The One Universal Word

No matter where you are and no matter what language that above-mentioned statement is presented in, you’ll have a suitable way to respond. With the nearly infinite amount of words and potential words that exist in our realm of language and communication, there’s one that’s universal in both pronunciation and meaning: “Huh?”

It’s not as straightforward a discovery as it might seem, either. The tricky part comes in just defining a word, as it’s easy to say that “huh” is just a sound and not a real, proper word. But it meets all the criteria of a word, and that’s important. It’s not innate, and babies don’t automatically start making that particular noise; they have to learn it. Another discerning feature is that there’s no animal equivalent of the sound—it’s not like a snort we might utter to show our disgust at something. It’s also not an involuntary response to something, it’s something we have to think about uttering. Hey presto! We’ve got ourselves a real word.

In English, “huh” can have a couple of different meanings. While it can also be used to express surprise at something, it’s also used as a short, quick indicator that you need clarification on something you didn’t hear or didn’t understand. And that’s the way that it’s been found to be used universally.

The term isn’t 100 percent interchangeable; in some dialects, such as Russian, it’s ever so slightly different. There isn’t exactly an “h” sound in Russian, so it comes out sounding a little bit more like “ah.” But it’s there and it means the same—in a way that no other words or group of words even come close to doing.

Linguists have also looked at just why “huh,” out of all the possible words, is one that’s so universal. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics suggest that it’s because of the context it’s used in. When you say “huh,” you need clarification on something, and in many cases, that something can be very, very important. It can be crucial that the listener stops the conversation before it goes any further to clarify a point, so the human race as a whole needed a quick way to do just that.


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