Huh?

New research by Mark Dingemanse and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics … has uncovered a surprisingly important role for an interjection long dismissed as one of language’s second-class citizens: the humble huh?, a sort of voiced question mark slipped in when you don’t understand something. In fact, they’ve found, huh? is a “universal word,” the first studied by modern linguists.

Dingemanse’s team analyzed recordings of people speaking ten different languages, including Spanish, Chinese and Icelandic, as well as indigenous languages from Ecuador, Australia and Ghana. Not only did all of the languages have a word intended to initiate a quick clarification, but its form always resembled huh? The utterance, they argue, isn’t a mere grunt of stupefaction but a remarkable linguistic invention.”

— “Everybody in Almost Every Language Says ‘Huh’? HUH?!” Arika Okrent, Smithsonian Magazine [links added]

 More:

Ideophone.org

“Is ‘Huh?’ a Universal Word? Conversational Infrastructure and the Convergent Evolution of Linguistic Items,” PLOS One, Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira, and N. J. Enfield

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