Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

“Huh?” Could be Missing Linguistic Link

“Huh?” is one of the most annoying grunts people utter. Now it turns out it is one of the most universal utterances of humanity.


Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics have discovered “strikingly similar” versions of “huh?” in languages over five continents, proving it isn’t just the vacant response of teenagers to parents yelling at them to do their homework. It is the vacant response by people worldwide.

Who hasn’t absentmindedly said “huh?” But who knew this could be the missing linguistic link, demonstrating we all hailed from some common ancestor with a limited vocabulary and short attention span.

Given the importance of birth and what leads up to it, you might think the common linguistic link would center on words for “mama” and “papa.” But researchers say there is greater variation in words for mother and father than for “huh?”

“Huh?” also beats out its monosyllabic cousins “um” and “uh,” which may have originated later when people began giving speeches and talking on the telephone.

We may wish, perhaps wistfully, that language evolved as mankind began to socialize and needed a common vehicle to communicate. The seminal word “huh?” may suggest people got bored pretty quickly when they started exchanging words with each other.

On the brighter side, “huh?” may represent an early flourishing of our inquisitive nature. Before Socrates and the Socratic method, we were searching for the truth. Prehistoric housewife: “Grog, what did you drag home for dinner?” Grog staring at the campfire in a cave: “Huh?”

Researchers believe their “huh?” finding may disprove Noam Chomsky’s belief that humans have an inborn grammatical structure. They say the ubiquitous ¬†“huh?” shows language grew out of social interaction.

And that may be the story of mankind. The most fundamental reaction we could muster is “huh?”

The good news is that now American tourists have the perfect answer to any question posed to them in a foreign language. When we say “huh?” in a gruff, arrogant tone of voice, we can pretty sure almost anyone anywhere will know what we mean.


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