Huh? Say What?

There are so many things that don’t translate between languages. I could list reams of French one-word concepts that cannot be captured quite right in English. Every time I see one of them in a text I’m supposed to be translating I cringe. Vulgarisation. Valorisation. Territoire.

And then there are the turns of phrase. I understood that péter un plomb or péter un cable meant to be really pissed off, but for the longest time I had a really hard time visualizing someone farting out a bit of lead shot or wiring. In French yoga, downward facing dog is chien tête en bas. But I heard chat a tomba. The cat fell. Indeed.

So my interest was piqued when I received EPFL’s weekly Science question for translation last Sunday. There is, apparently, a word – or rather, one syllable – that has the same meaning in every language in the world.

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the one you’re thinking, the one from the New Testament:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Never mind that the Bible doesn’t clearly say what that particular word was. When it says the Word was God, what does that mean? Was the Word actually the word “God?” Is God a part of speech? Does everything in the entire universe thus boil down to language? After reading this sentence I have more questions than answers, frankly.

Rumor has it the initial cosmic utterance indicated in the Good Book was “Om” or “Aum” or something along those lines. But that word, nice and round and resonant as it may be, doesn’t have a current use in all the world’s languages. You can’t just go around saying “Om” and assume everyone is going to understand what you’re talking about – unless you live in Vancouver, that is, in which case they’ll clasp their hands, smile, and say “Namasté.”

No, it’s something much more mundane. Turns out that every human being on the planet shares a common aspirated interjection to both indicate confusion and invite clarification.


That’s right. Huh. Of course there are subtle variations in pronunciation. The French give it a nasal “hein?” In Mandarin it’s a bit more “Ha?” In Spanish it’s “É?” Check them out in this video. This is why the authors of the paper say it’s not just a sort of innate grunt you’re born with, but a learned bit of language.

I’d also venture that the sound alone isn’t the whole story here. I dare you to say “huh?” without curling your upper lip a bit, squinting your eyes, perhaps tilting your head a little to one side. Think Andy Murray when his opponent nails the ball on the baseline. I bet that’s universal, too.

Ironic, isn’t it, that the one thing we all share, the one thing common to all languages, is an expression that means we don’t understand each other? I suppose that’s what language is all about.

Here’s the reference, in case you want scientific proof (with a very long and interesting FAQ).

3 thoughts on “Huh? Say What?

  1. péter un plomb litterally means to blow a fuse 🙂
    we could have an interesting conversations about the Word (Jesus) in John 1 and how it relates to God speaking creation into being in Genesis 1!

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