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. 2013 Nov 8;8(11):e78273.
doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0078273. eCollection 2013.

Is "Huh?" a Universal Word? Conversational Infrastructure and the Convergent Evolution of Linguistic Items

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Is "Huh?" a Universal Word? Conversational Infrastructure and the Convergent Evolution of Linguistic Items

Mark Dingemanse et al. PLoS One. .
Free PMC article

Erratum in

  • PLoS One. 2014;9(4):e94620


A word like Huh?--used as a repair initiator when, for example, one has not clearly heard what someone just said--is found in roughly the same form and function in spoken languages across the globe. We investigate it in naturally occurring conversations in ten languages and present evidence and arguments for two distinct claims: that Huh? is universal, and that it is a word. In support of the first, we show that the similarities in form and function of this interjection across languages are much greater than expected by chance. In support of the second claim we show that it is a lexical, conventionalised form that has to be learnt, unlike grunts or emotional cries. We discuss possible reasons for the cross-linguistic similarity and propose an account in terms of convergent evolution. Huh? is a universal word not because it is innate but because it is shaped by selective pressures in an interactional environment that all languages share: that of other-initiated repair. Our proposal enhances evolutionary models of language change by suggesting that conversational infrastructure can drive the convergent cultural evolution of linguistic items.

Conflict of interest statement

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.


Figure 1
Figure 1. Interjections for other-initiation of repair in thirty-one languages.
A word like huh? –used to initiate repair when, for example, one has not clearly heard what someone just said– is found in roughly the same form in spoken languages across the globe. Languages 1–10 are examined in detail in the present study, 11–20 from , 21–31 from sources cited. Locations are approximate. 1. Cha'palaa formula image 2. Icelandic haformula image 3. Spanish e↗ 4. Siwu ã:↗ 5. Dutch hformula image↗ 6. Italian ε:↗ 7. Russian a:↗ 8. Lao hã:↗ 9. Mandarin Chinese ã:↗ 10. Murrinh-Patha a:↗ 11. ‡Âkhoe Hai//om hε↗ 12. Chintang hã↗ 13. Duna formula image 14. English hã↗ 15. French formula image 16. Hungarian hm↗/ha↗ 17. Kri ha:↗ 18. Tzeltal hai↗ 19. Yélî Dnye formula image 20. Yurakaré æ↗ 21. Lahu hãiformula image 22. Tai/Lue hy ˘↗/há↗ 23. Japanese e↗ 24. Korean e↗ 25. German hformula image 26. Norwegian hformula image↗ 27. Herero e↗ 28. Kikongo e↗ 29. Tzotzil e↗ 30. Bequia Creole ha:↗ 31. Zapotec aj↗ .
Figure 2
Figure 2. Average positions of the interjections in vowel space.
The vowel inventories of the world's languages tend to make maximal use of vowel space . In contrast to this, the vowels of the OIR interjections all cluster in the same low-front region. Abbreviations: Cha'palaa (Cha), Dutch (Dut), Icelandic (Ice), Italian (Ita), Lao (Lao), Mandarin (Man), Murrinh-Patha (Mur), Russian (Rus), Siwu (Siw), Spanish (Spa).
Figure 3
Figure 3. Vowel quality of interjection tokens by language.
Although the vowel of the OIR interjections is limited to the low-front region, auditory analysis shows that within that region, not all languages target the same spot – the interjections appear to have distinct vowel targets.
Figure 4
Figure 4. Formant values for the interjection vowels in Spanish (S) and Cha'palaa (C).
An instrumental analysis of interjection tokens from Spanish and Cha'palaa shows that the interjections have distinct, language-specific vowel targets, confirming the auditory analysis in Figure 3.
Figure 5
Figure 5. Intonation of the OIR interjection by language.
Intonation of the OIR interjection is rising in most languages and falling in some, but more accurately described as “questioning” in all. In this product plot , area of squares is proportional to token count: a larger square means more tokens.
Figure 6
Figure 6. Pitch tracks for interjections in Spanish and Cha'palaa.
Instrumental analysis of pitch tracks in Spanish (n = 12) and Cha'palaa (n = 13) confirms the auditory analysis in Figure 5.
Figure 7
Figure 7. Interjection onset by language.
Aspiration [h] and glottal stop [ʔ] onsets are at opposite ends of a continuum with no onset (formula image) in the middle. In most languages, ‘no onset’ is the default form, and the direction in which interjections diverge from this is related to the phonology of the language. Spanish is a special case because the laboratory recordings allow the detection of even the slightest glottal constriction or aspiration. In this product plot , area of squares is proportional to token count: a larger square means more tokens.

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Grant support

This study was supported by European Research Council grants 240853 (N.J.E. and M.D.) and 269484 (F.T.). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.