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In my last post I talked about some of the differences among the world’s languages that I find fascinating.  So now let’s mix things up and examine something that the world’s languages might have in common. An article in last month’s Smithsonian Magazine highlighted new research coming out of the Max Planck Institute for Pscyholinguistics.  The researchers’ findings?  The word “huh?”, with a bit of pronunciation variation, is common to a wide variety of languages from communities all across the world.

Here are the audio samples they gathered for the ten languages they studied in depth:

Pretty interesting, right?

The researchers have put together a website breaking down the main points of their research, as well as a very clear FAQs section (the original research report is here.)  They address questions about language contact (did speakers just pick up this sound from other languages?), language inheritance (maybe all of these languages are related and that’s why they have the same word?), sampling size, and whether or not the sound is really just a grunt, rather than a real word in a linguistics sense.  I think their answers and their research is pretty compelling, especially since the languages they investigated are so diverse, both genetically and geographically.  There must be some other explanation for the similarity.

What the researchers themselves suggest is that this is evidence of “convergent cultural evolution” – we all independently evolved this nice little word because we all needed a word to fulfill the function of a quick request for clarification, and “huh?” is a simple and convenient choice for many reasons (the Smithsonian article does a great job summarizing these reasons).

A couple of interesting things to note:

  • first of all, the researchers did NOT claim that huh? is “the universal word” as many writers have suggested.  They are careful to note that they did not, of course, gather samples of this word from all 7,000+ spoken languages in the world, and the title of their article is specifically in the form of a question (“Is ‘Huh?’ a universal word?”)  Making absolute claims like “In fact, they’ve found, huh? is a “universal word,” the first studied by modern linguists“, as the author of the Smithsonian article does, is something the researchers were careful to avoid (though they do think their hypothesis is very strong.)
  • secondly, the research is talking about a specific usage of the word “huh.”  English uses this sound/word in a lot of different contexts, such as:
    -an exclamation of surprise or interest (“That word is the same in 31 different languages? Huh!”)
    -a request for confirmation or solidarity (“This research is pretty interesting, huh?”)
    What this research focuses on is the function of “initiating repair” – you misheard something your interlocutor said, or misunderstood something, and immediately respond “huh?” in an attempt to repair the communication error.  That is the function that is common across all the languages studied.

Check out the research and the article, it’s really interesting to read about the possible implications of the findings!

(Incidentally, the magazine article’s author is Arika Okrent, who wrote a delightful book called In the Land of Invented Languages.  I loved that book so much I based one of my pop quizzes on it!)


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