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'Huh?' Is Global, Study Shows

11/08/2013 06:31 pm ET | Updated Nov 12, 2013

The infamous "huh?" is not only pronounced similarly across languages, but it also carries a similar meaning around the world, according to a new study.

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics examined 196 recordings of 10 different languages used the world. They found that every single one of them has a one-syllable sound that serves the same purpose and function (and sounds similar to) the "huh?" that English-speakers use. In Spanish, it's "E?" and in Mandarin it's "A?" -- but it's "He?" in Dutch.

"In all languages investigated, it is a monosyllable with at most a glottal onset consonant, an unrounded low front central vowel, and questioning intonation," the researchers wrote in the study.

The function of "huh?" is to signal a problem in communication in an inquisitive manner, researchers found in their PLOS One study. But why "huh," and not another kind of word? The researchers explained:

Why do we find basically the same form -- something like huh? -- everywhere and not, say, bi in one language and rororo in the next? We consider two possible explanations. The first is that huh? is similar across languages because it is an innate grunt. The second is that it is similar as a result of convergent evolution. Empirical evidence supports the second.

Another thing that is universal? Baby talk. Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles found in 2007 that Shuar village habitants -- a nonindustrialized and nonliterate culture -- were, for the most part, able to differentiate baby talk from adult talk among English-speakers.

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