A busy translation agency like Today Translations handles documents totalling hundreds of thousands of words every week, in languages from all over the world. From engineering documents in Dutch to Buddhist spells in Pali, a sacred and now dead language that has not been widely spoken for more than 200 years, there’s nothing that we can’t translate. Yet research suggests there’s at least one word that never needs to be translated.
The simple “huh?” (as it’s usually transcribed in English) is rarely written down. However, the conversational filler signalling that one either didn’t hear or didn’t understand what was just said is indispensible, especially in informal conversation. Because conversation moves so fast, social interaction would struggle without a quick and reliable way of signalling ‘trouble.’
But the interesting thing about “huh?” is that it’s practically universal, according to a study published in the journal PLoS One by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. They studied 31 languages from around the world as diverse as Icelandic, Cha’palaa (a minority language spoken in Ecuador), and Murriny Patha (an Australian Aboriginal language). Their findings were that every language studied uses “huh?” (or a word sounding very similar to it) in the same context to mean the same thing.
Convergent evolution – every language needs “huh?”
What makes this unusual is that other common words are often radically different across languages. Consider the English “dog” – “chien” in French, and “gǒu” in Mandarin Chinese. The paper proposes that the humble “huh?” is actually an instance of convergent linguistic evolution. Regardless of language family or location, in all conversation we are expected to reply promptly and appropriately to what has just been said. When we are unable to do so – through not hearing or not understanding what has just been said – we need an ‘escape.’ This need to quickly pause the flow of conversation to enable us to better understand and respond imposes a very specific constraints on the “escape” words that evolved. Universally, these words needed to be as concise as impossible and also questioning.
As a result, in language after language, we find a word like “Huh?” that fits the bill perfectly: it is a simple, minimal, quick-to-produce questioning syllable.