I want to ask that what is the origin of 'hmm'. I've searched on Google and I've found that the origin of 'hmm' isn't in the English language.

However it is a most spoken word.

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    Hmm isn't really a word, it's meaningless. It's the sound you make when you are thinking aloud or (depending on intonation) when you want to show that you are listening to your partner/friend/interlocutor speaking. What are you hoping to learn, exactly? – Mari-Lou A Feb 3 at 13:13
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    @Mari-Lou A: the sound you make when you're thinking depends on the language. So it probably does have an origin—although it may be impossible to deduce from the written record, which usually doesn't include "hmmm". See this blog post for related musings. – Peter Shor Feb 3 at 13:52
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    The sound spelled hmm is simply a closed-mouth humming imitating the intonation of some remark. The initial h just represents initial voicelessness; the mouth is closed at the lips throughout. Variants include mmhmm, with high tone on the second voicing, which means 'yes', and the same (with optional glottal stops) with high tone on the first voicing, which signifies 'no'. And plenty -- literally hundreds -- of variants, depending on the intonation of the the phrase being hummed. One can express any emotion easily by controlling the pitch and rhythm. It's not a word, it's a construction. – John Lawler Feb 3 at 17:55
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    @JohnLawler - Uh huh, you may be right. – Hot Licks Feb 3 at 20:34
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    @JohnLawler What standards does it not satisfy sufficiently to be a word? You refer to variants and multiple context-dependent meanings, and suggest that intonation alone could accomplish the same goal. To me those traits are not unique to "hmm." In writing, "hm" or "hmm" are immediately understood in the context of English. I see nothing that distinguishes "hmm" from other words – RaceYouAnytime Feb 4 at 2:21

The OED defines the word prounounced "hmm" as hum, an interjection.

An inarticulate exclamation uttered with the lips closed, either in a pause of hesitation or embarrassment, or as expressing slight dissatisfaction, dissent, etc. (Cf. hem int., h'm int., um int.)

The earliest attestations of this entry are from Shakespeare, but we're going to get back to the cross-references shortly.

I cried hum..But markt him not a word.

  • 1598 Shakespeare Henry IV, Pt. 1 iii. i. 154

This would have been one way of applying a vocal tic to paper. The actual vocalization "hmm" is probably much older than the dates offered by OED. It's possible that Shakespeare put the vocalization to paper for the exact purpose of making this pun.

Looking at the related entries brings us to hem.

An interjectional utterance like a slight half cough, used to attract attention, give warning, or express doubt or hesitation. Also used to represent the slight clearing of the throat of a hesitating or non-plussed speaker.

This word has slightly earlier citations, and might be a factor in the development of the entry for "hum" mentioned.

H'm and hm are not attested until much later.

The etymology of the word hum as a noun or verb, as opposed to an interjection, which has a different pronunciation and meaning, might be relevant as well to the evolution of "hmm."

This is attested earliest in written form, and the OED offers this definition of a verb, the earliest form.

To make a low continuous murmuring sound or note, as a bee or other insect; also said of a top or wheel in rapid rotation, a bell vibrating after being struck, etc.

These are the etymology notes:

Known from end of 14th cent.; echoic; compare Middle High German hummen , modern German dialect hummen , hommen , early modern Dutch (Kilian) hummen = hemmen to hem, emit voice

Conclusion

The word is definitely onomatopoeic, as mentioned in other answers. It might be relevant to know that it is possibly a lexicalization of the sound we use to clear our throats, as suggested by the OED's cross-reference to and definition of hem, or at least: It is entirely possible that it is a vocalization that grew out of vocalizations of lexicalized throat-clearing.

  • This answer agrees with my dictionary, Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary, unabridged, 2nd ed. -- which lists it as, h'm (interjection), meaning hem or hum. – Bread Feb 4 at 20:48
  • A thoughtful answer. Thanks. – JEL Feb 17 at 6:37
  • @JEL thanks for the bounty, I appreciate your interest in the answer. – RaceYouAnytime Feb 17 at 16:13

Being a natural expression with onomatopoeic characteristics its origin is difficult, if not impossible, to trace as suggested by linguist and etymologist Antony Lieberman:

Hmm — or sometimes hm or hmmm — ranks among the words we English speakers say the most, and yet we give it scant thought. It's never defined for us as children, is left out of all but the fattest dictionaries and seems barely a word at all. (It doesn't even have a vowel.) Nonetheless, we all manage to grasp hmm's vast range of connotations.

Although it exists in many languages in a variety of forms, its roots are elusive. "I have no theory of its origin," said Anatoly Liberman, a linguist at the University of Minnesota and an expert on word origins. "Possibly it could have spread from French to English… but you cannot trace it in any way as far as its distant history is concerned, because the word is so natural that it may have arisen at any time."

(www.livescience.com)

This is a fine example of onomatopoeia:

the act of creating or using words that include sounds that are similar to the noises the words refer to

from Greek ὀνοματοποιία.

See also: hum (Cambridge), hum (Wiktionary).

  • I'd appreciate knowing what the downvote is for. – Will Crawford Feb 3 at 18:06
  • I just upvoted it. Sometimes, the simplest answers are very good. – Lambie Feb 3 at 18:13
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    What sound does it imitate? Not my DV but I am curious as to why it is onomatopoeic. Now, "hum" I get, it imitates the white noise of a machine, my laptop is humming because it is overheating and the fan is whirring away... but it's not the same sound I make when I nod my head in agreement. And I'm not whirring away either. – Mari-Lou A Feb 3 at 19:22
  • I honestly don't know if it's completely a learned (cultural) thing, but most people I know will (sometimes exaggerated for comic effect) make a literal brief "humming" sound to signal thought and perhaps indecision. Usually interspersed with other “filler” sounds and gestures, not unique. I think the word is onomatopœic because it's an attempt by writers to render it into text (similar to hemmed and hawed, onomatopœia for was indignant, blustered, stalled or hesitated). – Will Crawford Feb 3 at 19:28
  • One might say it's sort of meta-, super- or hyper-onomatopœic, because hum is onomatopœic in its own right, and hmm attempts to render the sound even more literally than the word coined to mean it. – Will Crawford Feb 3 at 19:29

In a comment, John Lawler wrote:

The sound spelled hmm is simply a closed-mouth humming imitating the intonation of some remark. The initial h just represents initial voicelessness; the mouth is closed at the lips throughout. Variants include mmhmm, with high tone on the second voicing, which means 'yes', and the same (with optional glottal stops) with high tone on the first voicing, which signifies 'no'. And plenty -- literally hundreds -- of variants, depending on the intonation of the the phrase being hummed. One can express any emotion easily by controlling the pitch and rhythm. It's not a word, it's a construction.

  • In a comment, @RaceYouAnytime asked @JohnLawler What standards does it not satisfy sufficiently to be a word? You refer to variants and multiple context-dependent meanings, and suggest that intonation alone could accomplish the same goal. To me those traits are not unique to "hmm." In writing, "hm" or "hmm" are immediately understood in the context of English. I see nothing that distinguishes "hmm" from other words – Mari-Lou A Feb 4 at 18:58
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    TBC I don't consider hmm to be a "word", it has no meaning per se, but if someone is going to transform a comment=answer into a proper answer which can be upvoted or downvoted then they should be able to defend it. – Mari-Lou A Feb 4 at 19:01
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    @Mari-LouA If it's a word, it's amazing how many languages have the same word, eh? :) – tchrist Feb 4 at 19:03

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