Copyright 2014 by Paula S. Jordan
Did you know there is one small English word that may be in every human language? There is, and it is familiar to every one of us.
In fact it is so useful, and so commonplace, that many parents and teachers consider it impolite.
Give up? It’s that homely, unmistakable question mark of a word, huh.
Mark Dingemanse and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands, examined ten very different languages, including Spanish, Chinese, Icelandic, and indigenous languages from Ecuador, Australia, and Ghana, and found this one humble word in all of them. And it has since been found in 21 more.
As Arika Okrent writes in the March Smithsonian Magazine, “Not only did all of [those] languages have a word [to ask for] a quick clarification, but its form always resembled huh.”
In each case, the vowel is pronounced with a “relatively relaxed tongue,” with no sounds like “ee” or “oo” requiring the tongue to move much. And the sound before the vowel “is either an ‘h’ sound or … a glottal stop,” the sound a cockney would use for the double t’s in “better.”
Is it a real word, though? What makes it anything more than a “mere grunt of stupefaction?”
Huh, like other true words, “is learned, and follows certain linguistic rules,” says Okrent. “It has no counterpart in the animal kingdom,” and “unlike innate vocalizations, children don’t use it until they start speaking.”
But is it really universal?
Dingemanse is ready to bet “yes.” Languages with common origins or overlapping histories often have words in common, but unrelated languages almost always have “arbitrarily different” words for a given thing. This word huh, however, appears in at least 31 languages with no common roots whatsoever. Most likely it has proven “such an efficient utterance for its particular narrow function” that language after language has tripped over it and adopted it independently down the ages.
So next time someone says something that is incomprehensible, or merely indistinct, why not turn to them with great dignity and say, “Huh?”
Artwork from howtoparenttoday.com