'Huh': A Word Uttered By The Bewildered, Worldwide

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A new study from the Netherlands suggests that all languages share one word: "Huh?" Guest host Don Gonyea talks with linguistic anthropologist Nick Enfield about how "huh" sounds around the world, and why it's so prevalent.


OK. So, let's say you're at work. Someone comes up while you're doing something else and says, hey, did you get that e-mail I sent you yet? And you have no idea what they're talking about, so you spin around and say, huh? But what if you were in Spain?


GONYEA: Or Ghana?


GONYEA: Or Laos?


GONYEA: Turns out, anywhere really, there's some form of the word huh?


GONYEA: Recently, a linguistic anthropologist, Nick Enfield and his colleagues realized that huhs from Iceland to China sound sort of similar. In fact, they argue in a new study that huh is a universal word - something a lot of linguists think is impossible. Nick Enfield joins us now from the Max Planck Institute of Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands. Welcome.

NICK ENFIELD: Thank you.

GONYEA: So, huh seems to be an even shorter version of what. Why does it sound sort of the same everywhere?

ENFIELD: It's the sound that you would produce when your mouth is in a quite a relaxed state. And this sound, this low front vowel, as we describe it, the vowel that sort of sounds like ah going through to eh, that's going to be the sound that's least sort of extreme in the way you pronounce it. So, it's easy to pronounce it quite quickly without sort of planning, and it's the sound that's least likely to sound like you're beginning a new sentence. You know, one of the things when you're having a conversation, if you want to stop the other person and get them to back up. So, the funny thing about this word is that it's almost the kind of bland sound you can make in any language given the properties of the human vocal apparatus.

GONYEA: To listeners who aren't linguists, this study might seem trivial and, you know, just kind of fun, but you say it's not because it is truly a big deal for one word to sound so consistent in so many places?

ENFIELD: Well, I think it's a big deal in some respects. But I think the reason why this study is not trivial and why I think it seems to be capturing people's imagination, and that is that our species is really a kind of ultra-social species. We have a very sort of extremely high functioning social intelligence. And things like the existence of huh direct us to aspects of language that are really all about dealing with problems of common understanding.

GONYEA: Nick Enfield is a linguistic anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute of Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands. Thanks for joining us.

ENFIELD: Thank you very much.


CHARLES MINGUS: Uh huh, uh huh, uh huh...

GONYEA: This is NPR News.

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