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"Huh": a word that needs no translation

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  November 12, 2013 01:47 PM

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On November 3 Britt Peterson wrote in Ideas about how the words for animal sounds differ across languages ("meow" in English is “nyan nyan”in Japanese). In that light, it's interesting to consider a linguistics study published this summer in PLoS ONE that finds that wherever you go, the word to indicate "I didn't quite catch what you just said," sounds a lot like: "huh."

The paper, by Mark Dingemanse and Francisco Torreira, looked at 31 languages and found they all had words that sounded and functioned like "huh." The authors dismiss the possibility that "huh" is a representation of a sound (like "achoo") rather than a true word. Instead, they argue, the universality of "huh" owes to convergent evolution, or the fact that the same set of pressures apply in all languages (namely the need for a quick, simple way to express a lack of understanding).

You can hear 10 versions of "huh" in the video below, and read more about the research on the study's website.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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