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Using Interjections: Compare Spanish and English

By Eric W. Vogt

Interjections are usually short utterances, mostly one-syllable expressions. They are the little words that have almost no meaning in themselves but pack an emotional charge. Find out about some subtle differences between English and Spanish interjections.

What is an Interjection?

If you know anything about Batman and Robin, you know how famous Robin is for using interjections. Probably his most famous is Zowieeeee, Batman! The name Batman is not the interjection, but rather a vocative -- Robin is simply calling Batman's attention to something. The word Zowie (invented by the folks who invented Robin and Batman) is the interjection. What does it mean? Interjections are verbal discharges of emotion. The same interjection can vary in meaning, according to a number of factors: manner of articulation, articulatory tension, volume, pitch, speed or variations in speed -- all of which are further nuanced by body language.

Interjections are arguably the most performance- and context-dependent words in any language. They also can be highly individual -- made up on the spot, as Robin's word, Zowie shows. Most English speakers do not use Zowie -- at least not usually. Wow! and Oh! will top the list. Sometimes, a word that is not classified as an interjection can become one -- if it is used as one. One could pick any word at all and use it as an interjection and it would probably be recognized as one by listeners, even if they might be puzzled as to why the word was used in that way.

Many obscenities, if not all, are interjections, they being obscenities only when one contemplates their meaning as opposed to their use as an emotional outburst. The so-called four-letter words of English and their Spanish counterparts, palabrotas, are often interjections whose meaning is simply ignored -- they are so often on people's lips that no one pays any attention to them as bearers of genuine substance. They now are just used to blow off steam.

Some people have a favorite word or two that we utter almost unconsciously when we are happy, surprised, angry, etc. Such idiosyncratic uses of words are known as a verbal crutch. Many Americans have a stereotyped image of an English Lord mumbling hrmpf, hrmf and uh, uh, uh between phrases -- an example of a verbal crutch. Many speakers of English use uh (far too much, I'd say) to fill in a space while they think of the next thing they want to say. In such cases, the uh is also a means of not giving up your airtime -- to prevent someone from interrupting.

One universal difference between English and Spanish interjections is that English speakers say oh! whereas Spanish speakers say ah!