Honking and Language: What’s the Connection?

Honking and Language: What’s the Connection?

The city of Cairo, which is also known as one of the noisiest cities on the planet, is also home to an interesting auditory phenomenon that is not known as much as its infamous place on the national decibel level list.

With the incessant wave upon wave of honks that impregnate Cairo’s soundscapes, it is only natural that there is some sort of an order behind the aural chaos that is at the heart of this city’s experience.

It turns out that drivers have developed their own “honking language” in Cairo, a tongue that has emerged seemingly out of completely natural circumstances.

A newcomer to Cairo might find himself/herself lost in a sea of auditory chaos, but for the locals, the honks have a deeper, hidden meaning. The honks actually work similar to Morse Code and in fact contains actually communicative phrases rather than mere expletives or monotonous meaningless audio signals like most other countries.

One of the most common phrases exchanged amongst local drivers in Cairo through the secret honking language is “Thank You”, which is signified by a succession of two short beeps. A long honk is understood to be a considerate “Take Care”, while four short beeps succeeded by a long one is the quintessential phrase “I Love You”.

Honking has evolved as a language to speak to navigate through traffic jams

Photo by Stanley Nguma from Pexels

Each phrase has its own accepted “social” situation where it finds its maximum contextual utility. For instance, the “I Love You” phrase tends to be used mostly when someone selflessly offers to give way to a driver or if there is a need to quell a potential road rage situation by calming someone down. Moreover, phrases like “Congratulations” are used by drivers whenever they see a newly-weds’ car pass by, almost becoming a traditional custom.

Essentially, in the noisiest city of the world, honking is no longer a meaningless cacophony, but rather has been transformed in a cultural sound full of social utility. It is evident that when drivers get their licenses in Cairo, they are expected to be well-versed in this secret language, even though this is not taught during their driving license test as far as we know.

It seems to be learnt on the streets in the midst of the chaos of traffic, where even in the middle of a crowd you can quickly find yourself feeling lonely. Maybe, this is what resulted in the language emerging in the first place!

Local coffee shops, called ahwa, in Cairo are hubs for new drivers to learn this language from taxi drivers who are some of the most fluent “speakers” of the same.

At the end of the day, the question remains – if honking can be converted to a language then how deep of an association does it have with other more advanced languages?

Let’s explore what one can learn about honking by understanding language and its evolution.

The Cultural Link between Honking and Language

There are certain sounds which can be definitely classified as being culturally relevant. For instance, the sound of the call to prayer or azaan that emanates from mosques in countries such as India, Pakistan and in regions throughout the Middle East is a cultural sound. Even sounds such as crude instruments that are played by beggars in India as they seek alms are cultural sounds that are unique to the region.

These sounds tend to be prevalent in only specific regions of the world and are sometimes also confined to local boundaries, thereby making them a definitive aspect of the cultural milieu of that place. This is the fundamental connection between seemingly random noises or sounds and the phonetic sounds of languages, both of which are cultural artefacts.

Even though the sound of vehicular horns tends to differ slightly based on car make/model as well as the region, it is still pretty much universal. However, the way in which this sound is used by drivers in different cities and regions tends to shift it towards a more defined, culturally-controlled sound.

For instance, if you find yourself in a city in Thailand, you will find that the honks of the vast fleets of tuk-tuks which tend to populate the road are cheery and almost sound excitable. It is difficult to classify the honks of these vehicles as being urgent or serious, rather they assume a conversational tone of excitement and small-talk, almost as if the drivers are greeting the others on the road and asking them, “How are you doing today?”

Tuk tuks in Thailand have a very unique honking language

Photo by Don Tran from Pexels

On the other hand, in the more developed Western cities, such as New York and London, the horn is never used for small-talk and is in fact always an instrument of anger and frustration. The drivers in such cities tend to use the horn to scold or reprimand someone, almost as if saying, “What the hell do you think you are doing?”

This form of difference of honking language in different regions, irrespective of the type or tone of the sound, but rather focusing on the actual usage of the horn sound, is similar to the differences in language that emerged in various regions as an evolutionary response to the environment.

Emergence of Diversity in Languages

Did you know that the reason why English sounds different from Arabic is due to the fact that each language is a specific adaptation to the environment that the language-speaker find themselves in?

According to Ian Maddieson, a linguist who teaches and researches languages at the University of New Mexico, languages and their phonetic qualities depend on environmental factors such as heat, cold, forest cover (or the lack of it), humidity, and many other factors.

One interesting example that he gives is that of the evolution of languages in places that contain a lot of tree cover and wildlife, such as in rainforests and mountain ranges. In such places, the high amount of tree cover, wind and wildlife noises makes it difficult for consonant-heavy sounds, such as “ch”, “sh”, “zh”, “pb” and complicated sounds like “spl” to be transmitted without any major loss of information. Such sounds can easily be lost in transmission and engulfed by the sound of wind or absorbed by the trees or be consumed by the cacophony of animal and bird calls.

Hence, in such places, the languages have evolved to contain mostly vowels and tend to contain more steady and consistent words rather than complex ones. The languages essentially tend to have sounds that are more viable for the environment and can be heard above the other local noises.

Language has evolved in response to environmental conditions facilitating hearing of specific sounds

Photo by Zack Jarosz from Pexels

Towards Culturally Relevant Honking…?

As car manufacturers look towards universalizing the car horn sound, a process that is already underway since numerous years as import and export becomes common, it is becoming more and more apparent that there is a serious loss of cultural heritage at hand.

As cultural sounds disappear and are replaced by universal sounds, the only saving grace is the fact that drivers in different regions are developing their own linguistic adaptations when it comes to honking. Even though most cities tend to not have a defined and widely accepted honking language such as Cairo, there are definitive signs that vehicle horns are becoming associated with specific social-cultural cues that are unique to a region.

What does this hold for the future? Can this result in a progressive development of actual language speaking skills? Does the development of secret languages bode well for our own sensibilities when it comes to our fellow drivers? Are culturally relevant honking behaviours an antidote to the problem of noise pollution or the very thing that continues to aggravate this problem?

Only time will tell…





[1] https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/11/06/454853229/did-the-language-you-speak-evolve-because-of-the-heat

[2] https://theculturetrip.com/africa/egypt/articles/this-secret-language-connects-strangers-in-cairo/

[3] https://www.stuff.co.nz/travel/kiwi-traveller/91333037/the-international-language-of-honking

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