FOUR years ago, as a British immigrant Struggling with some of the eccentricities of the American language, I was continually puzzled by a nasal honking sound which seemed to recur in nearly all conversations, though I seldom saw it in print. I started to tackle it as a problem in semantics.
First, I went to the dictionary. Unfortunately, it wasn’t listed, though I looked under E for erh her, H for huh unh, and U for uh huh. Nothing daunted, I decided to listen carefully, jotting down parts of the conversation in which the word was spoken, in order to learn its meaning. I found the term “ meaning” to be a classic example of British understatement. The word—if il may be called a word— had not one but twenty meanings. Consider these typical excerpts from my notes: —
1.“Do you like spinach?”
“Unh unh.” (No, certainly not.)
2.“Would you like to see something nice?”
“Uh huh.” (Yea!)
3.“Have you written that letter?”
“Unh unh.” (No.)
4.“I have been all round the world.”
“Uh huh?" (No, really?)
5.“Where are you going?”
“Uh huh huh.” (I don’t know.)
6.“Will you do me a favor?”
“Uh . . . huh.” (Well — yes.)
A fascinating study! To my untrained ears, the pronunciation seemed to be exactly the same each time; I later learned the immense variations of accent and inflection, the subtle nuances of tone, which could give such different meanings. I discovered the spelling, which, although not standardized, usually consists of u-h h-u-h for the affirmative and interrogative, and u-n-h u-n-h for the negative. I even found out the regional characteristics: in the South, it has four syllables; in the West, it is pronounced erh her; in the Middle West, the faint rumble of an r can be detected.
My next step was to attempt to add the new word to my own vocabulary. I practiced it frequently, and went around muttering “Uh huh, uh huh, uh huh, uh huh” until my friends began offering me Kleenex.
One day at a dinner party I tried it.
“Would you like some potatoes?” asked my hostess.
“Uh huh,” I replied bravely.
“Oh, so you’re on a diet!” she exclaimed, and passed me my plate potatoless. Irritated, I attributed it to her poor hearing.
A few days later, I was asked the usual question: “Do you like living in this country?”
“Uh huh!” I answered enthusiastically. The questioner looked pained and surprised, and murmured that that was too bad.
In the middle of a long story, a friend of mine said politely, “I do hope I’m not boring you.”
“Unh unh,” I said, trying very hard.
I never heard the end of the story, and my friend hasn’t spoken to me since.
Now in her middle teens, MARY MAXTONE is an old Atlantic contributor, having published in this magazine at the ripe age of twelve. She is a senior at the George School in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.