Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Is huh a universal word? (2013) (ideophone.org)
86 points by bryanrasmussen 5 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 86 comments

I moved from Russia to Canada as a kid and remember reading English-language books and being really confused by the word "ouch".

I thought it would be really weird to say "ouch" when you accidentally stumble or hurt yourself - it felt completely unnatural. It was fascinating that different cultures have such different exclamations for pain!

Well it turns out that it's not the case. Humans all make roughly the same sound when they stub their toe, it's just that different countries write it down differently and think of it slightly differently.

I think "Huh" is similar. A "Confused grunt" noise is approximately similar in most of the world, but different languages write it down differently.

I suspect you'll enjoy reading this:


"Yet many world languages contain a separate set of words that defies this principle. Known as ideophones, they are considered to be especially vivid and evocative of sensual experiences. Crucially, you do not need to know the language to grasp a hint of their meaning. Studies show that participants lacking any prior knowledge of Japanese, for example, often guess the meanings of the above words better than chance alone would allow. For many people, nurunuru really does feel ‘slimy’; wakuwaku evokes excitement, and kurukuru conjures visions of circular rather than vertical motion. That should simply not be possible, if the sound-meaning relationship was indeed arbitrary."

I agree. I think those words are called onomatopoeia.

The same happens with animal noises. The sound is the same, just different languages write it down differently. For instance, English "woof woof!" and Polish "hau hau!" look completely different, but there is an overlap in possible pronunciations, and that point of overlap actually does resemble the sound dogs make.

In en-gb dogs go "woof woof" (or sometimes "yap") -- we call it barking.

"Ouch" is what you say to express that you imagine something hurt, what people actually say is more like "ow" or "argh".

What do ducks say in Russia? In America it's quack and in Germany it's kwak.

And if you ask a bird watcher, it's "Wait, what type of duck?"

In French: coin coin :)

No idea how to explain the pronunciation though ...

IPA: /kwɛ̃.kwɛ̃/

Here's a French speaker pronouncing it: https://youtu.be/Dtta-mW6Pro?t=15

Now I understand Uncle Scrooge!

Квак :) Just like the Germans

But it's "krya" (кря-кря), "kva" is what frogs say.

Russian here, I say "ouch" because it sounds way cooler than Russian "ay-ay-ay" and contrary to popular belief it's possible to say whatever you want unless the pain is truly unbearable.

I must be skimming too much. They say "huh" is universal but point out Japan (and apparently Korean) use "eh". "eh" != "huh", not even close nor is its usage. Maybe these are are different but you can use "eh" to acknowledge you heard. With a question inflection to point out you didn't hear.

Huh is not used in spanish at all. Maybe in the more english-influenced caribbean regions but in the southern cone we don't say "huh" at all, rather "eh?".

In Korean to "initiate repair" when you haven't heard quite well, typically you'll say, "네" (i.e. "yes?").

Seems to be automatic. When people are mildly stunned, they'll often go "어" (eoh).

I find it to be automatic for a lot of people. I know several people that go "mh?" (in english) or "hein?" (in french) when they perfectly understood what you said. It's just a reflex, maybe to give themselves a bit more time to think. It's a bit annoying, I often just wait a second and they start answering

As a teenager I did that too, I always replied (the equivalent in my langague of) "what?" to whatever was said. Just a reflex. Then my aunt pointed it out to me, and I was able to stop doing that. Good thing.

Ah that reminds me of when I was in school, and there was a girl who started every answer with "Okay!...".

The teacher would ask, "What's the capital of X?", and she'd respond confidently (and correctly), "Okay! The capital of X is Y."

Not sure if it was conscious on her part or not. I'm sure it came from the spotlight, since she was otherwise "normal" (not that there necessarily is such a thing).

By close, they mean (from the article):

> Everywhere this word appears to be a simple syllable with a low-front central vowel, glottal onset consonant if any, and questioning intonation.

My wife's parents have a similar thing in English as an aside. `Huh` indicates that they've heard something novel, `huh?` indicates that they didn't hear you.

Is that in the paper? Because I can't find that in the article and neither Japanese nor Korean is part of the 10 listed languages.

In Malayalam its "eh" as well.

A bit OT, but here is another, probably related concept: What is the literal meaning of "to understand" in your language?

In at least 3 three languages that I know (Twi & Ga, major languages in Ghana, and English), the literal meaning evokes the sense of standing or sitting under something. I wonder if it is the same in many other languages

In Malayalam its "manasilayo" - manas + aayo which means "did you understand?". Manas means mind in Sanskrit. Which forms the base of most Indian languages.

German: "verstehen" (an "odd" compound of ver+stehen, note that ver- doesn't really carry meaning by itself and only exists as a prefix), which could be understood as standing on/around(?) something. Then we have "begreifen" which is a fairly direct equivalent of "to grasp".

