Researchers Discover Huh? Means Huh? Around The Globe

Universal Sound A Key To Human Communication

By Rhonda J. Miller on November 9, 2013 7:37 PM EST

The Word Huh? Is Used In Languages Around The World
When communicating that what is said has not been understood, the word Huh? provides a universal message. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands discovered the value of the little word by examining 196 audio recordings of informal conversations in 10 languages (Photo: MPI for Psycholinguistics / Rhonda J. Miller)

The little word "Huh?" that implies not hearing or not understanding what someone has just said has been found in languages around the world, according to researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands.

While it might seem frivolous to do research on a word like "huh?," the discovery that the little word is similar in form and function in languages of vastly different cultures on five continents is a key finding in human communication, researchers Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira and Nick Enfield reported in their study, "Is 'Huh?' a Universal Word: Conversational Infrastructure and the Convergent Evolution of Linguistic Terms," published in the Nov. 8 issue of the journal PLOS ONE.

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"This is an exception to the normal situation, namely that when words in different languages mean the same thing, they will usually sound completely different," the researchers said in reporting their key findings. "Compare, for example, these very different-sounding words for 'dog': inu in Japanese, chien in French, dog in English. Why do these differences between the sounds of words across languages occur? It's because language does not impose any necessary connection between sound and meaning in words. This study shows that 'Huh?' is a rare exception to this otherwise strong rule."

"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," the researchers write. "Human communication, and thus common understanding in social life, relies heavily on the use of such linguistic devices."

The research was done by examining 196 instances of "Huh?" from recordings of informal conversations in 10 languages: Siwu, a minority language spoken in Ghana; Cha'palaa, a minority language spoken in Ecuador, Murriny Patha, an Australian Aboriginal language; Lao, spoken in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia; Icelandic, Italian, Mandarin, Chinese, Spanish, and Dutch.

The research included only the word "Huh?" used in the same context in the different languages.

While "Huh?" may be seen as a filler word, little more than what's called a "conversational grunt," like "mm-hmm," it plays a crucial role in conversations, Herbert Clark, a psychologist at Stanford University, said in a Nov. 9 article in the Los Angeles Times.

"When one person misses a bit of information and the line of communication breaks, there needs to be a quick, easy and effective way to fix it," said Clark, who did not participate in the study.

"You can't have a conversation without the ability to make repairs," said Clark, "It is a universal need, no matter what kind of conversation you have."

The researchers from the Max Planck Institute in the Netherlands went to remote villages around the world to record natural conversations, linguistic anthropologist Nick Enfield, one of the investigators on the study, told the Los Angeles Times.

"The kind of conversations we collected were just the kind of conversations you and I would have at the breakfast table or in the evening when we're doing our handicrafts," Enfield told the Los Angeles Times.

The study of "Huh?" by the researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is part of larger project funded by the European Research Council to investigate language and social interaction.

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