Monday, September 9, 2019

The Power of "Huh?"

There are an estimated 7,000+ living languages in the world today.  Of course, half of those are "endangered," meaning that there are less than 1,000 people alive who speak them.  Nonetheless, that leaves us with 3,500 languages, many of which have words that are tricky to translate, creating language barriers between cultures.

But there is one word that universally translates.  And that word is "Huh."

Funnily, there are hundreds of words that don't translate into other languages.  Hell, even in English, we have words that don't quite translate well.  For example, some have argued that "fairness," as a concept, does not accurately translate to other languages, and that the word "fair" is distinctively Anglo in origin, rendering it an abstraction in languages of non-Anglican origin.

Another tricky one is "you."  While many people nowadays are arguing about pronouns and whether or not "they" is singular (it is, according to AP Style, Merriam-Webster, and; historically it has been used by Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen, to name a few), no one stopped to question the pronoun "you," which has two meanings in English (second- and third-person, either one of which can be singular or plural).  In other languages (French, for example), "you" has two forms, singular (or informal) and plural (or formal).  Some Asian languages have six or more tenses for "you," depending on the age, sex, and relationship with the person that the "you" refers to.

Malcolm Gladwell suggested this complicated little word, "you," informs cultural interactions and may have, in turn, led to dozens of plane crashes.  Mr. Gladwell might just be on to something.  Other authors have made the suggestion that language influences thought patterns and sociological development; Lera Boroditsky's article in The Wall Street Journal points out how English language tends to assign blame.  (We say, "Jane broke the lamp," not, "The lamp broke (itself).")  English language also tends to use more "I" statements and emphasize individuality, whereas Japanese tends to focus more on social groups or abstractions.

To say English or Japanese is difficult to translate into the other, therefore, is not merely about the words themselves, but the use of the words, and the cultural identities and histories associated with the words.  How we use words is as important (if not more important) than the words themselves.

To make things even more complicated, there are "writer- (speaker)-responsible" languages like English, in which the default expectation is that the writer/speaker/transmitter of language is the one responsible for its effective communication, and "reader- (listener)-responsible" languages like Japanese, in which the default expectation is that the reader/listener/receiver of language is the one responsible for understanding.  This is one reason that, if you've ever been in an argument of Facebook, you've probably noticed Americans furiously demanding that you explain or "convince" them (and using their own "misunderstanding" as points against you), whereas you'll find that native Japanese speakers are typically, as a whole, more willing to try to understand what you're saying even if they disagree with it.

But regardless of what type of language you're speaking, "Huh?" always translates.  And you don't have to take my word for it.  The discovery of the universal translatability of "huh"comes from a study published in 2013 by Mark Dingemanse of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands, and you can read it yourself here.  Dozens of languages unrelated etymologically were examined, and two conclusions were reached.  One is that "huh" is a universal word, and the other is that "huh" is, in fact, a word, not merely a noise.

It's arguably the most powerful word in any language.  Monosyllabic and easy to pronounce, it communicates the simplest and most critical failure of language: misunderstanding.  It can be expanded upon, of course.  "Huh?" can be replaced with, "Pardon?" or "Excuse me?" or "I don't understand" or "I didn't hear you" or "Could you repeat that?" or "Say it slower" or "What does that word mean?"  But "Huh?" encompasses all possible scenarios and boils down into a fundamental, universal situation.  "Huh?" means that you don't understand what's being communicated, for any reason, and indicates that it's necessary to back up and clarify, whether by speaking louder, using different words, or some other method.  Ultimately, all languages, universally, have the same goal: communication between people.  And every human is hard-wired to learn language to receive, transmit, and exchange information.  It's one of the defining traits of humans; we literally evolved to be capable of processing ultra-complex language (some of which can be used to explain abstract and narrative concepts).

So, naturally, "Huh?" is the world's most translatable, understandable, and perhaps even instinctual word.  And it's one we should all learn to embrace.  As a native English speaker myself, being made aware of the way my language influences my thought processes has been an eye-opening experience.  Trying to understand instead of trying to be understood, for example, makes for better discussions and helps one expand one's boundaries and test one's knowledge.  And as far as learning is concerned, there's no better tool than, "Huh?"  A brief Google search shows that "huh" is used "to express a lack of understanding or to invite agreement, confirmation or further comment."  In other words, even if you're a writer-responsible language, "Huh?" can be used to ensure that the people you're speaking to are clear on what you're saying.  (Try it at home!  "Pretty crazy, huh?")

