In A Nutshell
No matter where you live, where you visit, what your first language is or what other languages you know, there’s a single word that means exactly the same in every language—and everyone uses it. “Huh?” It’s the only word that’s been found to mean the same thing in every language, and no one’s entirely sure why.
The Whole Bushel
“The necropants will bond to the witch’s own skin, and the magical piece of paper will ensure that there are a few more coins inside the necropants’ scrotum every day.”
No matter where you are and no matter what language that above-mentioned statement is presented in, you’ll have a suitable way to respond. With the nearly infinite amount of words and potential words that exist in our realm of language and communication, there’s one that’s universal in both pronunciation and meaning: “Huh?”
It’s not as straightforward a discovery as it might seem, either. The tricky part comes in just defining a word, as it’s easy to say that “huh” is just a sound and not a real, proper word. But it meets all the criteria of a word, and that’s important. It’s not innate, and babies don’t automatically start making that particular noise; they have to learn it. Another discerning feature is that there’s no animal equivalent of the sound—it’s not like a snort we might utter to show our disgust at something. It’s also not an involuntary response to something, it’s something we have to think about uttering. Hey presto! We’ve got ourselves a real word.
In English, “huh” can have a couple of different meanings. While it can also be used to express surprise at something, it’s also used as a short, quick indicator that you need clarification on something you didn’t hear or didn’t understand. And that’s the way that it’s been found to be used universally.
The term isn’t 100 percent interchangeable; in some dialects, such as Russian, it’s ever so slightly different. There isn’t exactly an “h” sound in Russian, so it comes out sounding a little bit more like “ah.” But it’s there and it means the same—in a way that no other words or group of words even come close to doing.
Linguists have also looked at just why “huh,” out of all the possible words, is one that’s so universal. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics suggest that it’s because of the context it’s used in. When you say “huh,” you need clarification on something, and in many cases, that something can be very, very important. It can be crucial that the listener stops the conversation before it goes any further to clarify a point, so the human race as a whole needed a quick way to do just that.
When it comes to the basics of how we communicate, there are a lot of similarities in the formation of conversations that we don’t even think about. For example, the average time between one speaker ending their thoughts and the next one taking over is only 200 milliseconds. That means we tend to prepare what we’re going to say ahead of time and need to jump in quickly if there’s something we don’t quite understand or didn’t hear. Prepared for conversation or not, by the time our brains register the fact that we didn’t understand something, “huh” is the only sound we have the time to make.
The idea of using “huh” and its mildly unique cultural variations has more to do with the environment in which speakers are conversing than about the actual language itself. Everyone, no matter what language they’re speaking, has to deal with needed clarification on things, whether it’s in Italian, Spanish, English, or something like Cha’palaa. The formation of the rather standardized word could have a lot to do with getting the meaning across with rather minimal effort and time—which could, in some cases, determine not just whether or not the listener is embarrassed, but could also be been the difference between life and death.