Languages are many, but some expressions are universal, or so it seems. A recent study funded by no less than the European Research Council and the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science (money very usefully spent, as always), has established that no matter where you are in the world, you can probably interrupt someone with a well-placed ‘huh?’ and they’ll know what you mean. That’s based on a direct investigation into ten languages and data from about 30 in total.

The first part of their paper is spent determining that ‘huh?’ is universal, the second that it is a word. In support of this second claim, the researchers point out that ‘huh?’ is not an innate, non-lexical grunt-like noise, but rather a learned mechanism for quiclky and efficiently signalling a misunderstanding or hearing difficulty during a conversaiton. So here it is, ‘huh?’ in ten languages from across the globe (and a good way to get your round-the-world trip funded through a research grant).

The researchers also speculate that other “words” like ‘oh’, ‘um’ and ‘ah’ might also be quasi-universal, with little change in their use and pronunciation across cultures. Guess they’ll just have to apply for another grant from the European Research Coucil to investigate that hypothesis next summer.


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