The Language of Car Honks

1919 U.S. War Dept. catalogue photo of a Klaxon car horn with manual crank, beautiful sepia tones mounted on a typed and stamped cream card
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Car horns are a strange communications technology.

We live in an era with a gazillion tools for expressing ourselves in complex, multifaceted ways. We’ve got text augmented with pictograms, audio recorders and video-production suites in our pockets,  captioning and slides and AI image-generators trained on a blood feast of the world’s art.

But car horns? They’re weirdly lo-fi. 

They can honk, or they can not honk. That’s about it. When you need to communicate with someone outside the car, that’s what you have to work with. 

Now, I’m an everyday cyclist in NYC, and last year I crossed the entire US east-to-west on my bike, so I have heard a lot of drivers honk their horns at touring cyclists.

Car horns are a prime example of the sociopathic design of modern cars. Today’s horns are piercingly loud; they need to be, because they’re designed primarily for communicating with other drivers in other cars—and today’s cars are increasingly crafted as soundproof boxes, to make things nice and comfy for the drivers within. That means your car needs a horn loud enough to penetrate some other dude’s rolling fortress of solitude; the horns are thus jacked up to a volume at which a single honk can cause dolphins to wash up dead on the Jersey shore.

So the design of horns leaves something to be desired, in the first place.

Nonetheless, people are inventive! Even when given a truly crude instrument, they want to be expressive. Anthropologists and sociologists have written about the complex ways people use car-horns around the world—as when neighbors greet neighbors, or cab drivers beep to see if you need a ride, or clusters of gridlocked cars use their horns to try and navigate the mess. (One researcher in Canada cataloged “a system of fifty-four different horns that can communicate almost everything like a Morse code”.)

And thus it is with cars when they’re honking at cyclists. After 4,150 miles of riding my bike from Brooklyn to the Oregon coast—over ten weeks on the road—I noticed that when drivers need to communicate with cyclists, they’ve developed a surprisingly sophisticated car-horn vocabulary.

Here are the honks I have taxonomized:

It’s a paywall, but a small one

Read this post and get our weekdaily newsletter for $3 a month