The ugly, grunt-like “huh?” — when one is too confused for words and too caught off guard for “pardon?” — may seem to be a special form of rudeness reserved for English, but a team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics has found it is anything but.
In fact, they argued last year, in the journal PLOS ONE, “huh?” may be universal: that rare linguistic token that is found across all languages.
“We sampled 31 languages from diverse language families around the world in this study, and we found that all of them have a word with a near-identical sound and function as English Huh?” the researchers write, on a website explaining their findings. “This is an exception to the normal situation, namely that when words in different languages mean the same thing, they will usually sound completely different.”
The researchers also argue that “huh?” is indeed a word, not just a universal human sound like a sneeze. It differs “across languages in subtle but systematic ways.”
So what do all these different “huh”-like words sound like? The video below offers a few audio samples.
We first saw this reported by Scientific American, which also includes an interactive version of the map above.
The researchers explore some of the implications of their findings in the September/October issue of Scientific American MIND.
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