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“Huh” Means the Same Thing in Every Language

14 November 2013

From The Atlantic:

You may not be able to order a beer in Iceland, but misunderstand someone as they’re describing the regional elf lore, and you’re in luck. The expression “huh?” is practically universal, according to a recent study published in the journal PLoS One by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.

Here’s why this is so unusual.

Most languages sound dramatically different from each other because words aren’t tied to what they stand for—dog and chien both represent a four-legged canine, for example—and each language is basically limited to a finite number of possible sound combinations.

“The likelihood that there are universal words is extremely small,” the authors write. “But in this study we present a striking exception to this otherwise robust rule.”

“Huh” may sound like just an interjection, like a grunt or cry. . . . But rest assured, it’s a word.

“’Huh?’ may be a non-prototypical word, but it is a word,” they wrote. After all, it requires being spelled and conforms to the general principles of each language.

. . . .

“Huh” was unlike other question words in those languages—it was always one syllable, consisting of a short vowel sometimes preceded by a glottal consonant sound (one made deep in your throat). It also almost always had a rising pitch, the intonation most languages use for questions.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic and thanks to L for the tip.

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12 Comments to ““Huh” Means the Same Thing in Every Language”

  1. Although I’m not sure if it’s a word per se, but “shh” is another universal sound.

  2. Oh! Ah, um, huh?

  3. Huh.

  4. Brilliant! Love the word. And, yes, my characters do use it. :D

  5. I find the click, or -tsk- is pretty universal. Say it and people can tell you’re a little annoyed…

  6. “ah-ah-ah” and “Skuss” are universal Pet, establishing that everything four-footed speaks Cat.

  7. MCA Hogarth has pointed out that there are more than 4000 languages, and that they checked 31 of them… I point out that 31/4000 is less than 1%… a far cry from ‘every’.

  8. “Okay” is another one. Listen to the various foreign language speakers at any tourist attraction, and you can always hear that word.

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