Around The World In Eight Sneezes
It’s a sound universally made when sneezing...or is it?
Over the years, many medical studies have been conducted to try and determine why we make the sounds we make when we sneeze. One thing’s for certain – we can control and modify the noises we make. This is made evident by the fact that sneezes sound different all around the world.
In the UK, “atchoo” may be the preferred exclamation of choice, but sneezes take the form of “atchoum” in France, “Atsihh” in Estonina, “Etciú” in Italy and “Hakashun” in Japan. In fact, virtually every country around the world has it’s own phonetic custom when sneezing, which points to it being a cultural practice rather than a biological one.
In the article “The 10 annoying habits of hearing people”, deaf journalist Charlie Swinbourne notes that “hearing people” simply create noises to comply with what’s expected from society when you sneeze.
“While deaf people sneeze naturally, hearing people feel compelled to add sound effects, in the form of that “ah-choo” noise,” he writes. So what would a deaf sneeze “sound” like? According to Swinbourne, "[There is] a heavy breath as the deep pre-sneeze breath is taken, then a sharper, faster sound of air being released."
In other words, there isn’t any forced sound or words at all. As there is no “atchoo”, it can’t be the body’s natural reaction to make the sound. Or can it?
The Science Behind Sneeze Sounds
According to an article in Focus Science and Technology magazine, the “atchoo” sound made during a sneeze is prompted by the physical act:
A sneeze begins with a sudden inhalation. This is the ‘Aaah’ part of the sneeze. The ‘Choo!’ occurs on the exhale because most of the muscles in your body are reflexively contracting. This clamps your mouth shut until the pressure in your lungs rises too high and the air escapes in a burst. Since your tongue is pressing against the roof of your mouth, the air makes a ‘ch’ sound, and with your lips pursed, it emerges as an ‘oo’.
While the explanation may have some merit, it doesn’t quite explain why all sneezes sound different, because irrespective of geographical location or hearing, our bodies all perform the same function when sneezing. Not to mention the noises made around the world are drastically different in many cases, not involving the same syllables or phonetics at all.
Professor Bencie Woll, Director of the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre at University College London, has studied extensively the noises associated with sneezing. According to Dr. Woll, these sounds can be modified, but not necessarily stopped altogether. "When we laugh, we are not trying to go 'ha ha'. That's just the sound that comes out as a result of the changes we make in our throat,” she explains. “The influence we have over our sneezing and laughter allows us to stifle them or put more power behind them, depending on what feels socially appropriate."
It’s this social propriety that has formed the history of sneeze sounds since Egyptian times. In many cultures, incorporating sounds or phrases into a sneeze (such as atchoo or hatschi) are to prompt a response, usually in the form of a blessing or well-wishes. There are countless origins for the tradition of each phrase, but the consensus in largely that the sounds made when sneezing are made according to cultural custom, not the body’s natural need to vocalise a sneeze.
The lesson? Although we may sneeze involuntarily, we can control the noises we make (or don’t make) when doing so, which is why those sounds are different around the world. So next time you feel one coming on, why not try out an international phrase instead of “atchoo”?
Or, as Charlie Swinbourne so eloquently put it:“Sneeze organically. Sneeze fairtrade. Sneeze as God intended."