There alot of those "are they necessary?" prefixes around. But isn't "ver" the same as "for", which I imagine is the same as "pro" from latin. Meaning either "before" or "causing" or "facilitating" or similar.

No, not really. It is used in many, many words, with no obvious intrinsic meaning of the prefix itself (and sometimes it's pretty much just redundant), although some clusters of meaning can be made out (often ver- signifies something negative or grave, for example).

verstehen, vergehen (active), vergehen (passive), verdammen, verabreden, verfahren, verlaufen, verfestigen, verändern, verallgemeinern, veranschaulichen, veranlassen (ver+an+lassen), verlassen, verärgern, verarmen, verbiegen, verdrehen, ...

I can't explain it well, but I somewhat have the feeling that "ver" also mostly indicates an irrevocable change. All of the words you listed can be used as a status for current conditions. The best example is probably "versterben".

It's hard to grasp, but I think "ver" has some subliminal meaning. The "ver" words feel different than their synonyms.

Out of curiosity I looked it up and Duden actually has a page on it [1].

It can be broken down to 8 different cases according to Duden and there is actually some logic behind it (though not the best and most consistent :D).

[1] https://www.duden.de/rechtschreibung/ver_

That is correct (causing or facilitating, in this case).

The (I think most common) word for 'understand' in Japanese translates to something like 'it resolved for me'.

not my native language, but in hungarian "to understand" is "magyarázni", which literally means "to hungarianize", which I think is amazing :)

"magyarázni" is actually to "explain", though it does seem to share a common root with Magyar, the word we use for our people. The word understand would be "érteni", and I'm not sure it has any interesting roots other than "ér" meaning vein or stream (potentially, did you get its meaning / source?)

I too have wondered about the flavor and basic influence these kind of things must have on those who use the language. I suspect the effect is small, but there, although this particular example might be spurious.

There's "felfogni", which means "to understand" as well. Cf. English "to grasp" and German "auffassen". Confounder: the Hungarian word is quite likely to be a direct translation of the German version!

> The word understand would be "érteni", and I'm not sure it has any interesting roots other than "ér" meaning vein or stream (potentially, did you get its meaning / source?)

It's worth noting that "érint" (the verb "touch") appears to have the same root as "ért".

In french "comprendre", from "prendre" — to take and com, a latin root that means with, so litteraly, to take with/within you.

An interesting thing to note is that "hypothesis" has almost the same litteral meaning as "understand". "hypo" means under/above and thesis means "to put, to place something" or "position"

'verstehen' in German. 'stehen' = to stand; perhaps not too surprising given the relationship between English and German, but interesting that it is the same in the African languages you mentioned. A counter example would be French (and some other Romance languages), se comprendre, which is derived from a Latin verb meaning 'to grasp'

Another counterexample common in Romance languages is entender, derived from a Latin word originally meaning "to stretch out" or "to focus/aim" and the origin of the English "intend".

In Finnish, 'ymmärtää' is an old word for 'to encircle', 'to encompass', 'to surround'.

In Malayalam, (Indian, Dravidian language), the word (based on Sanskrit) is "Manassil aayo", which is literally "has it entered your mind"?

In Turkish, it is "anlamak", which wordly means mind-ise, which resembles English word remind somehow.

The sound quality in the video was bad enough that I didn't recognize the "huh" equivalents that I myself would use often.

One thing to keep in mind is that while huh has an approximate between languages, you might not be able to communicate the same intent across. One such example occurs here in Taiwan. Native Taiwanese use ha (different from Mandarin), but this sound is used to provoke someone in Japanese. Gotta be careful when you huh in a foreign country.

Japanese people definitely say "ha?" when they're confused.

Not all sounds like that are.

In Italy, instead of saying "I don't know", you can say "boh?" with the oooo sometimes drawn out. It's something you start to understand from the context, but is by no means some kind of universal sound.

If you read the full article, you’d see they specifically mention that they were studying ‘huh’ in the context of “other-initiated repair” (see the article for a definition), and they noted that ‘huh’-like words often have additional contextual uses, such as signifying a question, but those were beyond the scope of this research.

>instead of saying "I don't know", you can say "boh?" with the oooo sometimes drawn out.

In Japan, the equivalent is "sah" with the aaaa sometimes drawn out.

I've never heard "sah" used for "I don't know". Sah is similar to "you know" as in valley girl speak.

Hey, yesterday you know, I want to the mall you know, and there was this sale, you know, it was totally cheap, you know, so I bought 3 pairs of shoes, you know, aren't they great!?

In Japanese you can replace every "you know" with "sah".

You can put "sah" at the end of sentence when you don't know something or are contemplating but I wouldn't translate it in that case as "I don't know". Rather more like "Hmmmm...." as in "I wonder" like the feeling this emoji is trying to express https://www.google.com/search?q=hmmm+emoji

You must be thinking of さ instead of さあ. The latter is often used to express "I don't know" or "who knows".

