When you listen to someone speaking a language you don’t understand, can you pick up any meaning? Most people can, because a lot of body language is universal, and up to 90% of all communication is nonverbal. Most of spoken language is not universal though and there are very few words, which are the same across all languages. Modern linguists are beginning to study these universal words now.
Mark Dingemanse is studying one of these rare words. What’s surprising is that this universal word is a word used to mean, ‘I don’t understand’. The word huh? is a universal word, understood in almost every language.
In some circles, the word huh? is thought to be a bit crude. It is seen as informal, and impolite to say except in a very casual situation. While that may be true, the fact that so many different languages use the word makes it one of the world’s most important words.
Dingemanse has been studying ten different languages, including Spanish, Chinese, Icelandic and indigenous languages from Australia, Ecuador and Ghana. Each of those languages uses a distinct form of huh?. The word is slightly different sounding in each language. Still, it is pronounced using the same movements of the mouth and tongue.
Some have tried to dispel this theory, claiming huh? is a sound and not a word. Dingemanse sticks by his theory though. He says huh? is a word, because it has no equal in the animal kingdom, like roars and grunts do. Children also don’t use huh? until they begin speaking in real words.
Since huh? is used all over the world, this means you know at least one word in every language. If someone says something to you, which you don’t understand, saying huh? might cause them to repeat their last sentence.
While huh?, may not be that helpful of a word when traveling, it does teach us something about what all humans share. All humans cry over loss. All people smile when happy. And apparently, we all share at least one word. What do you think? Is huh? really a word, or is it something more primal, like a laugh or a scream?