All about /aj/: the trisyllables

The Zippy strip of 9/29 interjects:

(#1) The strip is all about eyeglasses (with the wonderful name Thelma Nesselrode as a bonus), but this posting is about oh!, interjections / yeah!, exclamations / and, like, discourse markers and stuff

So, what’s up with eye-yi-yi!? This is presumably an orthographic representation of an English exclamation /aj aj aj/, with the accent pattern /àj aj áj/, and pronounced as a single phonological word /àjajáj/. In fact, I’m aware of — and at least an occasional user of — three English exclamations /àjajáj/, with three syllables: one a borrowing from (Latino) Spanish; one in Yinglish (taken from Yiddish); and one in PDE (Pennsylvania Dutch English, taken from Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch, that is, Pennsylvania Dutch / German). (There are probably more, in other German-based varieties of English, in particular.) They have somewhat different contexts of use and a wide variety of ad hoc spellings, though ay-ay-ay seems to be the closest there is to a conventional spelling for all three of them (my childhood spelling for the PD and PDE exclamation was ai-ai-ai / ai ai ai, and it’s still the only one that looks right to me).

So: something about the range of the phenomena in this exclamatory domain, with special attention to my personal history. In this posting, just about the exclamatory triples, but folding in the de facto national ballad of Mexico, “Cielito Lindo”, and some Texas klezmer music.

Then, in a later posting (bear with me, my life is over-full), my discovery that OED3 has relatively recent entries for the interjections ai, aie, and ay, and my subsequent disappointment in the content of these entries — as against, say, the rich OED3 entries for the interjections oh and ah. And finally, some aimless wandering about in the world of interjections, exclamations, discourse markers, and related phenomena.

I spy with my little /aj/. This posting is pretty relentlessly interjective, but it starts with that big ol’ pun in the Zippy strip: the noun eye punning on the first /aj/ of one of our exclamations — eye-yi-yi! so providing a way to get a wordplayful name for an eyewear company, to add to things like InSight Eyewear, For Eyes, ICU Eyewear, and Genusee Eyewear.

But, once we’ve admired that pun, the noun eye /aj/ is no longer relevant to my interjectional focus, so I put it aside, along with:

the Madagascar lemur-like primate the aye-aye /ájàj/; the pronoun I /aj/; the letter-name I /aj/

The triples. Moving on: so far we have the exclamations pronounced /àjajáj/, from several sources (at least, PDE, Yiddish, and Latino Spanish). These are 3-syllable exclamations, or triples. There are also doubles, /àjáj/, and of course singles, /aj/. My variety of PDE had only the triple; the expected functions of the single — dismay, regret, admonishment; astonishment, delight — were filled by the exclamation ach.

As a child, I assumed that my ai-ai-ai was just common American English; well, pretty much everyone around me used it. Through the media of radio and television I early became acquainted with the Yinglish exclamation — in The Goldbergs on radio and tv) and the Latino Spanish exclamation (through Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo in the American tv sitcom I Love Lucy):

(#2) Desi as Ricky in mid-¡AY!; photos and video clips of such Ricardo events come with a variety of spellings, among them aye-yai-yai, ay-yai-yai, ay-yi-yi

As for the Yinglish exclamation, consider the “YIDDISH VOCABULARY 101: AY-YAY-YAY” lesson from the site of The Best Little Klezmer Band in Texas (yes, a Tex-Klez band, and thoroughly enjoyable):

AY-YAY-YAY – 1. Pleasure 2. Regret 3. Congratulations 4. Astonishment 5. Scorn (all depending on facial expression)

At this distance in time, I can’t fully reconstruct my feelings about the Latino Spanish and Yinglish exclamations vis-a-vis my PDE exclamation, but I believe that, despite the general similarity in the affects the three exclamatory triples evoke, I viewed the Latino Spanish and Yinglish ones as belonging to an ethnic subculture, while, I supposed, my PDE variant was just informal general American. Eventually I left Pennsylvania Dutch Country and went to Princeton, where I discovered that my ai-ai-ai (with its PDE intonation and vowels on top of the unusual morphology) stood out like strivvely hair, shoo-fly pies, and distelfink artwork on barns: “sounds like an Amish farmboy”, one of my roommates said, derisively. Certainly not Ivy League.

Some ay-ay-ay seems to have eventually diffused into general American use, probably from southwestern US varieties, but that happened after 1958. I have no information about the details.

[Further note on spelling. The spellings ay ay ay (as in #2) / ay-ay-ay (#2 with hyphens) are very common, and are probably as close to a conventional spelling as we’ve got. Meanwhile, people have tapped the full resources of the mapping between pronunciations and spellings to concoct ad hoc spellings; a discussion on Stack Exchange a while back listed the following spelling variants used in the Power Rangers tv series:

aye yai yai, aye yi yi, ayiyi, ay ay ay, aye aye aye, i-i-i

(Power Rangers is an American entertainment and merchandising franchise built around a live-action superhero television series, based on the Japanese tokusatsu franchise Super Sentai. (Wikipedia link))]

But what about the quaduruple?  In my follow-up posting I’ll abandon the exclamatory triples for mere singles and doubles, but I’m sure some of you are wondering about the celebrated quadruple ay ay ay ay, in “Cielito lindo”. Background from Wikipedia:

“Cielito lindo” is a popular Mexican song copla, popularized in 1882 by Mexican author Quirino Mendoza y Cortés (c. 1862–1957). It is roughly translated as “Lovely Sweet One”. Although the word cielo means “sky” or “heaven”, it is also a term of endearment comparable to “sweetheart” or “honey.” Cielito, the diminutive, can be translated as “sweetie”; lindo means “cute”, “lovely” or “pretty”. Sometimes the song is known by words from the refrain, “Canta y no llores” or simply the “Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay song”.

Commonly played by mariachi bands, it has been recorded by many artists in the original Spanish as well as in English and other languages. … It has become a famous song of Mexico, especially in Mexican expatriate communities around the world or for Mexicans attending international events such as the Olympic Games or the FIFA World Cup.

The refrain, with its melodic exclamatory first line:

Ay, ay, ay, ay,
Canta y no llores,
Porque cantando se alegran,
cielito lindo, los corazones.

Four syllables — so a quaduruple? Well, not really. It’s got 4 syllables, but prosodically it’s a 3-beat line, SSWS: ay ay ay with a twiddle.

[Digression. Though it is customarily framed as addressed by the singers to a beautiful young woman, the title is in the masculine grammatical gender. Well, as I note on this blog every so often, grammatical gender quite often just goes where it must, no matter what the ♀︎♂︎ facts are. So it is here.

The noun with stem ciel- ‘sky, heaven; sweetheart’ is masc — of the grammatical gender conventionally labeled masculine, stop thinking about maleness and cultural masculinity– and its sg form is cielo (with the characteristically masc suffix –o). That’s just a fact. Its –it– diminutive inherits the grammatical gender of the base, so cielito ‘small sky, little heaven; sweetie(-pie)’ is also masc. And then when the adjective with stem lind– ‘lovely’ modifies cielito, the adjective agrees with it in grammatical gender and number: lindo for masc sg, cielito lindo for the whole business. Entirely suitable for addressing a pretty girl.]


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