Everybody’s Looking for Something. Huh?

Philosophers look for the meaning of life. Alchemists look for the philosopher’s stone. Citizens in Colorado look to get stoned.

Physicists look for dark matter. NASA looks for water on Mars. Biochemists look for ways to snip in bits of DNA to make cancer-seeking viruses. The Marine Corps is looking for a few good men.

Writers are looking for stories containing universal truths that they can sell for a 6-figure advance. The only difference is that writers are looking deep inside their own subconsciousness. That’s also where psychiatrists are looking for answers, except they’re looking in our subconsciousnesses instead of their own.

Everybody’s looking for something. So what are linguists looking for?

One group of them is looking for Universal Words. A word that is universally understood across all countries and cultures. OK, at first glance, that doesn’t seem as significant as universal truths or dark matter or a cure for cancer or even the perfect high. But hey, they’re linguists.

The closest they’d gotten was “mama.” But the evidence was “less than convincing” (I’m not sure exactly what that means, but I’m passing it on anyway).

And now they’ve found one. Drum roll, please. A team of linguists at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics published a paper last November in the Journal PLOS One announcing that “Huh?” is a universal word.


huh-111113“Huh?” is a member of a family of word and expressions used to elicit clarification during conversation, a function that linguists refer to as “other-initiated repair.” Other members of this family were also examined, but only “Huh?” met the strict criteria (which must be pretty strict if “Mama” didn’t qualify).

The team of linguists, working long hours, examined “Huh?”–which they define as “a simple syllable with a low-front central vowel, glottal onset consonant, if any, and questioning intonation”–across 10 languages including Dutch, Icelandic, Mandarin Chinese, the West African language Siwu, and the Austrialian aboriginal language Murrinh-Patha. And they all understood it! Eureka!

You heard it here first (unless you happen to subscribe to PLOS One, or read a newspaper, or frequent more up-to-the-minute blogs than this one).



5 thoughts on “Everybody’s Looking for Something. Huh?

  1. Not to spoil the fun, but here’s a site explaining more about the research, which was definitely not premised upon “looking for universal words” and focuses on slightly more fundamental things such as how we manage to understand each other. 😉

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