60-Second Science

Huh? Appears To Be Universally Understood

In multiple languages, a word that sounds a lot like "huh?" signals that the utterer needs to have verbal information repeated or restated. Karen Hopkin reports.

What’s the most universal utterance in languages across the globe?

Male voice: Huh?


Male voice: Huh?

That’s right.

Male voice: HUH?

Exactly. Because a new study finds that everybody around the world does indeed say “huh?” The finding is the journal PLOS One. [Mark Dingemanse Francisco Torreira and N. J. Enfield, Is “Huh?” a Universal Word? Conversational Infrastructure and the Convergent Evolution of Linguistic Items]

The researchers were exploring linguistic tools people use to assure fluid communication. In this case, they were looking for an interjection that signals that a listener missed something, and prompts the speaker to repeat or rephrase the original statement. In other words, something that works like the English word “Huh?”

So they eavesdropped on nearly 200 conversations in 10 different tongues, from Italian to Icelandic. And they found that, in language after language, a word that sounds a lot like “huh?” gets the job done. For example, [international huhs]. It’s short and sweet so it’s likely to stop the speaker before the listener gets too lost. And it sounds like a question [more international huhs], so it warrants a response.

The sound appears not to be innate. Babies don’t use it before they say mama. But most five-year-olds are masters of “huh?” No matter where they come from.

—Karen Hopkin

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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