"Huh?” just might be a universal word

  • New York Times
  • November 25, 2013 - 10:23 AM

Are there words that are universally understood, across all countries and cultures? A team of linguists has proposed one: “huh.”


In a paper published recently in the journal PLOS One, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands announced that they had found strikingly similar versions in languages scattered across five continents, suggesting that “Huh?” is a universal word.

The study closely examined variations of the word (defined as “a simple syllable with a low-front central vowel, glottal onset consonant, if any, and questioning intonation”) in 10 languages, including Dutch, Icelandic, Mandarin Chinese, the West African language Siwu and the Australian aboriginal language Murrinh-Patha.

The researchers also looked at other words and expressions used to elicit clarification during conversation, a function that linguists refer to as “other-initiated repair.” But only “Huh?” occurs across languages whose phonetic patterns otherwise vary greatly, they discovered.

It might seem trivial to carry out research on “Huh?,” which some linguists argue isn’t really a word at all. But the study is part of a broader effort to prove that language is grounded in social interaction, not a matter of inborn grammatical structure.

Linguists have made claims for other universal words, like “mama.” But the evidence for “Huh?,” some researchers familiar with the team’s work said, may be more convincing, in part because there are many more variations for “mama” and “papa” among different languages than there are for “Huh?”

© 2018 Star Tribune