Speed Reads


Pretty much everyone on Earth says 'Huh?'

"Haha" and "mama" are considered to be universal words — that is, words that have basically the same sound and meaning across many dissimilar languages. There aren't very many of these words around, but almost by accident, a team of Dutch researchers found another that will have you scratching your head.


Yep — 31 vastly different languages say "huh?" to convey confusion, the team found, and the discovery has just won them an Ig Nobel Prize, an award for odder, but totally real, scientific discoveries. That said, the universality of "huh" isn't just a cool piece of trivia to pull out at your next cocktail party; it actually teaches linguists a lot about how languages develop.

It's maybe not so surprising that the word should be so widespread, because it acts as a pretty perfect and speedy solution to a common problem — that is, the need to convey quickly that you didn't quite catch what was said, but without totally derailing the conversational flow. The researchers muse that the seemingly universal use of the word may be the linguistic equivalent to the concept of convergent evolution: "When different species live in similar conditions, they can independently evolve similar traits," they write. "In a similar way, the similarity of huh? across a set of widely divergent languages may be due to the fact that the constraints from its environment are the same everywhere." [New York]

Whoever would have thought that a word that means "help, I'm so confused" could be so interesting?