Nov 11, 2013 at 03:19pm IST

'Huh' may be a universal word, has similar form and function the world over

London: 'Huh' may a true universal word that unites people across the globe in their confusion, a new study that examined languages from around the world suggests.

A word like 'Huh?' - used when one has not understood what someone just said - appears to be universal: it is found to have very similar form and function in languages across the globe, researchers said.

It might seem frivolous to carry out scientific research on a word like 'Huh?' But in fact this little word is an indispensable tool in human communication, researchers said.

'Huh' may be a universal word, has similar form and function the world over

'Huh' may a true universal word that unites people across the globe in their confusion. (Huh on keyboard, via Shutterstock)

Without words like this we would be unable to signal when we have problems with hearing or understanding what was said, and our conversations would be constantly derailed by communicative mishaps, they said.

Researchers Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira and Nick Enfield, at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, studied languages from around the world and found that all of them have a word with a near-identical sound and function as English 'Huh?'

This is remarkable because usually, words in unrelated languages sound completely different.

One might object that this suggests that 'Huh?' is not a word at all. But in a careful phonetic comparison, researchers found that it is.

Although 'Huh?' is much more similar across languages than words normally should be, it does differ across languages in systematic ways.

'Huh?' is not like those human sounds that happen to be universal because they are innate, such as sneezing or crying. It is a word that has to be learned in subtly different forms in each language, said researchers.

To understand why is 'Huh?' so similar across languages, Dingemanse and colleagues studied the specific context in which this word occurs.

In human communication, when we are somehow unable to respond appropriately, we need an escape hatch: a way to quickly signal the problem.

This signal has to be easy to produce in situations when you're literally at a loss to say something; and it has to be a questioning word to make clear that the first speaker must now speak again.

Since these functional requirements are fundamentally the same across languages, they may cause spoken languages to converge on the same solution: a simple, minimal, quick-to-produce questioning syllable like English 'Huh?', Mandarin Chinese 'A?', Spanish 'E?', Lao 'A?', or Dutch 'He?'.

Researchers propose that words may converge on similar forms when they occur in strongly similar conversational 'environments.'

A clear effect of this conversational ecology on the specific shape of linguistic expressions has not been observed before.

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