Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Universals of conversation: Words like 'Huh?'

Date:
November 9, 2013
Source:
Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
Summary:
A word like 'Huh?' -- used when one has not caught what someone just said -- appears to be universal: it is found to have very similar form and function in languages across the globe. Researchers found that words that signal problems with understanding are similar across languages.

A word like huh? -- used to initiate repair when, for example, one has not clearly heard what someone just said -- is found in roughly the same form in spoken languages across the globe. Languages 1-10 are examined in detail in the study. Locations are approximate. In all languages except 1, 2, and 21 the pitch of the word is rising. 1. Cha'palaa ʔaː 2. Icelandic ha 3. Spanish e 4. Siwu ãː 5. Dutch hɜ 6. Italian ɛː 7. Russian aː 8. Lao hãː 9. Mandarin Chinese ãː 10. Murrinh-Patha aː 11. ǂĀkhoe Haiǁom hɛ 12. Chintang hã 13. Duna ɛ̃: 14. English hã 15. French ɛ̃ 16. Hungarian hm/ha 17. Kri ha: 18. Tzeltal hai 19. Yélî Dnye ɛ̃ 20. Yurakaré æ 21. Lahu hãi 22. Tai/Lue hy̌/há 23. Japanese e 24. Korean e 25. German hɛ̃ 26. Norwegian hæ 27. Herero e 28. Kikongo e 29. Tzotzil e 30. Bequia Creole ha: 31. Zapotec aj.
Credit: Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

A word like 'Huh?' -- used when one has not caught what someone just said -- appears to be universal: it is found to have very similar form and function in languages across the globe. This is one of the findings of a major cross-linguistic study by researchers Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira and Nick Enfield, at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Related Articles


It might seem frivolous to carry out scientific research on a word like 'Huh?' But in fact this little word is an indispensable tool in human communication. Without words like this we would be unable to signal when we have problems with hearing or understanding what was said, and our conversations would be constantly derailed by communicative mishaps. The research is part of a larger investigation of language and social interaction funded by the European Research Council.

Dingemanse and colleagues studied languages from around the world and found that all of them have a word with a near-identical sound and function as English 'Huh?' This is remarkable because usually, words in unrelated languages sound completely different. Compare, for example, these very different-sounding words for 'dog': inu in Japanese, chien in French, dog in English. One might object that this suggests that 'Huh?' is not a word at all. But in a careful phonetic comparison, Dingemanse and colleagues find that it is. Although 'Huh?' is much more similar across languages than words normally should be, it does differ across languages in systematic ways. 'Huh?' is not like those human sounds that happen to be universal because they are innate, such as sneezing or crying. It is a word that has to be learned in subtly different forms in each language.

Why is 'Huh?' so similar across languages? To understand this, Dingemanse and colleagues studied the specific context in which this word occurs. In human communication, when we are somehow unable to respond appropriately, we need an escape hatch: a way to quickly signal the problem. This signal has to be easy to produce in situations when you're literally at a loss to say something; and it has to be a questioning word to make clear that the first speaker must now speak again. Since these functional requirements are fundamentally the same across languages, they may cause spoken languages to converge on the same solution: a simple, minimal, quick-to-produce questioning syllable like English 'Huh?', Mandarin Chinese 'A?', Spanish 'E?', Lao 'A?', or Dutch 'He?'.

The basic principle is well-known from evolutionary biology: when different species live in similar conditions they can independently evolve similar traits, a phenomenon known as convergent evolution. For example, sharks and dolphins have different evolutionary origins but similar body plans, because they live in the same aquatic environment. In the same way, Dingemanse and colleagues propose that words may converge on similar forms when they occur in strongly similar conversational 'environments'. A clear effect of this conversational ecology on the specific shape of linguistic expressions has not been observed before.

Although 'Huh?' may almost seem primitive in its simplicity, a word with this function is not found in our closest evolutionary cousins. Only humans have communication systems in which complex thoughts can be expressed and communicative mishaps can be solved on the spot. Even a humble word like 'Huh?' can teach us a lot about our nature as ultrasocial animals.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira, N. J. Enfield. Is “Huh?” a Universal Word? Conversational Infrastructure and the Convergent Evolution of Linguistic Items. PLoS ONE, 2013; 8 (11): e78273 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0078273

Cite This Page:

Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. "Universals of conversation: Words like 'Huh?'." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 9 November 2013. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/11/131109153931.htm>.
Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. (2013, November 9). Universals of conversation: Words like 'Huh?'. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 19, 2015 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/11/131109153931.htm
Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. "Universals of conversation: Words like 'Huh?'." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/11/131109153931.htm (accessed April 19, 2015).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Mind & Brain News

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Our Love Of Puppy Dog Eyes Explained By Science

Our Love Of Puppy Dog Eyes Explained By Science

Newsy (Apr. 17, 2015) — Researchers found a spike in oxytocin occurs in both humans and dogs when they gaze into each other&apos;s eyes. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Scientists Find Link Between Gestational Diabetes And Autism

Scientists Find Link Between Gestational Diabetes And Autism

Newsy (Apr. 17, 2015) — Researchers who analyzed data from over 300,000 kids and their mothers say they&apos;ve found a link between gestational diabetes and autism. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Video Messages Help Reassure Dementia Patients

Video Messages Help Reassure Dementia Patients

AP (Apr. 17, 2015) — Family members are prerecording messages as part of a unique pilot program at the Hebrew Home in New York. The videos are trying to help victims of Alzheimer&apos;s disease and other forms of dementia break through the morning fog of forgetfulness. (April 17) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Common Pain Reliever Might Dull Your Emotions

Common Pain Reliever Might Dull Your Emotions

Newsy (Apr. 16, 2015) — Each week, millions of Americans take acetaminophen to dull minor aches and pains. Now researchers say it might blunt life&apos;s highs and lows, too. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
 
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:  

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories

 

Health & Medicine

Mind & Brain

Living & Well

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:  

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile iPhone Android Web
Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins