Posted: Nov 23, 2013 10:50 pm
by Saim
I share Zwaarddijk's skepticism. Here's a good Geocurrents (a social science blog) article that takes it apart:

http://www.geocurrents.info/cultural-ge ... -important

The claim about the universality of “huh?” comes from the fact that similar sounding interjections are used for “other-initiated repair” in a variety of languages. Just how representative the list of languages with “huh?” is remains to be seen. Although the authors’ claims apply only to the specific set of languages studied, media reports greatly overexaggerated the findings. The host of the AirTalk show said that this word is found “in virtually every human language”, “in any number of languages”, and “in almost any language”. The headline of The New York Times article by Jennifer Schuessler states that it is “the syllable everyone recognizers”; the article itself states that this word is “universally understood, across all countries and cultures”. The author of the NPR article, Alva Noë, says that this word is “native to all languages”; the headline goes so far as to ask whether this one word could “unite the world”. The headline in The Atlantic states that “Huh Means the Same Thing in Every Language”, and the article itself, written by Olga Khazan, calls this expression “practically universal”. Yet, relatively solid data are available only for ten languages, which constitute about 0.1% of the world’s currently spoken tongues. The sample, moreover, is hardly representative, despite the authors’ claims, as it includes two closely related Germanic languages (Icelandic and Dutch), two closely related Romance languages (Italian and Spanish), and half of the languages considered belong to just one language family: Indo-European (and more specifically, to its “European” branches). The Americas, Africa, Australia, East Asya, and Southeast Asia are represented by one language each. No language from South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, or North America is included in the small sample.