Researchers traveled to cities and remote villages on five continents, visiting native speakers of 10 very different languages. Their nearly 200 recordings of casual conversations revealed that there are versions of “Huh?” in every language they studied – and they sound remarkably similar; the word always started with an H or a glottal stop – the sound in the middle of the English “uh-oh.”
While it may seem like a throwaway word, “Huh?” is the glue that holds a broken conversation together, the globe-trotting team said. The fact that it appears over and over reveals a remarkable case of “convergent evolution” in language, they added.
“Huh?” is a much-maligned utterance in English, seen as a filler word, little more than what’s called a conversational grunt, like “mm-hmm.” But it plays a crucial role in conversations, said Herbert Clark, a psychologist at Stanford University who studies language.
When one person misses a bit of information and the line of communication breaks, there needs to be a quick and effective way to fix it, he said.
“You can’t have a conversation without the ability to make repairs,” said Clark, who wasn’t involved in the study.
For this study, scientists set out to show that “Huh?” had earned the status of a full-fledged word, though an admittedly odd one. They also wanted to see whether other languages had a similar word with a similar function.
The problem is that “Huh?” often seems like such an unimportant feature of language that it’s not well documented, said Nick Enfield, a linguistic anthropologist who worked on the study.