Did Huh? Arise in Every Language through Convergent Evolution?

News to Know

by Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell on March 13, 2014
Featured in Answers in Depth


Previously thought of as something akin to a grunt, huh? qualifies as a bona fide word, linguists now say.

Huh? is a spoken question mark. Languages the world over use this little word to convey, “I didn’t quite get that. Would you explain or say it again?” Huh? is the first “universal word” discovered since God confused language at the Tower of Babel around 4,000 years ago. Until then, all words were universal!

Previously thought of as something akin to a grunt, huh? qualifies as a bona fide word, linguists now say. It appears in all 31 languages analyzed thus far.

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All languages analyzed use essentially the same word as a vocal question mark. Huh? appears in languages as diverse as English, Spanish, Chinese, Icelandic, and indigenous languages of Ecuador, Australia, and Ghana.  Image: PLoS One

Huh? In Any Language

Mark Dingemanse and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands found that speakers of unrelated languages purposely interject huh? to signal they need a quick re-do. Huh? is always a single syllable containing the language’s easiest-to-pronounce-vowel and—if there is any consonant sound in front of the vowel—the language’s simplest air-stopping sound (a glottal stop).

Russian has no “hard h” sound, so the Russian huh? skips the glottal stop at the beginning and sounds like “Ah?” Yet because this word is built the same way and means the same thing as huh? within Russian parameters, Russian ah? is the same as huh?

Every language’s huh? is also uttered with a questioning intonation. While English, like many other languages, uses a rising intonation to ask questions, some—like Icelandic—use a falling intonation. Whatever intonation means “I’m asking you a question,” that is the way native speakers say huh?  These differences ironically make the universal word a little less universal: non-native speakers report getting the intonation right can be challenging!1

These differences are minimal, however. That a monosyllabic word built from the simplest possible phonetic utterances exists and means the same thing in unrelated languages is surprising. The researchers write, “Such limited variation and striking similarity across languages is wholly unexpected.”2

A Real Word

Until now, huh? in English has been considered a “non-lexical conversational sound”3—in other words, not a real word. Huh? has been seen as a bit of filler, a sort of grunt used by the lazy speaker in place of a more polite genuine word request like “Pardon?” So why do these linguists maintain huh? is a respectable bit of language, and a universal one at that?

Real words are consistent patterns of meaning-packed syllables that must be learned. Real words must also comply with the grammar and speech patterns common to native speakers. A yelp is not a word. Even a dog can yelp. A cry or a mewing whine is not a word: babies do that and no one calls it talking!

The very limited variations are part of the reason the linguists say huh? is a real word. Russians say ah? because that fits the phonetics of their language. Icelanders say huh? with a falling intonation as with all questions. Furthermore, everyone says huh? at just the right time in the conversational pattern, but only after they have learned to talk. These variations tweak the universal word perfectly for each language. And if huh? did not adjust to the nuances of each language and have to be learned like all vocabulary, huh? would not really be a word.

No Animal Analogue

Evolutionists believe human linguistic ability evolved but debate how. They examine simpler sounds in the animal world to figure out how humans, as higher animals, acquired their unique ability to use abstract symbols to develop and communicate original thoughts. But while animals and humans respond to stimuli like pain with whimpers, cries, and screams, huh? has no animal equivalent.

Babies don’t learn how to say huh? until they learn to talk. American English-speakers pick it up around age 2 ½, and they are huh?-ing with everybody else by age 5. Thus, huh? not only lacks any “primitive ancestral” form among our presumed primate cousins, but it must truly be learned.

Convergent Evolution

Linguistic ability is a characteristic God graciously gave us in common with Himself.

Dingemanse says huh? is “crucial to our everyday language.” Conversation requires rapid turn-taking, and misunderstanding can be dangerous. Such are the “selective pressures in its conversational environment,” Dingemanse says. Every language needs such a quick-to-recall, easy-to-say, unambiguous word. The best way to understand how unrelated languages ended up with the same quick-fix word, the linguists write, is through convergent evolution.

Convergent evolution is the idea that the same feature develops in unrelated organisms through similar selective pressures because it works so well. Huh? fits. There are likely other similarly practical universal words yet to be identified.  

