For me it's a surprise that babies articulate a double-syllable word do express pain, while pain is something spontaneous, and I guess it would be expressed by a single-syllable, or single vowel. So I asked somebody:

I had a conversation with a friend, who claims that aua! is completely natural, and isn't taught by the parents (tutors, nanny, older siblings or similar influence). I doubt it. If it were natural, then lot of babies in the world would say aua! when something hurts, and not only those of German speaking parents. (I even doubt babies' first word is mama because of easiness of the word, but because the mother expects the baby to say this and repeats him that word – I might be plain wrong, though).

Now, the parents don't say aua! when something hurts, but they expect the baby to say aua! when they read pain in the face of the baby (I guess), so they fake the aua! a baby is expected to do. So I guess the interjection is said by the babies only because the parents transmit it, isn't it? Does anybody have evidence showing the contrary?

  • 3
    Good question, but i guess you will only get opinion based answers here. If I were you, I would go to the linguistics site. Other than that, there seems to be something very universal about mama and -a..a patterns. Greek:mana/ Mama. Germanic: mama. Chinese: mama Japanese: Haha . This is Not the case for aua, which a Greek will not interpret as pain.
    – Ludi
    Commented Jul 22, 2015 at 16:03
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    I've never heard a baby say "aua!" (they usually just cry). But small children do.
    – dirkt
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 6:13
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    I have a baby right now and we surely didn't teach him to say "aua". Instead, he says it in many contexts. Currently it's his "word" for "pick me up and carry me" or "Somebody come and help me". Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 6:49
  • @ThorstenDittmar You surely never said to him "Oh, hast Du aua gemacht?" when he hurt himself somewhere?
    – Matthias
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 7:22
  • @Matthias Yes, because that's not the way we talk to our kids :-) We'd say "Oh, hast Du dir weh getan?". He started it himself really. Or he picked it up from our older daughter. But he doesn't say when he's hurt, but when we wants our attention. Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 7:58

2 Answers 2


/a/ is the most sonorous human sound (and vowel), whereas /u/ is the least sonorous vowel, cf. “sonority hierarchy” or “sonority scale”. /au/ is therefore the “widest” diphthong possible. When acquiring speech, people tend to use and combine the extremes most. /ma/, for instance, has maximum contrast for [+sonorant]. We also prefer simple, open CV syllable like this and tend to reduplicate them, hence mama. papa actually has even larger internal contrast. For /aua/, it’s obviously not (full) reduplication. A lot of the words of “baby talk” can be explained thusly and many are international, although not necessarily with the same meaning.

  • /da.da/ ‘daddy’
  • /la.la/ ‘music’
  • /bu.bu/ ‘sleep’
  • /bæ.bæ/ ‘disgusting’
  • /ʔi.ʔi/ ‘disgusting’
  • /ka.ka/ ‘poo’
  • /ʔa.ʔa/ ‘poo’
  • /lu.lu/ ‘pee’
  • /pi.pi/ ‘pee’; ‘penis’
  • /po.po/ ‘behind’
  • /mu.mu/ ‘vagina’; ‘cow’
  • /mæ.mæ/ ‘sheep’
  • /vau.vau/ ‘dog’
  • /mʲau.mʲau/ ‘cat’
  • /ʔo.ʔo/ ‘surprise’
  • /hV.hV/ laughter
  • JFTR I didn’t mention more complex (German) baby talk words like Heia ‘sleep, bed’ or Happa ‘eat, meal’.
    – Crissov
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 22:04
  • Very good! Of all languages I speak, Greek seems most non conform in this context. But even they use many of these:mama, baba, jaja, kaka, popo...
    – Ludi
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 7:24
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    I would extend your argument by adding /ai/ as a diphthong. That would capture languages as diverse as Japanese (itai) and Finnish (ai or au).
    – Jan
    Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 16:41

I think you are right. Aua is children's speak, they learn it from their parents, who try to express in words what their children feel in a simple word that babies can soon use themselves.

I guess it is a children's version of Au, about which Grimm's dictionary says

AU, ein schmerzensruf, dem sich schon mhd. wie heute ein we zugesellt, in welchem eigentlich die vorstellung des leides und wehes liegt. au scheint also aus dem vorangestellten ruf ô diphthongisch entfaltet

So the word has old Germanic roots. Grimm's dictionary also lists the related aubeia (nowadays: auweia) and also autsch (to me a surprise, I'd have expected this word to be much younger).

  • In English "Ouch!" is a well known exclamation if you hurt yourself. It sounds pretty similar to "Autsch" - maybe it is just a natural sound to create when you hurt yourself, which then turns into a language specific "word"? In France children say "ai" instead of "au" - so I guess it's produced based on the general sound of the language. Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 6:51
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    Funny enough, Swedish speaking people also use "ai", despite it being a germanic language - and fairly close to German. Confusing :)
    – Gerhard
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 7:30

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