Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf Hunh?

RAY IRWIN is a former Midwesterner and graduate of the University of Minnesota who is now teaching at Syracuse University.

If Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? turns out to be as important a contribution to American dramaturgy as some critics think it might (“Mr. Albee can ... be placed high among the important dramatists of the contemporary world theatre" — New York Post; “towers over the common run of contemporary plays" — the New York Times; “is a brilliantly original work of art” — Newsweek), the close-textual-analysis people will be picking at it before long, and also perhaps picking on it.

I am one of those people myself, and what I am reporting here is a little pilot study I have made of a recurring word I found in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that, so far as I have been able to learn, has not appeared in a play before. The word is “hunh.” Probably I would not have noticed it had it turned up only occasionally, but I kept seeing it again and again (it is used a total of fifty-five times), and before I finished reading the play I suspected that this, like the sickness imagery in Hamlet, the blood imagery in Macbeth, and the light-flashes imagery in Romeo and Juliet, was not just fortuitous. Mr. Albee clearly had something special in mind.

What we call the “area breakdown” of “hunh” is this: it is used eighteen times in the first act, twenty-five times in the second, and twelve times in the third. George says it the most — twenty-seven times; Martha is next with twentysix; and Fred is last with only two. Honey does not say it at all. I was able to find no meaningful patterns in the distribution of the word, but this does not mean they are not there. Later scholarship will perhaps reveal some.

Two explanations of the word’s presence can easily be ruled out. First, it is not a typesetter’s error, as are so many peculiarities ot the first folio. This, one can be sure of, because the word is consistently spelled throughout. And, second, it is not Mr. Albee’s private spelling of “huh.” There are several “huh’s” in the play, along with some “unh hunh’s,” an “ummmmmmmm.”some “unh’s,” a “yaaahhhh,” and a “nyyyyaaaahhhhh.”

Having thus established that “hunh” is in the play on purpose, I tried next to find it in the dictionary. Uh-unh. Even Webster III, containing, as it does, just about anything. has not sanctioned “hunh.” “Huh” is there, though — origin unknown.

I then sought to learn how the word is supposed to be pronounced.

I asked a lot of people, but there was not enough agreement among them to make the results statistically significant. I might, of course, have gone to the play and learned how the actors pronounced it, but that would have been an inordinate expenditure of time and money just for the sake of checking on one word, and an unauthorized one at that. Besides, if I know actors, they probably pronounce “hunh" any way they feel like it. I have never heard two Hamlets pronounce “foil” the same way, and the phonetics of “foh” are more self-evident than those of “hunh.”

Actually, though, it does not matter a great deal precisely how Mr. Albee wants his word pronounced, for the approximate pronunciation is obvious enough from the spelling. The presence of the n means that “hunh” must be partly nasalized, and the final h directs the speaker to extend the word, making it longer than either “him” or “huh.” I know of only one person who used to use “hunh,” or something very close to it, habitually. He was a boyhood friend, a dreamy kid who let his mouth hang open and who had trouble focusing on things that were said to him. When his mother would say, “Max, where did you put the scissors I saw you playing with?” he would answer, “Hunh?" and she would slap him.

Assuming, then, that Mr. Albee intends “hunh” to be pronounced with the mouth and the velum relaxed so as to produce a sort of primitive, nasal grunt, let us turn finally to the questions of why he uses the word and what, if anything, it symbolizes. I think he uses the word because it fits in very well with the diction of much of the rest of the play. People who say things like “You make me puke!”; “Look, sweetheart, I can drink you under any goddamn table you want”; “Yeah . . . sure. Get over there!”; “Look, muckmouth . . . cut that out!”; “CAN . . . IT . . . MISTER!”; and “Then get your butt out of that chair and bring the little dip back in here” (unfortunately, the best examples cannot as yet be quoted in family magazines) probably say “hunh” quite a lot.

I am at the disadvantage of moving almost entirely in academic circles where locutions like those made by Mr. Albee’s characters are never heard. I did, though, hear some of this sort of language when I was in Army boot camp, and it was often supplemented by a variety of animal-like sounds, especially if the speaker was a slack-jawed fellow to whom thinking and speaking came hard. And I do not doubt that a certain number of these sounds could be best represented orthographically by “hunh.”

I have some ideas on the symbolism of “hunh,” too. I believe that in putting it into the throats of his characters, Mr. Albee is suggesting, although he may not know it, that language is coming full circle. In grunts it began, and to grunts it is

returning. Nor is this the only full circle gesture that “hunh” symbolizes. Manners, he seems to be saying, are getting back to “hunh.” Family life will soon be mostly “hunh,” and perhaps also “ugh.” Scholarship, ambition, loyalty, honesty, tact, virility, at least heterosexual virility, willpower all are sinking to the level of “hunh.”

Since textual analyses of this sort are traditionally descriptive rather than normative, I feel no obligation to marshal evidence that Mr. Albee doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about. Besides, as I have said. I have led a life sheltered, for the most part, by the groves of academe, in which speech and situations and people such as those invented by Mr. Albee do not exist.