Humble 'Huh?' Might Be Rare Universal Word

Linguists find it in every language they studied

By John Johnson,  Newser Staff

Posted Nov 9, 2013 7:39 AM CST

(Newser) – Listen in on any language anywhere in the world and you're bound to hear a familiar sound: "Huh?" Dutch researchers who studied 10 languages on five continents say the one-syllable utterance might be that rarest of things: a universal word. And it's no mere tic or meaningless grunt, they say in their PLOS One study: It serves the vital purpose of allowing one person to let another know quickly that he doesn't understand something. It's "the glue that holds a broken conversation together," explains the Los Angeles Times.

"You can't have a conversation without the ability to make repairs," says a Stanford expert not involved with the study but intrigued by it. "It is a universal need, no matter what kind of conversation you have." The researchers found the word in widely different languages ranging from Icelandic to Mandarin Chinese to West African Siwu, reports the New York Times. And though it may sound a bit different in some tongues—more like "ah" or "eh"—it remains fundamentally the same. They chalk it up to "convergent evolution," notes Science Codex, a term from biology. It's used to explain how different species, such as dolphins and sharks, evolve in similar ways because they live in similar environments. It seems that "huh?" is the linguistic version, a tool so useful to humans everywhere that they can't live without it. (In other language news, researchers suggest that being bilingual helps ward off dementia.)

  (Shutterstock)
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