Now you know a word in every language: 'Huh?'

The word gives researchers insight into the dynamics of human conversation.
By Ananth Baliga   |   Nov. 12, 2013 at 5:44 PM

(UPI) -- A recent study published by the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands suggests the word "huh?" is universal.

Linguists Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira, and Nick Enfield collected words from 31 different languages and compared the use of "huh"-like words.

Their findings, published in the journal PLoS One, showed that "huh" was unlike any other question word across languages. It was always one syllable, preceded by a sound made deep in the throat.

In contrast, "what" took different phonetic and structural forms in different languages, from "que" in Spanish to "wat" in Netherlands. Based on this evidence, the authors of the study said it was a "qualified yes" as to whether the word "huh" was universal.

While it doesn't sound exactly the same everywhere, it was used largely for clarifications.

According to their theory, while languages maybe specific to a place, the rules of conversation are similar everywhere. People try to keep conversation going based on these rules, so when somebody asks you a question you answer it.

With an average of just 200 milliseconds between speakers, if a person didn't understand what was said, the go-to word for clarification -- or "repair" as linguists term it -- is "huh?" The word is an immediate and unobtrusive request for a speaker to repeat themselves.

"The reason you don't say something longer, like 'gagagaga,' is because then the other person might think you are trying to say something," Dingemanse told The Atlantic. "But you don't have anything to say, so you say something very short."

The researchers also believe that words such as “oh,” “ah” and “um” might be like "huh" and used to ease the flow of conversation.

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