Huh? may be the one universal word, global study of languages suggests
Researchers talked to speakers of 10 languages across five continents and found that all have similar-sounding versions of the exclamation
Humans speak many languages, but we may all be united in our confusion. A new study examined languages from around the world and discovered what they say could truly be a universal word: "Huh?"
Researchers travelled to cities and remote villages on five continents, visiting native speakers of 10 very different languages. Their nearly 200 recordings of casual conversations revealed that there are versions of "Huh?" in every language they studied - and they sound remarkably similar.
While it may seem like a throwaway word, "Huh?" is the glue that holds a broken conversation together, the globe-trotting team reported in the journal PLoS ONE. The fact that it appears over and over reveals a remarkable case of "convergent evolution" in people's language, they added.
"Huh?" is a much-maligned utterance in English. It's seen as a filler word, little more than what can be called a conversational grunt, like "mm-hmm". But it plays a crucial role in many conversations, said Herbert Clark, a psychologist at Stanford University who studies language.
When one person misses a bit of information and the line of communication breaks, there needs to be a quick and effective way to fix it, he said.
"You can't have a conversation without the ability to make repairs," said Clark, who wasn't involved in the study.
For this study, scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands set out to show that "Huh?" had the status of a fully fledged word, though an odd one. They also wanted to see whether other languages had a similar word with a similar function.
The problem is that "Huh?" often seems like such an unimportant feature of any language that it has not been well documented, said Nick Enfield, a linguistic anthropologist who worked on the study.
The word doesn't crop up much in linguistic literature because researchers who record speakers of remote languages often ignore such filler.
The scientists headed to remote villages in Ecuador, Laos, Ghana and Australia and spent weeks getting acquainted with the locals. They felt they had to gain people's trust before they could record natural, casual conversations - and perhaps catch a at least a few instances of "Huh?" in its natural environment.
"The kind of conversations we collected were just the kind of conversations you and I would have at the breakfast table or in the evening when we're doing our handicrafts," Enfield said.
The "Huh?"-hunters also visited families in Italy, Russia and Taiwan as well as laboratories in Spain and the Netherlands. The languages studied were Cha'palaa, Dutch, Icelandic, Italian, Lao, Putonghua, Murriny Patha, Russian, Siwu and Spanish. (English wasn't included in the study.)
Across these languages, they found a remarkable similarity among the "Huhs?" All the words had a single syllable, and they were typically limited to a low-front vowel, something akin to "ah" or "eh".
Sometimes this simple word started with a consonant, as does the English "Huh?" or the Dutch "Heh?" Across all 10 languages, there were at least 64 simple consonants to choose from, but the word always started with an H or a glottal stop - the sound in the middle of the English "uh-oh".
Every version of "Huh?" was clearly a word because it passed two key tests, the scientists said: Each "Huh?" had to be learned by speakers and follow the rules of its language. For example, English speakers ask questions with rising tones, so when they say "Huh?" their voices rise. Icelandic speakers' voices fall when they ask a question, and sure enough, the tone goes down as they ask, "Ha?"
"It's amazing," said Tanya Stivers, a sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles who was not involved in the study. "You do see that it's slightly different ... and that it seems to adapt to the specific language. I think that's fascinating."