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In The Simpsons Homer makes a closed mouth sound made up of three rising and falling tones, resembling (and meaning the same as) 'idunno' said without opening the mouth. I hear it being used from time to time, and use it myself.

How would this be described in linguistic terms - is it a word? Do/should a dictionary contain it? How would it be written? Has it been studied at all?

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well talking without moving the mouth properly is mumbling. So an Idunno mumble? – Oldcat Mar 13 '14 at 23:20
The dictionary question is a separate issue. It would qualify for a dictionary entry once it met several criteria. First, there would have to be an accepted spelling (or at least several accepted spellings). Second, it would need to be used with enough frequency to warrant publication in major print outlets. And, then it would have to be noticed by the dictionary folk, and voted appropriate by their editorial boards. – David M Mar 13 '14 at 23:37
A dictionary entry for m-MM'-mmm? I know exactly what you're talking about (but I don't expect a dictionary entry for a hummed response). But I am curious if such a response has a name. so: I love your question. ') – medica Mar 13 '14 at 23:41
If you're looking for linguistic terms, I'd like to suggest either inarticulate speech or under-articulate speech. At the moment, I have no references to back up my claim, but perhaps others could dig into the usage deeper. – Damkerng T. Mar 14 '14 at 1:18
youtube.com/watch?v=miSP9YwhktQ -- He opens his mouth in this clip, however the sound he produces is similar. – Northborn Design Mar 14 '14 at 6:01
up vote 6 down vote accepted

In linguistic terms, it's an interjection like iunno. It's one of many interjections in the English language.

Interjections may be real words, but in this case, it's not. I don't think anyone even knows how to spell it. But its similarity to other interjections (specifically iunno, but also uh-huh and others) validates it as an interjection.

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Wikipedia refers to it in under shrug as

In the English-speaking world it may be accompanied by a three syllable grunt or hummed mumble mimicking the intonation of "I dunno".

It's part of nonverbal communication, which is well-studied in animals and in man. Does it have a name? idunno.

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The OP is referring to the verbal counterpart, not to the physical gesture with the shoulders. So they are looking for a linguistic explanation. – Mitch Mar 14 '14 at 12:42
In the literature, grunts and such like are classed as non-verbal communication, regardless of whether they are accompanied by a gesture or not. – – Spehro Pefhany Mar 14 '14 at 13:36

This is a very good question.

It is not a sound unique to Homer Simpson at all, but it may be associated with an older generation. My own father (currently aged 99) was a master of it. But I don't hear it so much nowadays.

It serves the same purpose as a shrug of the shoulders, which can accompany it.

In the Anglosphere the shrug is not what it is in France, where they have the most masterful way of shrugging the shoulders, whilst saying 'Alors là' - 'don't ask me'!

I think I would call the Homer sound an 'audible shrug'.

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Haven't heard it used before, but I like the name audible shrug; it's fitting. – IQAndreas Mar 14 '14 at 1:41
Agreed. (I honestly didn't get the reference to Homer Simpson at first; thought they were talking about "D'oh" maybe, until I read more answers -- this thing is totally not unique to Homer, or even close to one of his signature noises -- pretty sure even Bart makes it -- let alone, like, everyone ever...! -- except apparently, the French(?), but who asked them?). Additionally, I second the above: Audible Shrug is probably the best label I've read so far in this thread for the noise in question. – BrainSlugs83 Mar 14 '14 at 5:37
@BrainSlugs83 Often in France, they make no sound at all, simply an exaggerated shrug of the shoulders with a long face, and wide eyes, which conveys their meaning perfectly. – WS2 Mar 14 '14 at 11:55

When I make the sound myself, it sounds like three syllabic bilabial nasals, the first with a low tone, second with a high tone, and third with a low tone and breathy phonation. Pick up a text book on phonetics then you could study yourself making the sound, assuming you know how to imitate it.

Depending on who says it, the position of the tongue body may also adjust to that of the underlying vowels in "I don't know". This would have slight but (in theory) perceptible effects on the sound quality (and the third syllable might be better described as "lax" [because the last vowel in I don't know is lax] than "breathy", but it's hard to say). The best way of seeing this is through the use of ultrasound or other imaging techniques.

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I agree. It's essentially three different tones of an 'm' sound. – ghoppe Mar 13 '14 at 23:38

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