By Yacine Ahtaitay
This post is courtesy of The Language Nerds, a blog by Yacine Ahtaitay. If you also want to see your content in our website, click here to send a 400-word article for the chance to be read by our millions of followers.
Our languages are incredibly diverse and it is highly unlikely to find a word or a handful of words that sound the same in all languages. But it seems like there is a word shared by all human languages, according to research. And you probably use it every day. Can you guess which word is it? Huh?
Surprise, surprise! The word is ‘huh’.
Weird, huh! Well, it turns out that this is probably a universal word. Let’s explain first how this word works in more detail. Consider the following imaginary conversation:
A: We decided to move to New York.
A: To New York.
“Speaker A” makes a statement and “Speaker B” follows up on that by asking the question “Where?,” which targets only a portion of the original statement, i.e., it is possible to infer that “Speaker B” had no trouble understanding the message that they decided to move somewhere, but they presumably missed the final word. So they requested a repetition of this information by asking “where?” and “Speaker A” supplied this information in turn. The specialized field of linguistics called conversation analysis term this operation “repair.”
But, what if, for some reason (for example, a lot of noise in the background), “Speaker B” failed to understand the whole statement and wanted to request the other person to repeat the whole statement? How do you think the dialogue would have unfolded? That’s where the word ‘huh’ comes in. Take the following dialogue:
A: We decided to move to Alaska.
A: We decided to move to Alaska.
‘Huh’ is a very specific repair strategy that does not target just a part of the statement, but rather the statement as a whole. That is why repairs that respond to a ‘huh’ are quite long and elaborate, typically repeating the whole statement.
Now, here is the fun part. The word “huh” may very well be a universal word shared by all human languages. Linguists and conversation analysts Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira, and Nick Enfield, at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, conducted an interesting cross-linguistic study in which they have shown that “huh” is possibly a universal word.
They recorded bits of informal conversation from 31 dialects across 5 continents and suggested that the word ‘huh’ (and its variants) is possibly a universal repair initiator that exists in all languages, since it performs the same function and sounds roughly the same across languages. Here is a handy illustration:
This study has had great importance in the humanities. It has enlightened us as to how conversations work cross-culturally and has unraveled important subtleties in human communication. That is why it is not surprising that the authors have been awarded an Ig Nobel Prize.
Cover photo: @inkashapoval
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