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So I was recently curious about the sound that people sneeze with in other languages and was surprised to notice the difference between the English onomatopoetic word "Achoo" and that of other languages in the same family. For example:

German - hatschi

Dutch - hatsjie

However some of our sibling languages are closer:

Icelandic - atsjú

Norwegian - aatsjoo

Interestingly, most of the world seems to pronounce their sneeze more like modern Germans than modern Americans (basically all of Eastern Europe, Russia and Asia will end their sneezes with a short i instead of a long o).

Does anyone have any ideas why the pronunciation differs between ending in a short i in many closely related languages and a long o in English? Presumably people talked and wrote about sneezing relatively early on before these languages broke up so there should be some sort of proto-English pronunciation that either split during a period when most of these branches hadn't extended far, or English changed its common representation of the sneeze at some point in history. Does anyone know of a time in English's history when our sneezes ended in 'i' or a time in German/Dutch history when the 'oo' was favored?

Note that the OED traces the word back to the early 19th century, always spelled ending in the 'oo' sound and not a short 'i':

Forms: α. 18–19 aitchoo, 18– achew, 18– achoo, 18– ahchew, 19 ahschoo, 19 ahshoo, 19– ahchoo, 19– atchoo, 20– aitshoo.

β. 19 achoos.

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    Should this be migrated to Linguistics.SE? Jun 12, 2014 at 3:33
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    Given that among the 6 things explicitly listed as 'on topic' for this site both 'etymology' and 'phonology' appear, I'm fairly sure this is on topic. My question is "Why is this sound spelled this way in English and at what point in time, if ever, did it switch from the most plausible earlier spellings/pronunciations?"
    – pavja2
    Jun 12, 2014 at 4:43
  • Surely such startlingly sternutatory onomatopœiæ must have long since been subjected to scholarly scrutiny, so one can but wonder what said studies have surmised or suggested.
    – tchrist
    Jun 12, 2014 at 5:49
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    Onomatopoeiae like this are probably influenced by the phonetic elements in the local language. I think it tends to be more pronounced in the way speakers of different languages write and pronounce animal calls, such as "woof" and "meow".
    – Barmar
    Jun 15, 2014 at 3:47
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    While not an authority, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cross-linguistic_onomatopoeias#Sneeze lists both variations for both Dutch and German. Jul 9, 2014 at 2:32

3 Answers 3

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I think the reason that you find predominantly two major forms for sneezing (ending in [i:] and [u:] may be because most sneezes sound more or less like one of those two.

I can vividly imagine a sneeze with either sound, so I find it very likely that the common onomatopoeias are reflecting that variation. Bear in mind that the Dutch and German examples that you quote are indeed incomplete, as the link form the comments shows:

In Dutch, Hatsjoe!, Hatsjie! In German, Hatschi!, Hatschu!

You mention a short [i] sound, but I think in most cases, the [i] sound is actually long a [i:]. The 18c spelling variations you quote from the OED, 18– achew, 18– ahchew, I would actually pronounce closer to an [i:] sound than the [u:] you mention.

In Dutch, the choice for ie ([i:]) or oe ([u:]) depends largely on the kind of sneeze... the [i:] will be more associated with a higher-pitched, possible restrained, nasal sound, whereas the [u:] would indicate a more unrestrained, lower-pitched, possible open-mouthed sneeze.
If someone describes a sneeze in Dutch as hatsjie, I can't help but thinking of a child or child-like sneeze, or actually a kitten (kittens never sneeze with [u:]!) Describe a big man, and I expect a hatsjoe.

Especially the last part is — obviously — subjective, but I think the general reason for the different onomatopoeias is the actual difference in sneezes.

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  • This strikes me as the most plausible explanation - sneezes vary and the onomatopoeiae align with a certain type of sneeze largely by chance or languages keep both in use as referenced in your Dutch example and also @PeterShor 's answer's similar observation about English variation.
    – pavja2
    Aug 11, 2014 at 21:36
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During the 19th century, "achee" was also used for the sound of a sneeze. The earliest citation the OED has is 1843 for a-chew. And here we have earlier and simultaneous uses of atchi and atchee. Google books search shows that atchee continued being used into the last half of the 19th century.

1826:

Enter Tallboy, sneezing.
Tall. Atchi ! — here — here— Chi — chi — here, sir.
Bar. The fellow will sneeze his head off.
Tall. I've sneez'd above fif—flf—fif— atchi— fifty times in a minute. It has shook— shook — shook — Atchi ! Oh ! shook me to pieces.

1843

"Doctor", said the Alderman, "I am very glad to see you. This is — atchee ! — a matter to be looked into. It seems that — atchee ! — these nine — atchee ! atchee ! — This is very strange — atchee ! atchee ! — very strange snuff, after all — atchee ! atchee ! atchee ! — "

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I have found this reference, Achoo:

Every sneeze has a different ring to it, but there are only a few words in English that name the sound. Achoo is the most favoured.

Achoo is an acronym for a sternutation disorder called Autosomal Dominant Compelling Helioophthalmic Outburst Syndrome that results in uncontrollable sneezing.

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    The resulting acronym would surely be adchos...? Actually, the suggestion that 'achoo' is an acronym for a so-called 'sternutation disorder' is merely a lame attempt to be humorous.
    – Erik Kowal
    Jun 12, 2014 at 7:01
  • Gosh, I think there's a real danger in calling internet fluff a 'reference' eh!
    – Fattie
    Aug 11, 2014 at 6:57
  • @ErikKowal I had an operation on my nose and a month later was asked to fill in a patient feedback form called a Sino-Nasal Outcome Test. Those nurses like their fun.
    – Mynamite
    Aug 11, 2014 at 21:22
  • @Mynamite - I hope your response was something like "Bright Orange, Getting Ever Yellower".
    – Erik Kowal
    Aug 12, 2014 at 0:49

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