Languages around the world share universal principles that transcend grammar or words, according to recent data collected by globe-trotting linguists. By learning different languages and analyzing conversations, these researchers are beginning to identify social cues shared by the speakers of numerous different language groups. People all over the world use a pregnant pause, for example, or a well-timed “huh?” to convey their thoughts and feelings. Mark Dingemanse and Nick Enfield, both linguists at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, suggest that such evidence might form a social foundation on which all languages are built. They wrote about this idea in “Let’s Talk” in the September/October Scientific American MIND.

The map above highlights some of the many “huhs?” that Dingemanse, Enfield and their colleagues have gathered around the world. Click on the blue dots to learn about the languages and hear an audio sample.

Source for map: “Is ‘Huh?’ a Universal Word? Conversational Infrastructure and the Convergent Evolution of Linguistic Items.” Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira and N. J. Enfield in PLOS ONE, Vol. 8. Issue 11, article e78273; November 2013.