The Universality of the Word Huh

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Aerial view of crowd of people arranged in question mark
Photo: Jurgen Ziewe/Getty Images

Two apparent human truths: Everybody gets confused, and everybody expresses that confusion in a similar way. A team of Dutch researchers say that the word huh may be a universal one, appearing in near-identical sound and function in 31 vastly different languages. The research, published in the journal PLOS ONE, just won an Ig Nobel Prize, a sort of parody of the Nobel Prize meant to honor science’s weirder achievements. 

In addition to English and its close relatives, like French and Spanish, the researchers went much further afield, recording informal conversations in languages like Cha’palaa (spoken by a minority of Ecuadorians), Icelandic, and Murriny Patha (spoken among Aboriginals in Australia). They didn’t, by the way, intentionally set out to study the word huh; it just consistently kept popping up. Everywhere they went, there was a word that sounded pretty much the same: “a simple syllable with a low-front central vowel, glottal onset consonant if any, and questioning intonation.” There were subtle differences, like in Icelandic, in which the word ha ends with a falling intonation, which would sound to English speakers more like a statement than a question. But in Icelandic, most questions do use that falling intonation, the researchers write. 

It’s maybe not so surprising that the word should be so widespread, because it acts as a pretty perfect and speedy solution to a common problem — that is, the need to convey quickly that you didn’t quite catch what was said, but without totally derailing the conversational flow. The researchers muse that the seemingly universal use of the word may be the linguistic equivalent to the concept of convergent evolution: “When different species live in similar conditions, they can independently evolve similar traits,” they write. “In a similar way, the similarity of huh? across a set of widely divergent languages may be due to the fact that the constraints from its environment are the same everywhere.” 

Other Ig Nobel Prize winners, incidentally, include a team of American and Taiwanese researchers who concluded that a person’s body size does not, in fact, affect how long it takes them to pee; also, Chilean scientists were recognized for “observing that when you attach a weighted stick to the rear end of a chicken, the chicken then walks in a manner similar to that in which dinosaurs are thought to have walked.” Huh. 

The Universality of the Word Huh