Year 12 students taking the General Assessment Test in Victoria yesterday were asked to consider a head-scratching question – why is the word “huh” used in so many languages?
3AW Melbourne hosts Ross Stevenson and Russel Howcroft drew attention to the perplexing question this morning, confessing they “wouldn’t even know how to go about answering it”.
University of Sydney Linguistics Professor Nick Enfield, who co-authored the 2013 research behind the question, confirmed that the word was, “as far as we know”, used in every human language.
“It’s something that we wrote about and published on a few years ago, we won one of the infamous Ig Nobel Prizes for our research,” he told the program. “The basic finding was that this word ‘huh’ was one of the only, if not the only universal human word.”
In the 2013 paper, the researchers noted that one of the fundamental tenets of linguistic science was that the sound of a word had little connection to the word’s meaning, and that the “likelihood that there are universal words is extremely small”.
In other words, the sound of the word dog in English is “connected to the concept ‘dog’ by historical accident and not by any natural connection – roughly the same concept is just as well denoted in French by chien, in German by hund, and in Japanese by inu”.
“But in this study we present a striking exception to this otherwise robust rule,” they wrote.
“From a systematic comparison of 10 spoken languages from five continents we find evidence suggesting that a word like ‘huh?’ – used as a ‘repair initiator’ when, for example, one has not clearly heard what someone just said – is a universal word.”
Prof Enfield said while the researchers did not test every single language, “we tested a lot of languages from very diverse parts of the world and it’s a universal word as far as we know”.
“One of the things we did have to think carefully about was whether this word is derived from an ancestor language, or whether it’s more likely, as we argued, that it kind of evolved by itself for related reasons in different communities,” he told 3AW.
“It’s something that biologists call convergent evolution – it’s why sharks and dolphins have similar body shapes when they’re actually not closely related. There are reasons why it’s a very natural thing to do to say ‘huh?’ when you have not understood or you’ve got some issue with the words or the thing that somebody has just said to you.”
The hosts drew attention to the Macquarie Dictionary definition, which defines the word as “an expression of interrogation or contempt”, but Prof Enfield argued there were “many meanings actually”, which can change depending on “how you pronounce it”.
“We can say it with a rising intonation – as in, ‘huh?’ – you can sort of especially mark that rising intonation to express astonishment, or you can do it in a bit more of a casual manner to simply get the other person to repeat what they said,” he said.
“But if you turn it around and you say it in a kind of falling intonation – like, ‘huh’ – that indicates something like I’m registering some surprise. It’s a typical phenomenon of language that you can massage the meaning of it quite carefully by how you actually pronounce it, so in fact there’s many shades of meaning to this little word.”