To their credit, the researchers—though in no way disavowing their belief in biological evolution—say they are not using “convergent evolution” in the biological sense to explain the origin on huh? but only in the “general sense.”  They write:

We use ‘convergent evolution’ as a general term for the independent evolution of similarities in form and function. When ancestral forms are known, a distinction can be made between form/function convergence in species that are closely related (‘parallel evolution’) versus in species that are not closely related (‘convergent evolution’). However, this distinction is not always consistently made in biology and recently there have been proposals to use ‘convergent evolution’ as a general term. We use the term in this general sense. Our proposal accounts for the present-day cross-linguistic similarity of huh? but has to remain agnostic as to its ultimate origins—in the absence of historical language data it is impossible to tell whether the present-day forms go back to one ancestral form.

Further distancing the origin of huh? from Darwinian evolution is the lack of an animal precursor. While huh? smooths the skids in ordinary conversation, to claim it has made an invaluable contribution to survival of the fittest would be over the top. Among animals, the researchers write, there is:

no evidence for an animal precursor of huh?. Nor is it obvious what the function and biological survival value of this precursor would be in primates which lack the kind of shared intentionality that underlies human cooperative communication.4

While the researchers dissociate their contentions about huh?’s origins from molecules-to-man evolution, that distinction is typically not made for the public by the media. The use of the word evolution to describe the origin of every physical characteristic and every conceivable behavior encourages people to see every logical and natural process as an example of Darwinian evolution in action. But, the case with huh is very different. In this case, the convergence does not take millions, or even thousands, not even hundreds of years. It is something that must happen with every invented language system as soon as it is necessary to ask for a repetition. For such a purpose to arise and be fulfilled by huh-ing, about all that is needed is the occasion to ask for help in understanding something someone else has just said. That happens frequently and no one needs even a decade to find a use for huh.

History Of Language

It is worth noting that the researchers admit that in their field ancestral claims cannot be made without a historical record to support the unobservable events of the past. We have a historical record in the Bible. God’s Word preserves for us His eyewitness account of the origin of man and language. On the day God created him Adam named (Genesis 2:19–20) animals and also talked about Eve as soon as he awoke to find God had created a female human comparable to himself (Genesis 2:18, 21–23).

Dr. John Oller, Jr., an expert in the field of language acquisition and communication disorders,5 comments:

I think the existence of such words . . . has to do with their pragmatic contexts as the authors are proposing for “Huh?” All of them seem to be vocatives stripped to the bone. . . . Yet they serve well in getting the attention of another interlocutor who is enjoined to figure out the intended meaning.

And while language has certainly developed and changed a great deal, Dr. Oller says, “I think Adam had words like ‘huh’ from the start.”6

God not only created Adam and Eve with language, but at Babel He confused languages and gave people new ones. Dr. Oller notes, the convergent evolutionary model is only useful in explaining the ubiquitous appearance of huh? “if we admit up front that the end is presupposed from the beginning.”7 He adds, “As for the origin of words? I don't think we can be dogmatic but I have long leaned toward Chomsky's claim that humans have the whole conceptual basis before any words are acquired.”8

Purposeful Communication

There is therefore a huge difference between the idea that each language arrived at the same practical solution for a vocal question mark and conventional evolutionary explanations. Evolution is conceived as a random purposeless process involving information that pops into existence without an intelligent source. Language, on the other hand, begins with an abstract concept that the speaker intends to communicate. Thus, while huh? ends up being the most pragmatic solution the human vocal apparatus can produce, this handy little word is a purposeful and universally practical choice and conveys information that already exists in the human mind.

Human beings were created in the image of God. Linguistic ability is a characteristic God graciously gave us in common with Himself. Dr. Oller says, “Human language capacity is a product of surpassing Intelligence. It is prima facie evidence that the Invisible God made human beings with such a capacity.”9

Having language to express ideas in abstract symbols, we are able to truly understand and communicate not only with each other but also with our Creator. God even uses the word “Word” (John 1:1–3,14) to describe Jesus Christ, the Son of God, whose coming into this world as a man to die for the sins of man is the ultimate communication of God’s great love for us, the crowning creatures of His creation (Psalm 8:4–9).

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  1. Additional information in this article was obtained from the original journal describing the research: M. Dingemanse et al., “Is ‘Huh?’ a Universal Word? Conversational Infrastructure and the Convergent Evolution of Linguistic Items,” PLoS One (8 November 2013), www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0078273.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Dr. John W. Oller, Jr., with a PhD in General Linguistics, is a professor in the Department of Communicative Disorders, University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His recent books include Milestones: Normal Speech and Language Development Across the Life Span, Cases: Introducing Communication Disorders Across the Life Span, and Autism: the Diagnosis, Treatment & Etiology of the Undeniable Epidemic.
  6. Personal communication.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Quoted in “Show and Tell: What Can Chimps Tell Us?


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