LOS ANGELES — Humans speak many languages, but we may be united in our confusion. A new study examined languages from around the world and discovered what they say could be a universal word: “Huh?”

Researchers traveled 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 team reported Friday in the journal PLOS ONE. The fact that it appears over and over reveals a remarkable case of “convergent evolution” in language, they added.

“Huh?” is a much-maligned utterance in English. It’s seen as a filler word, little more than what’s called a conversational grunt, like “mm-hmm.” But it plays a crucial role in 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 earned the status of a full-fledged word, though an admittedly odd one. They also wanted to see whether other languages had a similar word with a similar function.

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 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 family homes in Italy, Russia and Taiwan as well as laboratories in Spain and the Netherlands. The languages studied were Cha’palaa, Dutch, Icelandic, Italian, Lao, Mandarin Chinese, Murriny Patha, Russian, Siwu and Spanish.

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.”

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.


Facebook comments