What Did You Say?

A new study shows that people everywhere navigate potential misunderstandings in roughly the same three ways.

Two years ago, the linguists Mark Dingemanse and Nick Enfield found that the word “Huh?” is universal across 31 languages. That is, nearly every language has a short, one-syllable sound that’s used for clarification, or “repair.”

As I wrote at the time:

“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.

Today they’re back with a new study, published in the journal PLoS One, showing that people of all cultures use similar techniques—“Huh?” being one of them—to better understand each other in conversation. The study of 12 languages across eight different language families found that people try to clarify confusing statements about once every 90 seconds.

Examples of Clarification

PLoS One

What’s more, people all do this in roughly the same three basic ways:

  1. By asking their interlocutor generally what it is they just said: e.g., “Huh?”
  2. By asking them to repeat a specific word or phrase: e.g., “Who?”
  3. By repeating what they just said and asking for confirmation: e.g., “She had a boy?”

This was true of languages as diverse as Dutch, Russian, and the Yélî Dnye tongue of Melanesia. In general, no more than five minutes went by without someone asking the speaker, in one way or another, “Come again?”

It might seem intuitive, but, as the authors point out, things could have gone differently for mankind. Some languages lack words for numbers beyond ‘one,’ ‘two,’ and ‘many,’ for example, so it’s surprising that they all have the same core ways of resolving misunderstandings. The authors write that no other animal communication system has a comparable clarification architecture, suggesting that this need to verbally breach differences in knowledge is unique to humans.

The findings show that though languages might differ in grammar and syntax, they are all fundamentally the same in purpose: bringing people together—and helping them understand what the heck is going on once they get there.