Nick Enfield, a linguist at the University of Sydney, has won an Ig Nobel Prize for research which found evidence of a universal word across all languages — “Huh”.
Nine Ig Nobel Prizes, by the magazine Annals of Improbable Research, are awarded each year at Harvard University in honour of research which makes people laugh, and then think.
Enfield, who got his prize for literature, is the second Ig Nobel won at this year’s awards event by an Australian. Professor Colin Raston from Flinders University picked up the chemistry award creating a way to unboil an egg.
The prizes were first established as a tongue-in-cheek alternative to the Nobels. But the awards, now in their 25th year, have gained their own prestige, with each individual Ig presented to winners by a Nobel Laureate.
Professor Enfield and his co-authors Mark Dingemanse and Francisco Torreira of the Max Planck Institute for Pyscholinguistics in the Netherlands were recognised for their 2013 PLOS ONE paper revealing “Huh” is a universal word.
They sampled 31 languages and found all have a word with a near-identical sound and function as “Huh” in the English language.
“Professor Enfield and Dr Dingemanse followed up their Ig Nobel-winning research with the publication of a new PLOS ONE paper, which suggests humans fix misunderstandings in conversation on average every 90 seconds, regardless of the language being spoken.
“The findings give insight into what is special about language in our species,” says Professor Enfield.
Language scientists have historically laboured over the study of conversation, but the research of Professor Enfield and his colleagues provide further evidence for a long sought-after finding: a universal principle in how humans communicate in conversation.
The research is part of a five-year European Research Council project led by Professor Enfield.
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