Common Language

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Linguists recently announced that “Huh?” or a similar word seems to be a universal way of confirming that another speaker is understood. They studied 10 languages on five continents, including Dutch, Icelandic, Mandarin Chinese, the West African Siwu and the Australian aboriginal Murrinh-Patha. These languages have very different grammatical structures, but all contain a syllable people use to make sure they are understanding what is being said. The variants sound like “huh?,” hah?,” “eh?” and other closely related sounds, and all end with a questioning intonation. I’m wondering if the questioning tone is like the American “Really?” meaning, “I get it.”

Others had proposed that “mama” and “dada” might be universal sounds, but “huh” is much more widely distributed. This came as a surprise to me.

For what it’s worth, when I taught college ESL classes, my students showed me how widespread our word “chocolate” is. The accent may be slightly different but you would instantly recognize the word as “chocolate.” So no matter where you are in the world, you will always be able to get your fix without someone saying, “Huh?” to you.

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Filed under All things having to do with the English language

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