25 Nov 2013

Why the Universal ‘Huh?’ Speaks Volumes

It might often sound like an unintelligible grunt, but the word ‘huh?’ has a vital and universal importance within human communication.

The word, which helps to signal when some part of a conversation has not been heard or understood, is found in a very similar form throughout the world.

Researchers Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira and Nick Enfield from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands go as far as to say that the humble ‘huh?’ is an indispensable tool in human communication.

They suggest that with no word to signify when there has been a communication problem, everyday conversations would breakdown in to a mass of jumbled meanings and Chinese whispers-style chaos.

The study’s findings, published in the journal PLOS ONE, form part of a larger body of research into language and social interaction funded by the European Research Council.

What is particularly remarkable is that the sounds people use to mark a miscommunication are incredibly similar throughout all the different language branches. ‘Huh?’ in English is matched by ‘he?’ in Dutch, ‘e?’ in Spanish, ‘a?’ in Mandarin Chinese and ‘a?’ in the Southeast Asian language Lao.

This apparent universality compares with the vast differences seen among languages for a simple word such as dog, which in ‘inu’ in Japanese, ‘chien’ in French and ‘dog’ in English.

Some might suggest that ‘huh?’ is less a word and most a guttural exhalation akin to Homer Simpson’s ‘d’oh!’. But research by Dingemanse and colleagues shows that it is not an innate, physical sound like sneezing or sobbing, ‘huh?’ is a word that has to be learned in subtly different forms in each language.

The word ‘huh?’ was born of a particular need to express misunderstanding quickly and easily. The niche aspect of the role has been given as the reason for the similarity across languages. The fluid nature of language means humans require an easy way to signal a problem in a situation where they may not be able to bring the right words to mind. This word needs to be both questioning while also indicating that the speaker must reiterate their point.

Since these functional requirements are fundamentally the same across languages, they may cause spoken languages to converge on the same solution: a simple, minimal, quick-to-produce questioning syllable.

The idea of something developing independently into a similar form is well known in evolutionary biology. The term convergent evolution refers to the process that sees two distinct species with little or no contact evolve similar physical traits in order to deal with similar environments. This can be seen in the shape of sharks and dolphins; two different species that have evolved the most streamlined shape to live in water.

The researchers suggest that words may converge on similar forms when they occur in strongly similar conversational ‘environments’.

It might be thought that due to the primitive nature of ‘huh?’, other animals will have developed similar signals within their forms of communication. But this is not the case. Only highly social humans practise a form of communications that requires a word calling for instant clarity.

So the next time a slack-jawed youth or surly street seller responds to your question or request with a disgruntled ‘huh?’, you might find it less frustrating if you appreciate the highly complex communication methods with which you are being addressed. Or not.


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