Food & Culture

"Huh" Is the Closest Thing We've Found to a Universal Word

Imagine standing in front of someone who only speaks a language that's entirely foreign to you. You have a message to relay to them, but don't know how to communicate it. Can you come up with a common sound? A gesture? An unmistakable written symbol? It's a difficult scenario. There is one word that could build a tiny little bridge across all language barriers: Huh?

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The "Huh" Heard 'Round the World

You say it when you're confused. You say it when you didn't hear what was said. You say it when you're just starting to realize something. It may feel like an instinctive reaction, but it's not. You likely take the automatic, guttural "huh" for granted, but this unassuming word holds a lot of power. Research points out that "huh" is much more than filler, and more useful than a puzzled interjection. According to a 2013 study by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, "huh" is a universal word. What that means is that it's understood the world over, regardless of language or culture. We challenge you to think of another word that can do that.

Researcher Mark Dingemanse and his team analyzed recorded bits of informal language from five continents, including Spanish, Chinese, Icelandic, and indigenous languages from Ecuador, Ghana, and others. Of the 31 dialects they compiled, all had this one little word in common. It wasn't just that they share a short word that requests clarification; every "huh" across the language audibly resembled "huh." As stated by the researchers, "The similarities in form and function of this interjection across languages are much greater than expected by chance."

What's in a Word?

Identifying "huh" as a universal word implies that it's, well, a word. (Huh, who knew it has an entry from Merriam Webster?) Like it or not, it follows the rules of language. The researchers argue that exclaiming "huh" is more complex than just a reactionary utterance, showing that it is a "lexical, conventionalised form that has to be learnt, unlike grunts or emotional cries." Yes, that means somewhere along the line, you actually learned the word "huh," just like all the other vocabulary words you use every day. "Huh" can be considered a universal word because it is not innate; it's learned and it has distinct meanings. It doesn't exist in the animal kingdom, whereas emotional cries do, and young kiddos don't use it until after they start speaking.

"Huh" is then both a word, and a universal one, because "it is shaped by selective pressures in an interactional environment that all languages share: that of other-initiated repair," says the researchers. As Arika Okrent explains in Smithsonian Magazine, "The dynamic, often fraught environment of human conversation, in which grave misunderstanding or a hurt feeling or an embarrassing gaffe is never more than a syllable away, calls for a word that instantly signals a need for clarification, is as brief as possible and is easy to produce, without complicated tongue coordination or lip movement."

But is "huh" a truly universal word? Does it pop up in every language on Earth? Are the researchers sure it'll turn up everywhere they look? "No," Dingemanse tells Smithsonian, "but we are ready to place bets."

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For more fun with language, check out Arika Okrent's book "In the Land of Invented Languages: Adventures in Linguistic Creativity, Madness, and Genius." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto February 26, 2018

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