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What is the one word that you can speak in almost any country in the world and be understood? If your response to that is 'Huh?' - You are absolutely right! This three letter word that we often use to express our confusion or unclearness is apparently used in almost the same form, all the way from Ghana to Laos and even Iceland!
This revelation that was published on November 8th in the scientific journal PLOS One, was made by a team of researchers from Netherlands-based Max Planck Institute. Mark Dingemanse, Fransisco Torreira and Nick Enfield who are currently conducting a major cross-linguistic study funded by the European Research Council recorded and listened to 20 informal conversations in 10 different languages. When they discovered that 'Huh?' appears in some form in all of them, they performed a cursory study of 21 other languages, which also showed the same trend. What was even more surprising was that many like Siwu spoken in Ghana, Cha'palaa spoken in Ecuador and Murriny Patha, spoken by some Australian Aborigines, were not even mainstream languages.
And while most of us don't think of 'Huh?' as a real vocabulary word, the researchers insist it is - that's because it has to be learnt in slightly different forms in each language. In English it is of course 'Huh?', in Mandarin Chinese and Lao it's 'A?', in Spanish it's 'E?' and the list goes on. And while spelt slightly differently, it is pronounced in almost the same manner and more importantly means the same thing - puzzlement or confusion.
So how did 'Huh?' become such a universal word? The linguists believe that when humans are unable to respond appropriately to anything that is said, they look for a quick out - A word like 'Huh?' is quick to say when nothing else comes to mind. And since humans no matter what language they speak are inherently the same, they ended up with a similar solution by using minimum letters to pronounce questioning syllables like 'Huh?', 'A?,' 'E'?' etc. So the next time someone asks you how many languages you speak, you can answer multiple and while that may be stretching the truth a little, you would definitely not be lying.
Resources: dailymail.co.uk, plosone.org