Sucking Teeth

Language is leaky. While this blog has been tentatively named “Speech Events”, we look at language more broadly than many linguists typically approach it. One way that communication seeps out of the limits of language strictly defined is in the use of gestures. But even the line between gestures and speech can be tricky. Suck-teeth is great example of this. Check out the video below to get an idea of what I am talking about and how one might react to it:


Rickford & Rickford (1976) defines suck-teeth as “the gesture of drawing air through the teeth and into the mouth to produce a loud sucking sound” and which is used to express “disgust, defiance, disapproval, disappointment, frustration or impatience” (Alim, 2006). Rebekah Baglini and her co-presenters at the 2013 Annual Conference on African Linguistics recently explored suck-teeth in the Wolof language of Senegal as part of their investigation of what they were tentatively labelling verbal gestures. While not conforming to the sound-system that is used to form words in Wolof or other languages, verbal gestures such as suck-teeth are rich communicative device that are used to make meaning orally.

I originally became aware of suck-teeth while serving in the Peace Corps in Burkina Faso — though as the video above demonstrates, it also clearly a phenomenon in the US. While I was unaware of US-based suck-teeth before, a black friend from Texas with parents who emigrated from Nigeria pointed out that he was aware of it but not just from his family and contacts with the West African diaspora of Texas, but also because it was more generally a “black thing”. This echoes Rickford & Rickford (1976) who knew and used suck-teeth in their native Guinea, but were struck to find black Americans using it to the same effect while white Americans were more or less completely unaware of it at the time of their study.

Interestingly, my first conscious exposure to suck-teeth in the West was in France where knowledge of its meaning seems to cross racial lines more than in the US. In France, sucking your teeth is known as tchiper and something that one hears regularly in Paris à la this skit where a ticket-inspector in the métro gets tchipé-d by a woman that hasn’t paid her fare.

It appears that tchiper may be a loanword in French from the Wolof expression for suck-teeth which Baglini et al. identify as cipptu or cippetu (pronounced roughly like ‘cheap-too’). Rickford & Rickford (1976) also wrestle with the linguistic origin of the expression suck-teeth and its Caribbean equivalent stchoops or chups. In a number of West African languages the expression for suck-teeth is translated literally as something close to ‘suck one’s teeth’. Stchoops and chups on the other hand bears a phonetic resemblance to numerous African languages such as Wolof as well as Portuguese (chupar ‘to suck’). Alternatively, these similarities may also result from onomatopoeia or the fact that the name of the act resembles the actual sound of sucking one’s teeth. This example pulled from my own facebook feed captures this nicely:

As the red arrows point out the act of sucking one’s teeth is inserted following French and Manding but is always written out as thip or tchip with possible emphatic lengthening of the suck-teeth through the use of multiple i’s. Tchip in this case seems to stem from the French verb tchiper but is used not as a verb but as a stand-in to represent the act of sucking one’s teeth in disapproval. The last two comments on the status feed use the traditional Muslim Arabic greeting and then are written in Manding. Despite Manding have a unique word for suck-teeth, súruntu, the final comment represents the suck-teeth act not with a form resembling súruntu but with the possibly Wolof-derived or onomatopaiec thiip. Sorry for not translating the excerpt — maybe I’ll do a more detailed analysis and translation down the road.

The exact etymology of words describing it aside, suck-teeth as an action meaning ‘disappointment’ or ‘disapproval’ seems to have remained relatively stable across continents.  The more interesting question is to see how it is used in everyday interaction as it is associated with different people and places. Alim & Goodwin (2010) point out that in the US suck-teeth is “stigmatized by dominant culture” and “used […] to index black working-class women.” But as the first YouTube clips shows white males also suck their teeth at their friends! Suck-teeth may conjure images of black working-class women now, but as exposure to it expands and the types of people that use it (i.e., West African immigrants, Black Americans, white Americans etc.) mix, its connotation and use will change too. Given the large amount of West Africans who already practice suck-teeth moving to places like West Philly, it’ll be interesting to see if this will further the idea that suck-teeth is “black thing” that stretches across borders.

Look forward to hearing about other possible names for and encounters involving suck-teeth from here in the US, France, Africa or elsewhere!

Some references for those works without links:

Alim, H. S. (2004). You Know My Steez: An Ethnographic and Sociolinguistic Study of Styleshifting in a Black American Speech Community. Duke University Press Books.

Goodwin, M. H., & Alim, H. S. (2010). “Whatever (Neck Roll, Eye Roll, Teeth Suck)”: The Situated Coproduction of Social Categories and Identities through Stancetaking and Transmodal Stylization. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 20(1), 179–194.

Rickford, J. R., & Rickford, A. E. (1976). Cut-Eye and Suck-Teeth: African Words and Gestures in New World Guise. The Journal of American Folklore, 89(353), 294–309.


4 thoughts on “Sucking Teeth

  1. When we sucked our teeth in Catholic grammar school on Staten Island in New York City in the 1960’s it used to send at least one of the Sisters crazy, who would only inform us that we should ask our parents what it means.This Sister was of Irish-American descent. My partner informs me that her father, who was from Ireland, likewise could not abide it. Never did find out why it was considered so offensive, since I personally never had the courage to ask my parents given the reaction of the sister, which made it seem almost as if we were making an obscene gesture, like giving the finger or the arm. It was so horrible after all that a nun could not tell a student what it meant! Was wondering if in some cultures (in this case Irish, Irish-American) it may have had particularly bad connotations, and what those connotations were.

    1. Thanks for the comment! It’s interesting how for the nun the “verbal gesture” didn’t have clear denotational content like a typical word and was therefore hard for her to give you a gloss of its meaning. I imagine that if pushed she would say it say it had something to do with disapproval. But of course, disapproval is a regular part of social life. The bigger problem for her or others is the cultural value attached to it; “it’s rude”, “it’s vulgar” and these have nothing to do with the denotation of the gesture. Fascinating to know this popped up in Irish/-American culture too!

    1. Hi Colin — thanks for your comment. Yeah, I had run across those articles last week and considered doing a little follow-up. Regarding the piece from Le Parisien, of course, it is typically used as a sign of disapproval to call someone out or perhaps disrespect them so it’s unsurprising that schools would intervene just like they would if someone gave the professor the finger. That said, the reaction of Bongo to say that kids and families must stop a cultural practice because it doesn’t belong in the workplace or school and will stigmatize them shows how this is about more than controlling disrespect but about policing behavior that is labeled as Black. A ce propos: tchiiiiiiiippppp

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