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I wonder why and when hum started replacing sim (yes). Is there a plausible or traceable origin for it?

In English it's just a mere sound to cover embarrassment or a way to mimic a humming sound, but I have heard Asian people (Chinese and Japanese mostly) use it frequently for replacing yes.

I heard also in Portuguese the "hum hum?" combination, which I think it means "yes, and then (what)?", but it would be interesting to confirm this...

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In ptBR, what these interjections mean partially depends on context, facial expression and gesture. Most of the time "um-hum" means "sim" but it can also mean "sei", "concordo", or, if you shake your head and give the right intonation, it can mean "não". So don't put too much trust on the fact that it usually means "yes". We also say "ã-hã" (or hã-hã) and á-há. They usually mean "no", but sometimes "yes", and "a-há" can also be used wben you catch someone red-handed ("a-há", peguei-te em flagrante"). Stress and intonation are 90% of the meaning in such cases. Unfortunately I can't help much using the written language.

As for the first question, when people started replacing "yes" with these interjections, I couldnt find an answer. At a guess, it makes sense to me to assume their use antedated "yes" and they must have been used in primitive societies just like other interjections (oh, ah, ouch, hey)

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  • I don't know in your case, but here where I live (state of São Paulo), "ã-hã", "ã-hân" or "u-hum" means "yes", and "ã-ã", "ã-ãn" or "un-un" means "no". – Yuuza Dec 15 '15 at 19:18
  • @BrunoLopes , it depends much more on intonation and gestures than the word itself. If you say "ã...hãn" with a short pause between the two syllables, and shake your head at the same time, it means no. Try it. – Centaurus Dec 15 '15 at 23:51

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