IS “HUH” UNIVERSAL? This article on the PLoS One site by Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira, and N. J. Enfield argues that “Huh” is a universal word—a word that is found in every—or almost every—language. The authors say that: “A word like huh? –used … when, for example, one has not clearly heard what someone just said– is found in roughly the same form in 31 spoken languages across the globe.” This is noteworthy because there aren’t supposed to be any universal words. The existence of a universal word would be an exception to a basic linguistic principle, the “arbitrariness of the sign”: that the sound of a word has a purely arbitrary connection to the word’s meaning. (The authors give the example of the variety of words for dog, with strongly varying sounds: “chien”, “hund” (German), “ini” (Japanese). It would also be an exception to another basic linguistic principle, the “selectiveness of particular sound systems”: any given language makes use of only a restricted portion of the possible sounds. In principle, the same word should not appear in a variety of languages which use different portions of the range of possible sounds. (Annalisa called my attention to this hypothesis about “huh”.)

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