Is "huh" a universal word?

Max Planck language researchers from Nijmegen were awarded with this year's "Ig Nobel Prize in Literature"

September 18, 2015

It honors scientific achievements that "first make people laugh, then think". The spoof award was launched by the US magazine "Annals of Improbable Research" and is presented each year two weeks before the announcement of the Nobel Prizes at a gala ceremony in Harvard's Sanders Theatre.

Germans say "häh", English-speakers "huh", Spanish "eh" and people from Iceland "ha" when they fail to understand something that what was said. Max Planck researchers found the word, with slight nuances, in 31 languages.

It is research that initially makes us smile, but in fact reveals a lot about language. Small words like "Huh"?, which indicate that we have not understood what was just said in a conversation are the ‘glue’ of interpersonal communication and were found to have very similar form and function in languages across the globe. "The surprising thing about this is that it was discovered only now," says Mark Dingemanse, one of the authors of the study. After all, the universal principles of language are a key issue in linguistics.

The paper 'Huh?' which was published in November 2013 became one of the most widely read papers in the Open Access Journal PLoS ONE. The findings were really only a bycatch of a larger research project on how people worldwide ‘repair’ misunderstandings in communication. Only recently, Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira and Nick Enfield published further, fundamental findings (see: "Every 90 seconds a clarification").
Since none of the scientists was able to travel to Harvard to collect the prize on 17 September, and deliver the acceptance speech, which is strictly capped at 60 seconds, they sent a video instead. "The Ig Nobel team already confirmed that this is the shortest acceptance speech ever," says Dingemanse. "Now you may guess what we said!"

Wonderfully wacky science

In Anglo-Saxon countries, the parody award already has aquired cult status, particularly among a community of science afficionados with a penchant for self-irony. Especially since many of its young prizewinners have subsequently made a name for themselves in science. Its most prominent representative is Andre Geim, Physics Nobel Laureate of 2012, who won the Ig Nobel Prize together with Michael Berry in 2000.

In other categories, Michael Smith, of Cornell University, received an Ig Nobel Prize for physiology for allowing bees to sting him on 25 different locations on his body to find out which location would hurt most when stung. (Amongst others, the nostrils turn out to be pretty uncomofortable, apparently).

The Chemistry Ig was scooped up by Australian researcher Colin Raston from Flinders University for creating a way to un-boil an egg.

Students from Georgia Tech won the Physics Prize for a study on 'universal urination duration' - which shows that almost all mammals take the same time to urinate: 21 seconds.

For a complete list of the 10 winners read more here: Ig Nobel Prizes 2015.

Three years ago, Tulio Guadalupe from the Max Planck Institute in Nijmegen, together with Anita Eerland and Rolf Zwaan from Erasmus University Rotterdam received the Ig Nobel Prize  -  for showing that the Eiffel Tower looks smaller when you lean to the left.


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