Wednesday, November 13, 2013

"Huh?" is the Word Everyone Understands

Linguists have for years studied certain concepts like "mama" that have given rise to similar words across continents of vastly different languages.  Now a group representing psycho-linguistics organizations has published a study that puts forth what might be the most universal word of all.  But is it even a word?  

"Huh?" is a syllable that is basically a guttural grunt with a rising inflection at the end, and indicates questioning.  As the study sees (or hears) "Huh?", it elicits "clarification during conversation, a function that linguists refer to as 'other-initiated repair.'" In other words, confusion or frustration that indicates that the person you are speaking to should do something to solve your conundrum.

Hunter Communications Original News Source:
The New York Times

Link to article:

Excerpt: "In a paper published on Friday in the journal PLOS One, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands announced that they had found strikingly similar versions in languages scattered across five continents, suggesting that 'Huh?' is a universal word.

The study, conducted by Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira and Nick Enfield, closely examined variations of the word — defined as 'a simple syllable with a low-front central vowel, glottal onset consonant, if any, and questioning intonation' — in 10 languages, including Dutch, Icelandic, Mandarin Chinese, the West African Siwu and the Australian aboriginal Murrinh-Patha.

The researchers also looked at other words and expressions used to elicit clarification during conversation, a function that linguists refer to as 'other-initiated repair.' But only 'Huh?,' they write, occurs across languages whose phonetic patterns otherwise vary greatly.

It might seem trivial to carry out research on 'Huh?,' which some linguists argue isn’t really a word at all. But the study, Dr. Enfield said, is part of a broader effort to challenge the dominant view that language is primarily a matter of inborn grammatical structure, as Noam Chomsky has argued. Instead, some researchers suggest, language is primarily grounded in social interaction.

'We think of this as the core of language: managing common understanding as we talk,' Dr. Enfield said in an interview. Confirming and checking with other people, he added, 'are really fundamental to the use of language.' "

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