In Brief

Confused in Any Language: "Huh?" is a Universal Word

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(Image credit: Monika Adamczyk | Dreamstime)

If you can't understand what somebody just said, it makes sense to have a quick way to correct the conversational gap. In English, it's "huh?" New research suggests that this utterance, often thought of as conversational filler and not an official word, is in fact a universal word, with similar forms in every language studied.

The study, published last Friday (Nov. 8) in the journal PLOS ONE, detailed recordings of conversation in 10 languages, each of which features words that sound very much like "huh?" In Mandarin Chinese, for example, it's "ã" and in Spanish it's "¿eh?" In each case, the word followed a misunderstanding or something misheard, and took the form of a question, the study reported. 

"It's amazing," said Tanya Stivers, a sociologist at UCLA who was not involved in the study, according to the Los Angeles Times. "You do see that it's slightly different ... and that it seems to adapt to the specific language. I think that's fascinating."

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Douglas Main
Douglas Main loves the weird and wonderful world of science, digging into amazing Planet Earth discoveries and wacky animal findings (from marsupials mating themselves to death to zombie worms to tear-drinking butterflies) for Live Science. Follow Doug on Google+.