huh

I like the look of this word, that’s for sure: could be shrugging shoulders, perhaps with an upturned hand in the middle; could be two upside-down cups and one rightside-up, perhaps awaiting a fill or perhaps revealing that the little ball is not where you thought it was and five dollars please, want to try again?

I like the sound, too. It’s about the only word in English that you can really say actually ends in [h] – at least some of the time. It comes in on a breath, pops out that shortest and most neutral of vowels, and then drops off to breath again. It makes me think of “O Superman” by Laurie Anderson, a song full of unanswered questions, misty cultural references, and non sequiturs – and huh (o, do watch it on YouTube: www.youtube.com/watch?v=-VIqA3i2zQw).

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this word huh is “A natural utterance, expressing some suppressed feeling. Also as an expression of interrogation.”

Huh? A natural utterance? What’s that?

Well, according to Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira, and Nick Enfield, huh is a sort of universal word.

That doesn’t mean it’s the exact same in every language. Indeed, the vowels vary over a sort of fan between the mid central [ə], the mid front [e], and the low central [a], and may be nasalized and/or move into a diphthong that ends high front (as in “hi”); there may or may not be an opening consonant, though it’s [h] or a glottal stop if there is one. Read more at “Is ‘Huh?’ a universal word?

It also doesn’t mean it’s innate. Babies don’t make the sound, as Dingemanse, Torreira, and Enfield point out. It’s learned. You need it once you have speech that you may not hear or understand clearly. It’s part of what linguists call a repair strategy: there has been a disruption in the flow of communication due to someone speaking unclearly or saying something difficult to process, and so it quickly requests a reiteration or clarification. And it seems that it’s similar between languages because of convergent evolution: it just happens to be the best kind of sound for that purpose.

Huh. Whaddya know. Mind you, DT&E don’t talk about that other function of huh in English, or whether it is paralleled in other languages: that bit that the OED calls “expressing some suppressed feeling.” Typically it expresses the act of assimilation of unexpected information – an expression of wonder or a shrug or shake of the head. A quick repair of a rip in reality. An equivalent (at least in the English I know on a daily basis) is “Hm!” – which is more convenient if your lips happen to be closed.

That non-questioning (or perhaps rhetorically questioning) huh is actually the one I use more. If I haven’t heard something clearly, I will more likely – as my wife will attest – say “What?” Which is the other common repair strategy. But somehow we still have huh. Huh, it must be useful. Uh-huh.

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