The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Breaking News

World, nation, state

November 10, 2013

Huh? It’s a universal word

LOS ANGELES — Humans speak many languages, but we may be united in our confusion. A new study examined languages from around the world and discovered what they say could be a universal word: “Huh?”

Researchers traveled to cities and remote villages on five continents, visiting native speakers of 10 very different languages. Their nearly 200 recordings of casual conversations revealed that there are versions of “Huh?” in every language they studied - and they sound remarkably similar.

While it may seem like a throwaway word, “Huh?” is the glue that holds a broken conversation together, the globe-trotting team reported Friday in the journal PLOS ONE. The fact that it appears over and over reveals a remarkable case of “convergent evolution” in language, they added.

“Huh?” is a much-maligned utterance in English. It’s seen as a filler word, little more than what’s called a conversational grunt, like “mm-hmm.” But it plays a crucial role in conversations, said Herbert Clark, a psychologist at Stanford University who studies language.

When one person misses a bit of information and the line of communication breaks, there needs to be a quick and effective way to fix it, he said.

“You can’t have a conversation without the ability to make repairs,” said Clark, who wasn’t involved in the study.

For this study, scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands set out to show that “Huh?” had earned the status of a full-fledged word, though an admittedly odd one. They also wanted to see whether other languages had a similar word with a similar function.

The problem is that “Huh?” often seems like such an unimportant feature of language that it’s not well documented, said Nick Enfield, a linguistic anthropologist who worked on the study.

The word doesn’t crop up much in linguistic literature because researchers who record speakers of remote languages often ignore such filler.

The scientists headed to remote villages in Ecuador, Laos, Ghana and Australia and spent weeks getting acquainted with the locals. They felt they had to gain people’s trust before they could record natural, casual conversations - and perhaps catch a few instances of “Huh?” in its natural environment.

“The kind of conversations we collected were just the kind of conversations you and I would have at the breakfast table or in the evening when we’re doing our handicrafts,” Enfield said.

The “Huh?”-hunters also visited family homes in Italy, Russia and Taiwan as well as laboratories in Spain and the Netherlands. The languages studied were Cha’palaa, Dutch, Icelandic, Italian, Lao, Mandarin Chinese, Murriny Patha, Russian, Siwu and Spanish. (English wasn’t included in the study.)

Across these languages, they found a remarkable similarity among the “Huhs?” All the words had a single syllable, and they were typically limited to a low-front vowel, something akin to “ah” or “eh.”

Sometimes this simple word started with a consonant, as does the English “Huh?” or the Dutch “Heh?” Across all 10 languages, there were at least 64 simple consonants to choose from, but the word always started with an H or a glottal stop - the sound in the middle of the English “uh-oh.”

Every version of “Huh?” was clearly a word because it passed two key tests, the scientists said: Each “Huh?” had to be learned by speakers and follow the rules of its language. For example, English speakers ask questions with rising tones, so when they say “Huh?” their voices rise. Icelandic speakers’ voices fall when they ask a question, and sure enough, the tone goes down as they ask, “Ha?” (To an English speaker, this tone would sound like a statement of fact: “Huh.”)

“It’s amazing,” said Tanya Stivers, a sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles who was not involved in the study. “You do see that it’s slightly different ... and that it seems to adapt to the specific language. I think that’s fascinating.”

The linguists borrowed a term from biology to describe this phenomenon: “convergent evolution.” Just as sharks and dolphins developed the same body plan to thrive in the water even though they’re from very different lineages, all languages have developed a “Huh?” because it’s so useful for solving a particular problem, researchers said.

“’Huh?’ has almost certainly been independently invented many, many, times,” said Mark Pagel, who studies language evolution at the University of Reading in England and was not involved in the PLOS ONE study. “And that is why it appears universal.”

1
Text Only
World, nation, state
  • U.S. blasts Israel for Kerry criticism

    The Obama administration pushed back strongly Monday at a torrent of Israeli criticism over Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest bid to secure a cease-fire with Hamas, accusing some in Israel of launching a “misinformation campaign” against the top American diplomat.

    July 29, 2014

  • Outlook on Medicare finances improves

    Medicare’s finances are looking brighter, the government said Monday. The program’s giant hospital trust fund won’t be exhausted until 2030 — four years later than last year’s estimate.

    July 29, 2014

  • Plan to simplify 2015 health renewals may backfire

    If you have health insurance on your job, you probably don’t give much thought to each year’s renewal. But make the same assumption in one of the new health law plans, and it could lead to costly surprises.

    July 28, 2014

  • Hospital shooting suspect charged with murder

    A man accused of fatally shooting his caseworker and grazing his psychiatrist at a suburban Philadelphia hospital complex before the doctor returned fire has been charged with murder.

    July 28, 2014

  • Man seeks video of Oklahoma City bombing

    One man’s quest to explain his brother’s mysterious jail cell death 19 years ago has rekindled long-dormant questions about whether others were involved in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

    July 28, 2014

  • Bill in Congress to help veterans with PTSD

    A group of lawmakers have joined together to help veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Post Traumatic Brain Injury (PTBI) and other war injuries get speedy medical treatment — and avoid Veteran’s Administration bureaucracy and Department of Defense lack of accountability.

    July 28, 2014

  • U.S.: Russia has fired rockets into Ukraine

    Stepping up pressure on Moscow, the U.S. on Sunday released satellite images it says show that rockets have been fired from Russia into neighboring eastern Ukraine and that heavy artillery for separatists also has crossed the border.

    July 28, 2014

  • U.S. says Russia is firing across border into Ukraine

    Russia is launching artillery attacks from its soil on Ukrainian troops and preparing to move heavier weaponry across the border, the U.S. and Ukraine charged Friday in what appeared to be an ominous escalation of the crisis.

    July 25, 2014

  • Gaza sides agree to lull but truce efforts stall

     Israel-Hamas fighting looked headed for escalation after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry failed Friday to broker a weeklong truce as a first step toward a broader deal and Israel’s defense minister warned Israel might soon expand its Gaza ground operation “significantly.”

    July 25, 2014

  • Planes with Ukraine bodies arrive in Netherlands

    Two more military aircraft carrying remains of victims from the Malaysian plane disaster arrived in the Netherlands on Thursday, while Australian and Dutch diplomats joined to promote a plan for a U.N. team to secure the crash site which has been controlled by pro-Russian rebels.

    July 24, 2014

House Ads
Parade
Magazine

Click HERE to read all your Parade favorites including Hollywood Wire, Celebrity interviews and photo galleries, Food recipes and cooking tips, Games and lots more.
AP Video