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What single word is the most widely understood across cultures and languages?

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I don’t know if those pricey Rosetta Stone courses offer this lesson, but they should:

When you’re traveling abroad, there’s one word in particular you would do well to remember.

Jennifer Schuessler has the story HERE:

Are there words that are universally understood, across all countries and cultures? A team of linguists has proposed one: “huh.”

Huh?

In a paper published on Friday in the journal PLOS One, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands announced that they had found strikingly similar versions in languages scattered across five continents, suggesting that “Huh?” is a universal word.

The study, conducted by Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira and Nick Enfield, closely examined variations of the word — defined as “a simple syllable with a low-front central vowel, glottal onset consonant, if any, and questioning intonation” — in 10 languages, including Dutch, Icelandic, Mandarin Chinese, the West African Siwu and the Australian aboriginal Murrinh-Patha.

The researchers also looked at other words and expressions used to elicit clarification during conversation, a function that linguists refer to as “other-initiated repair.” But only “Huh?,” they write, occurs across languages whose phonetic patterns otherwise vary greatly.

It might seem trivial to carry out research on “Huh?,” which some linguists argue isn’t really a word at all. But the study, Dr. Enfield said, is part of a broader effort to challenge the dominant view that language is primarily a matter of inborn grammatical structure, as Noam Chomsky has argued. Instead, some researchers suggest, language is primarily grounded in social interaction.

“We think of this as the core of language: managing common understanding as we talk,” Dr. Enfield said in an interview. Confirming and checking with other people, he added, “are really fundamental to the use of language.”

Linguists have made claims for other universal words, like “mama.” But the evidence for “Huh?,” some researchers familiar with the team’s work said, may be more convincing.

Among languages, there are many more variations for “mama” and “papa” than there are for “Huh?,” saidHerbert H. Clark, a psycholinguist at Stanford who has studied the functional difference between “um” and “uh.” “The fact that all these languages have converged on ‘Huh?’ is very interesting,” he added.

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