar, it’s “pronounced like the ‘u’ in French ‘tu’ when short; when long, like the ‘u’ in French ‘sur’ or German ‘u [with umlaut]’ in ‘hubsch’”.
Thus, in ‘hoi polloi’, not only should the initial aspirate ‘h’ not be omitted, but also the diphthong should not be pronounced like that in English ‘boy’ but rather with the “umlauted” ‘u’ sound.
Eve in Beaverton
++ L00k for the g00d
And praise it! ++
Thursday January 1st 2009, 9:14 PM
Comment by: Janice B.
My Grandfather, who came to the US from England through Canada shortly following World War I, would always greet his grandchildren with a huge smile and a cheer of "Oi, oi!" We, of course, never gave it a second thought only to know that we were welcomed and loved.
Friday January 2nd 2009, 1:11 AM
Comment by: Peter M. (West Hollywood, CA)
Maureen's comment is interesting. In fact, some of "oi" music was regarded as being on the extreme right. Certainly "The Exploited", whose very name contained an "oi", made aggressive music that had nothing whatsoever to do with joy but was a cry of anger that signified a detachment from mind and emotion. There was though a sense of powerful excitement about it. In my native South London, "Oi!" as in "Oi! You!" was always a scary beast to encounter. There was a fierce, sharp, guttural start to the sound projected from deep in the throat, and violence in the air whenever it was heard – at least where I grew up. It meant that someone was about to be called to account. It was a threat. I'm happy then to discover the more benign interpretations intriguingly discussed in other posts – thank you.
Friday January 2nd 2009, 8:27 AM
Comment by: Clarence W.
Good information to know if I'm ever in South London.

Aside from Yiddish uses and Aussie chants, here in middle America "oi!" is encountered on soccer pitches, oft uttered or exclaimed by coaches and players when things don't go quite right.

Those of us who believe that God made the instep curvature of the foot for striking a soccer ball could very easily embrace the "find it a life-affirming experience to shout" theory.
Friday January 2nd 2009, 11:20 AM
Comment by: Donna C.
interesting that the word "lemmatize," used a couple of times in the article, is not found in the VT...
Friday January 2nd 2009, 2:35 PM
Comment by: Lisa S.
I never studied Greek or Latin, but I went to Georgetown, and understood that the phrase "Hoya Saxa" is actually only half from the Greek; "saxa" was supposed to be from Latin (but isn't the Latin for "rock" actually "lapis"?). I also heard it translated as "What Stones" because the football team was actually known as the Stonewalls. So does Latin have a word for "stone" (other than "lapis") that "Saxa" comes from?
Friday January 2nd 2009, 2:55 PM
Comment by: Old Steve (Arcadia, CA)
My Grandmother of Flemish decent used Oi, as Oi! Oi! Oi! intead of Oh My God. Which would have been swearng, and being Roman Catholic that would have been a confessable sin. So Oi was permissible
Saturday January 3rd 2009, 5:28 PM
Comment by: STEPHEN A. (TOORAK Australia)
In the comic novel "Indiscretions of Archie" - which was written and set around 1920 - P G Woodehouse conducts a short discourse on the import and impact of the exclamation"Oi"; with particular attention to its use by large New York cops of Irish origin ... Incidentally, I first read this book as a child in my native Hungarian; in which it was rendered- accurately - as "Hé!" [pronounced : "hey!" but WITHOUT a diphthong]
Although I cannot just now lay my hands on my (English) copy of the book, I seem to recall at least one other scene (involving the "strong ambidextrous speaker" Salvatore) where this exclamation receives an airing.
PS - For those who may be interested,the Hungarian title is "Az eszményi vo".
Sunday January 4th 2009, 10:53 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks to all for your fascinating comments. I was particularly interested to learn about /oi/ in languages I'm not familiar with, and I still wonder how it fares outside the Indo-European family.
Sunday January 4th 2009, 2:59 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
I'll chip in with a non-Indo-European example... There's an expressive particle in Sundanese (West Java, Indonesia) spelled euy, which isn't too far off from oy. (For the phonetically inclined, the first part of the diphthong, spelled eu, is a close-mid back unrounded vowel, represented in IPA as /ɤ/.) It's a great all-purpose intensifier that can attach to the end of a clause, like "I'm tired, euy!" or "That's great, euy!"

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