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I have noticed that I and many of my peers tend to say "Oh!" whenever we are surprised or think of an answer to a question. This "Oh!" is not only prevalent in English, but also in Korean and German.

Edit: Sorry for not clarifying. I was wondering why we say, "Oh!" instead of perhaps, "Pft!" or "Tsch!" or any other type of sound.

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This is a hard question because there are probably many different (but not equally valid) answers.

From my perspective (Barrett & Russell, 2015), there are a couple of things to think about.

  • How often do you actually say "Oh!" when you are surprised? Your memory of these instances is likely unreliable, as you're depending on semantic memory about cultural beliefs, and not on episodic memory of your actual behavior (Robinson & Clore, 2002). Indeed, we might expect a lot of variability across different contexts (see next bulletpoint).
  • How much variability is there within/between individuals and cultures? If we've learned anything from relating emotions to variables like physiology, behavior, and facial expressions, we know that there is no one-to-one correspondence (e.g., fear and running away, anger and increased heart rate, etc.). Instead the relations between discrete emotions and these response systems change across individuals, contexts, and cultures.
  • Does surprise produce an "Oh!" or does an "Oh!" indicate surprise? On the one hand, you can think of an emotion as a reaction to some stimulus, producing loosely coordinated responses (e.g., "Oh!"). On the other hand, you can think of emotions as interpretations or categorizations of what's going internally and externally. In this sense, you infer from your "Oh!" that you are surprised. This means that "surprise" is a category that you deploy for all the instances in which you say "Oh!" This is sort of like how "bird" is a category for all instances in which the object being described is animate and has wings.

So in a tautological way, you say "Oh!" when you are surprised because you categorize all instances of "Oh!" as surprise. Either way, your question has not been studied empirically (to my knowledge), so it's hard to give an answer based on actual data, and different theories will make different hypotheses.

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I think this is likely an expression of shock. Think to the days when there was significant danger in the world. Saying "Oh!", "Ah!", or other exclamatory phrases lets others know that there is something significant going on. Whether spotting a predator in the bushes, or learning some interesting news, this excalamation warns others.

As for thinking of the answer to a question, think of your thought process. You're thinking, thinking, thinking... suddenly, you think of an answer. In this case, the "Oh!" serves to let others know that you have thought of something. It's prevalent in many languages simply because this is a pretty universal thing.

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the behaviour you draw attention to is widespread and seems to be based on a response which is to some extent involuntary. so it is not unreasonable to wonder if there is some genetically mediated neural substrate. obvious questions arise re the developmental aspect, particularly in the early years, and re the presence or absence of this response in other mammalian, particularly primate, species. (it might also be worth looking at how this response is incorporated into signing languages.)

the articulation of an "Oh!" is a rapid exhalation of breath with no consonant which suggests classification with other paralinguistic vocalizations. the expression "Wow!" is similar, but the muscular accommodation required to pronounce the initial "W" suggests an element of cognitive mediation has modified the more instinctive "Oh" to add a semantic component. thus we observe that "Wow!" can be modified in quite flexible ways, by varying stress and duration.

it may help to relate "Oh!" to certain other behaviours. for example the "Oof!" of pain ("with "Ouch!" as a more formalized modification analogous to the shift from "Oh!" to "Wow!")

there is also a related form of expression eliciting a rapid intake of the breath, perhaps through slightly clenched jaw and pursed lips, which is evoked by certain over-intense stimuli - e.g. a drink which is too hot.

as a coffee-addict i have confirmed with others similarly afflicted, that the first caffeine hit of the day can invoke an in voluntary, deeply-satisfied "Ah!". this response (although it can be exaggerated for dramatic or comic effect) feels to me to be instinct-based. it does not seem to be initiated by any imperative to communicaticate. indeed the presence of another person might cause an attempt to stifle or minimize the "Ah!" (politesse)

finally one should mention in this context the now-widespread meme of the "Aha!" experience, though noting that for at least one great creative scientist, the Muse of history has recorded his "Aha!" response as the phonetically complex and semantically-loaded "Efrika!" - accompanied by an activation of the non-verbal jumping-out-of-a-bath alarm reflex.

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