Why Don't Deaf People Say "Achoo" When They Sneeze?

Brilliance | Dec. 14, 2017

Even in a world divided by language, some sounds are universal: the "cockadoodle doo" of a rooster crowing (well, not really), the "ha ha ha" of human laughter (ok, not that either), or the "thump thump thump" of a beating heart (nope, sorry). Actually, language finds its way into everything—even the sound of a sneeze.

Sneezing Without Words

Though we assume that "achoo" is a sound we have no control over, all it takes to show that's not the case is to hear a deaf person sneeze. According to partially deaf British journalist Charlie Swinbourne, a deaf person sneezing sounds like "a heavy breath as the deep pre-sneeze breath is taken, then a sharper, faster sound of air being released." If that sounds strange to you, just put yourself in their shoes when a hearing person sneezes. The drama that ensues was enough for Swinbourne to pen a blog post asking "Do hearing people fake their sneezes? We need to know".

The noises we make during functions like sneezing and laughter are what University College London professor Bencie Woll calls "vegetative sounds." As she told the BBC, "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. 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."

The Sneeze Heard 'Round The World

So if "achoo" is just a result of language, do different languages sneeze with different words? Yes, in fact. In France, a sneeze sounds like "atchoum." In German, it's "hatschi," and in Russian, it's "apchkhi." A Turkish sneeze sounds like "hapşu," and a Vietnamese one sounds like "hắt xì."

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