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 globe-trotting 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, easy 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. "It is a universal need, no matter what kind of conversation you have."
Without something like "Huh?" a conversation could be quickly and irreversibly derailed at the slightest misunderstanding. That would be bad news for a highly social species that relies on good communication to survive.
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 problem is that "Huh?" often seems like such an unimportant feature of language that it's not well documented, said Nick Enfield, a linguistic anthropologist who worked on the study. The word doesn't crop up much in linguistic literature because researchers who record speakers of remote languages often ignore such forgettable filler.
The scientists knew that to find out whether "Huh?" had counterparts in other languages, they'd have to go looking themselves. So they 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. (English wasn't included in the study.)
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 an "ah" or an "eh."
Sometimes this simple word started with a consonant, as does the English "Huh?" or the Dutch "Heh?" (Spellings are approximate.) Across all 10 languages, there were at least 64 simple consonants to choose from, but the word always started with an H or a glottal stop — the sound in the middle of the English "uh-oh."
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 each version always followed the rules of its language. For example, English speakers ask questions with rising tones, so when they say "Huh?" their voices rise. Icelandic speakers' voices fall when they ask a question, and sure enough, the tone goes down as they ask, "Ha?" (To an English speaker, this tone would sound like a statement of fact: "Huh.")
"It's amazing," said Tanya Stivers, a sociologist at UCLA who was not involved in the study. "You do see that it's slightly different ... and that it seems to adapt to the specific language. I think that's fascinating."
After all, Stivers pointed out, words with the same meaning sound very different in different languages: "Apple" in English is "manzana" in Spanish, "ringo" in Japanese and "saib" in Urdu. Why wouldn't "Huh?" also sound completely different across unrelated languages, they wrote — say, "bi" or "rororo"?
The Dutch researchers think it's because the word developed in a specific environment for a specific need — quickly trying to fix a broken conversation by getting the speaker to fill in the listener's blank.
A low-front vowel in the "ah" or "eh" families involves minimal effort, compared with to a high vowel like "ee" or a lip-rounder like "oo." The same can be said for a glottal stop or a "h" — hardly any mouth movement is needed to make those sounds. This allows speakers to very quickly signal that they missed a bit of information, and request it again. (In response, the other speaker will typically repeat what they just said, sometimes modifying it for good measure.)
The linguists borrowed a term from biology to describe this phenomenon: "convergent evolution." Just as sharks and dolphins developed the same body plan to thrive in the water even though they're from very different lineages, all languages have developed a "Huh?" because it's so useful for solving a particular problem, researchers said.
"'Huh?' has almost certainly been independently invented many, many, times," said Mark Pagel, who studies language evolution at the University of Reading in England and was not involved in the PLOS ONE study. "And that is why it appears universal."