The exclamation "ow" - is it English-only?

Is “ow” a learned expression, and if it is, is it exclusively English?

I ask because The last time I used it sincerely was last week when I had an instantaneous and extremely severe headache occur at the top of my head while I was crying very hard… One second I was having my emotional sob, and the next second I was holding my head and yelping "ow ow ow !!! It did not feel like I was saying something with words, it felt very organic, in the same way it feels organic and wordless to scream or to cry.

So I was thinking and wondering if it comes from a more universal sound that human beings, human babies, make when they are hurt. If so, we would expect people who speak other languages would say it as well, Orsay something very similar.

Googling was not helpful. Whenever googling is not helpful, I ask the Dope. Dope?

Nope, the expression of pain for different languages appears to be a learned thing. I googled the italicized in the former sentence, and got this page, which lists responses to the same question, giving pronunciations and a brief explanation on a few dozen languages.

I once worked an auto accident (as an EMT) where the driver was from Montreal, a native French speaker. He had a femur fracture, and, during the extrication and immobilization there was a certain amount of movement, and, hence, pain.

His repeated expression, and I kid you not, was, *“Ooh, la,la,la,la!” * Emphasis on the first syllable, and the remaining four spoken very quickly.

“Aiya!” is what I heard in China.

Thanks, cmyk - it does appear common for the expression to be very “vowelly” - once you start introducing consonants, it gets more specific to each language…

I’m sure there is a more innate human pain sound though, and I’m guessing it sounds very similar to when Peter Griffin bangs his knee:

“Awwhhhhhhhh!.. [sucking in air through clenched teeth]”

In French class at school I’m sure I remember the expression “Aïe!” to mean “Ouch!” appearing in my textbooks.

Edit: Wikitionary also has it, and suggests “ouille” (pronounced “weee”?!) and “ayoye” as alternatives; the latter being Québécois.

“Ayoye” sounds more Spanish to me, though…

In German, it’s “Au!”, so very close.

I’d be interested in what people who deal with people in real pain can report. My personal impression, from minor-ish mishaps of mine and other people, ist that the innate expression of pain is more in the nature of an inarticulate grunt (for sudden pain) or an inarticulate moan or whimper - while ow, ouch, aïe, au, autsch are more in the nature of a learned social utterance, i.e. the latter can truly be different in different languages/cultures.


Those are both legit for Quebec. It’s hard for me to describe the pronunciation of “ouille.” Maybe see if you can find video of a french person saying “citrouille” (pumpkin) - the “ouille” part is pronounced the same way, more or less.

Ayoye has a little more of an accusatory tone to it, like you’d say it to a table you’ve just kicked.

Related linguistic phenomenon:

I have a colleague who literally does an “a-choo!” when sneezing. Previously, I had a Pakistani colleague whose sneeze was expressed as “heh-shu”.

You’d think sneezing would be instinctive, but I’ve never heard an American go “heh-shu”.

in north-east England a common exclamation would be “Aiya ya bugger”

This is a good test of a person’s first language. My roommate in college learned both Spanish and English as an infant/toddler, but it was hard to tell which one was his first language (barely), until he hit his thumb with a hammer and said something like “allí!”.

BTW, someone mentioned “d’oh” – in the Spanish-language dubbed version of the Simpsons, they translate this as “ouch!” It’s one of the very few totally English words which pops out of a Spanish Simpsons broadcast.

In Japan it’s “itai!”

In Latin it’s "eheu! " , which is somewhat close.

I have noticed regional differences in the US.
I grew up in the Mid Atlantic area and it was exclusively OW!
In the Pacific NW I frequently hear OWEE!

I assumed it would be as in “grenouille”. Is that it? Not “wee”, exactly, but nor is it a very ouchy sounding word!

There’s more “ooh” to it than that.

Try this pronunciation. Just take off the N.

This subject came up on the Dope many years ago, and a Doper related an interesting story. I’ll try to relay as much as I can remember (please forgive me for not having many details).

During WWII, a British spy is doing his spying thing behind enemy lines, impersonating a German. Now, keep in mind that his training for his mission was intense; he’d been so thoroughly trained in German language, dress, history, culture, customs, etc., that he was indistinguishable from any ordinary German. Suspicions are raised, and he winds up in a German officer’s… uh, office, for questioning.

The questioning goes on at length, and the spy is keeping up his guise expertly. That is, until the officer drops something on the man’s foot, and he exclaims “Ouch!” instead of “Aii!” His cover is blown and off he goes to… somewhere unpleasant.