You may not be able to order a beer in Iceland, but misunderstand someone as they’re describing the regional elf lore, and you’re in luck. The expression “huh?” is practically universal, according to a recent study published in the journal PLoS One by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.
Here’s why this is so unusual.
Most languages sound dramatically different from each other because words aren’t tied to what they stand for—dog and chien both represent a four-legged canine, for example—and each language is basically limited to a finite number of possible sound combinations.
“The likelihood that there are universal words is extremely small,” the authors write. “But in this study we present a striking exception to this otherwise robust rule.”
“Huh” may sound like just an interjection, like a grunt or cry. An almost involuntary response to the phrase, “I’m more than a butt doctor,” for example. But rest assured, it's a word.
“'Huh?' may be a non-prototypical word, but it is a word,” they wrote. After all, it requires being spelled and conforms to the general principles of each language.
For the study, linguists Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira, and Nick Enfield compiled information from 31 different languages, and compared the prevalence and use of “huh”-like words.
“Huh” was unlike other question words in those languages—it was always one syllable, consisting of a short vowel sometimes preceded by a glottal consonant sound (one made deep in your throat). It also almost always had a rising pitch, the intonation most languages use for questions. “What,” by contrast, took a number of different phonetic and structural forms across the languages, like “que” in Spanish, or, gloriously, “wat,” in the Netherlands.
The reason is that generally, we only say “huh” to signal to the other person in the conversation that we didn’t understand, and to get them to explain without being too obtrusive.
Ultimately, the authors ask whether “huh” is a universal word and decide on a “qualified yes”—though it doesn’t sound exactly the same everywhere, every language has a “huh,” and it’s almost always used for clarification (or “repair,” as it’s called in linguistic circles).
Here’s their theory as to why it happens: Languages may be specific to place, but conversations serve the same purpose everywhere. Our chatter works kind of like traffic: There’s a set of rules we’ve agreed to follow, and everyone generally tries to make the whole operation run smoothly. Someone asks a question, the other person answers. You try not to pause for too long between sentences. But the time between speakers is only about 200 milliseconds, so we often start preparing for our turn before the first person has finished talking. If we know we don’t understand or didn’t hear something, there’s an incentive to say something—“huh?”—as quickly and decisively as possible in order to get the other person to repeat themselves. No time to formulate an “excuse me?” or even a “pardon?”—this theoretical chat has places to be.
And because “huh” sounds so unlike the other words in most languages, it immediately captures the attention of the speaker.
"The reason you don't say something longer, like 'gagagaga,' is because then the other person might think you are trying to say something," Dingemanse told me. "But you don't have anything to say, so you say something very short."
The researchers also speculate that words like “oh,” “ah,” and “um” might be, like "huh," universal stoplights in our conversation flow, since iterations of those appear across languages, as well.
“The ultimate fit to the tight constraints of their conversational environments, these words stay put and help us conduct conversation in optimal ways,” the authors note.
For Dingemanse, the research shows that, "language has all these extremely important social roles. We use it for so many things more than conveying information."
What’s fascinating about this is that languages are otherwise so incredibly not similar. A recent widely circulated set of maps on European languages showed, for example, that “bear” is “medved” in the Czech Republic, and “bar” just across the border in Germany, and “ours” just one country further west, in France.
But “huh” seems to indicate that, around the world, we really all just want to interact as smoothly and clearly as possible. And also that life is full of tiny misunderstandings, no matter where you live.