The Loh Down On Science

What do English, Mandarin, Russian, and Icelandic have in common?

Dingemanse et al., PLOS One, 2013

Numbers indicate all the locations in the world where the equivalent of "huh?" is used

There's a universal word, understood by all humans, and it is . . . HUH?"

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

Remember Esperanto, the invented universal language that never quite became universal?  Scaling back, linguistic researchers in the Netherlands have found a real universal word.  Often used as a question, the word is, "huh?"

The linguists investigated ten languages, including Mandarin, Spanish, Russian, Icelandic, and Cha’palaa.  That's the language of the indigenous Chachi people in Ecuador.  The team studied how the word is spoken in each language, including how speakers use pitch and other variations to convey meaning.

Wait a minute, you say, is "huh" even a word?  Isn’t it more of a grunt?  The researchers addressed that, too.  Linguistically, "Huh?" is known as a "repair initiator"; basically, a sound we use to repair a break in conversation.  While the word is universal, each language has its own minor variations.  That means it has to be learned to be spoken properly.  Grunts are just instinctive behavior. 

So the next time you’re trying desperately to communicate in a foreign language, you know what to say!  Huh?

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The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, in partnership with the University of California, Irvine, and 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


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