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.”
“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
What’s more, people all do this in roughly the same three basic ways:
- By asking their interlocutor generally what it is they just said: e.g., “Huh?”
- By asking them to repeat a specific word or phrase: e.g., “Who?”
- By repeating what they just said and asking for confirmation: e.g., “She had a boy?”