You don't use it when you are trying to say you don't know something, but you can use it as an answer to a question.

Q. What is that thing? A. Saa (dunno)

My guess is that the Italian "boh" is the same.

The article doesn't say it's a universal sound, only a universal concept (but even then, it only takes one example to disprove a theory like this, and linguistics is littered with examples of "universal" things only to be disproven by some obscure language somewhere)

Happens in French too

I've noticed my partner when speaking in her dialect uses "uh"/"ah" a lot - which sounds pretty much like "huh" and even without understanding most of the words it's pretty clear this is the meaning in a conversation.

I think this sound is probably more common in languages that lack a collection of more elaborate and synonymously used words for this purpose such as in English with ["what", "pardon", "sorry", "excuse me"]. Perhaps English is actually the outlier here.

Oddly, i seem to only hear extended uhmmms in english. I am sure there is a spoken word frequency database we could compare, or create somewhat easily scraping captions. Seems like a good project.

> Oddly, i seem to only hear extended uhmmms in english.

hah, but doesn't that have a different meaning? as in "i'm thinking" not "i didn't hear you etc".

They only studied 10 languages. That doesn't seem like enough to call it "universal".

What about those African languages made up of all clicking sounds?

They studied 31 languages. One of the languages studied is ≠Akhoe Hai//om, which is a click language. It was not one of the 10 studied in deeper detail, but they found huh there.

Still, studying only 31 languages and argue that something is universal is dumb as heck. Given there are 6000 of them safer approach would be the search for almost universal or widely distributed phenomena.

If those 31 languages cover >90% of all humans I think making claims about universality is reasonably justified.

If the claim is that the majority of humans speak a language which includes huh? as a feature, then sure. But that doesn't seem very interesting scientifically...

By calling it a universal word, I guess I thought they were referring to the concept of linguistic universals [1], which are interesting since they might suggest something about the deeper way in which our brains work. To make a claim about linguistic universals like that I really think they should study more than 10 (31) languages.

According to this page [2], 44% of people speak an Indo-European language, and 96% speak a member of one of the top 10 language families. The remaining 4% includes 84 language families. I imagine there's a ton of variety there, and for understanding human language and cognition they all probably have just as much value as the larger language families.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_universal

[2] https://www.vistawide.com/languages/language_families_statis...

Universal should mean that virtually every human in history used it. Just because something is pervasive in modern societies does not mean is a fundamental feature of human nature. Language is universal. Fear and anger are universal.

> What about those African languages made up of all clicking sounds?

I am unaware of any African language, or any language in general, that only uses clicking sounds. Which one are you thinking of?

They might be thinking of Xhosa; but I reckon I've heard a language expressed only with clicks (perhaps it's a vernacular?), and a whistle-language used by some mountain peoples (in Eastern Europe?).

Even Xhosa has some consonants that aren't clicks, afaik. Also, your comment leads to this interesting wiki article : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whistled_language

Yes, Xhosa isn't "all clicks", as you point out, I've a friend who can speak a little of it, but just my guess about a "click language" people might have half-heard of and assumed was all clicks.

I've been trying to recall where I heard a "pure clicking" language, I've a feeling it was a bushmen docu from Botswana - and it might just be that the hunters used words that only required clicks, or I misheard, etc..

Anyway, http://listverse.com/2018/08/10/10-extraordinary-languages-t... and https://www.britannica.com/topic/click-languages mention Damin, which sounds (no pun intended!) like it might have been mainly composed of clicking sounds?

Perhaps what I heard was slang/dialect tailored to the activity, which IIRC was hunting.

In many parts of India India its "aaan?", Or sometimes just a nasalized "hmmm?"

Related: shh (request for silence) is a word and I think it's universal

There's no similar word in Thai.

From personal experience people seem to universally ignore it unless repeated at least three times with increasing strength :D (just kidding, that's probably just my better half)

Sounds awfully like the Hindi word for 'yes'.

Not true

Nup, that's different.

Ok, the Hindi one has a long vowel and it's nasalised, but still.

Not even close.

What would the http code be for "huh?"

400 (Bad Request)

>The request could not be understood by the server due to malformed syntax. The client SHOULD NOT repeat the request without modifications.

Some APIs use it for the case when the client passes in invalid data.

417 Expectation Failed?



never heard of that till i moved to usa

me Japanese use "huh?" with anger when i cant understand his word of meaning

Thai people will say "Ow?!" to express confusion/surprise, so I guess it's not quite universal.

Not in Italy nor Poland.

would make sense also like a natural gruntish with expresses something. mah or ma is another one and a lot of times the first word which has had quite a bit of study in of itself.

They address in the article why they believe it to be linguistic, and not a mere grunt.




...oxi? (Brazil - Northeast)

That would have another meaning, right? Of surprise or astonishment.

In Japan that would be "hah?"

Registration is open for Startup School 2019. Classes start July 22nd.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact