Language in the News, Recommended Reading

Is ‘Huh?’ a Universal Word? These Guys Think So

There’s been recent work by linguists into the idea of ‘huh’ being a universal word. This is actually a pretty big deal, linguistically speaking.

First, because the authors argue that ‘huh’ is in fact a word and not something innate, like laughter, because it is subtly different in all the languages they looked at and it appeared to be learned (i.e., babies don’t do it, but children who’ve mastered grammatical concepts around the age of 5 use it perfectly).

And second, because saying that something is universal across languages is a bold statement. There are around 6,000 or so languages in the world, so there’s a LOT of room for variety. Universals, at least in my experience, tend to be things like: all languages have a way of dealing with conversational problems that arise in the moment. The ways of indicating and fixing these problems often depends on the language and possibly the culture of the speakers, but in this paper, the authors argue that ‘huh’ might be a universal indicator of conversational trouble.

The authors have a great synopsis of their paper, along with some sound examples of ‘huh’ in several of the languages they studied, as well as a link to the full paper. I haven’t read the full paper yet, but it’s definitely intriguing and they offer explanations of both their methods and their reasoning.

One bit of food for thought, for those of you who will check out the links above: in the synopsis under “Data Collection,” the authors mention that in the moments of ‘other-initiated repair’ in conversation, the ‘repair solution’ offered was “usually…[a repetition] of the thing they said before (though often with slight revisions).” I’d want to know if there was any difference in the “huh”—either phonetically, or in paralinguistic cues like facial expression, that occurred with straight repetitions versus slight revisions. Why? Because a straight repetition indicates that the speaker believed the listener hadn’t heard what was said, where a slight revision could indicate either not hearing or not understanding.

For example: if we’re in a crowded bar, and I said, “she’s done with her drink,” and you said “huh?” I could either repeat “she’s done with her drink” OR I could change it slightly to “Carol’s done with her drink” (meaning I thought that she was ambiguous), or “she’s finished her drink” (meaning I thought the word “done” was problematic for some reason). And if I made those interpretations, was it something in the way you said “huh” or looked when you said “huh” that led me to that conclusion? And is that pattern universal too?

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Credit where credit’s due: this paper and website were brought to my attention by the Multilingual Chicago blog, which I started reading after last week’s post. 

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One thought on “Is ‘Huh?’ a Universal Word? These Guys Think So

  1. This is really interesting. In one of my linguistics classes a while ago, we talked about universal words. I think somebody suggested “ow”, e.g. said when you stub your toe, as a possible universal word but I hadn’t heard of “huh” being universal. Thanks for sharing the synopsis of the paper. I’ll check it out!

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