"Huh," therefore, is used both to gain understanding by expressing a lack of it, or to confirm understanding.   Asking questions is how we learn, and having a universal shorthand for "give me more information" is a remarkable, almost magical tool... not unlike language itself.

For years I've collected "untranslatable" words.  Below is a list of my favorites.  If you want a more comprehensive list, Global Lingo has a list of hundreds of words that don't translate into English.  And while some might leave you going "Huh?" plenty more might resonate with you in a way that makes you feel-- dare I say it-- understood.

Note: Looking for English words?  Look no further than the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, which offers definitions for arcane words that describe universal experiences and emotions.

My favorite is sonder: the sudden realization in a crowded place that every person there has as rich and complex a life and history as you do.

Most Relatable, "Untranslatable" Words:
My Top 15 Picks  
(Illustrations by Anjana Iyer)
  1.  Arigata-meiwaku (Japanese): An inconvenient favor.  Arigata-meiwaku occurs when someone offers to do something for you and you don't want them to and actively discourage them from doing, but they do it anyway, trying to be helpful, and it ened up creating problems or more work for you, as you knew it would, and you still have to grit your teeth and thank them because of social conventions.  The fact that Americans lack this word despite corporate culture is an utter mystery to me.

  2. Culaccino (Italian): The mark or ring left on a table by a moist glass.

  3. Dépaysement (French): The uneasy feeling of being a foreigner in a strange place.
  4. Elefantenrennen (German): Literally, "elephant racing."  It's the thing that happens when you're on the highway, and one semitruck tries to pass another even though they're moving at the same speed, and they end up side-by-side, blocking all vehicles behind them.
  5. Faamiti (Samoan): A verb describing the kissy noise you make by sucking air past the lips in order to gain the attention of a dog, cat, or very young child.
  6. Fernweh (German): Feeling homesick for a place you have never been to.  I first heard this feeling described by Torey Hayden in one of her books while she was describing the wait for a Welsh visa.  She did not use this word.  Discovering that a perfect word existed for Hayden's feelings blew my mind.
  7.  Gigil (Filipino): The urge to pinch, squeeze, or squish something that is unbearably cute.
  8. Iktsuarpok (Inuit): The feeling of anxious anticipation or excitement for a visitor that specifically results in you peeking out the window over and over to see if they have arrived yet.  In America, we simply call this "waiting for the pizza delivery guy."

  9. Ilunga (Bantu / Tshiluba):  Famously the world's hardest-to-translate word, this describes a concept or principle of forgiveness, in which a person readily and willingly forgives an offense the first time, tolerates or forgives with reservations a second time, but will not tolerate it a third time.
  10. Kummerspeck – Literally "grief bacon."  This word can either describe weight gained after an emotional devestation, or the binge eating that follows a terrible personal tragedy. 
  11. L’appel du vide (French): Literally, "the call of the void."  It's that feeling you get when you're standing on the edge of a precipice and have the sudden awareness, almost urge, to fling yourself off.  A sort of emotional vertigo not indicative of suicidal intent, just the hyper-awareness that you could easily and willingly jump from the building or cliff you're standing on.
  12. L’esprit de l’escalier (French): Literally, "stairway wit."  You know how, after an argument is over, you suddenly come up wth the perfect witty comeback?  That's l'esprit de l'escalier: a witty comeback that you think up after the moment to use it has already passed.  Curiously, this translates perfectly in Yiddish, to "trepverter."
  13. Mamihlapinatapei (Yagan): Famoulsy listed in the Guiness Book of World Records as "the most succinct word," this is a very specific type of glance.  A wordless, meaningful look shared by two people who both want to say or do the same thing, but are both reluctant to initiate.  I experienced this on my wedding say when the minister said, "The couple may now read the vows they wrote for each other," and both my partner and I realized, simultaneously, that we had forgotten to write our vows and were trying to silently signal the other to go first.

  14. Tartle (Scottish): The brief pause or hesitation during an introduction due to not being 100% sure that you actually remember the person's name who you're introducing.
  15. Tsundoku (Japanese): You love books.  You go to a bookstore and buy a book that looks great; you put it on your shelf with your other books.  Weeks later, a friend says, "This book looks interesting.  What's it about?"  You now have to admit to them that you committed tsundoku, the act of buying a book and leaving it unread.  

And of course, an honorable mention should be given to the German word "schadenfreude."  "Schadenfreude" is enjoyment derived from the misfortune of others.  I used it last week to describe the feeling I get when I watch cars outside of the bar get towed away during Rams games.  No longer an "untranslatable," this word is now a borrowed word, having entered the English lexicon after been featured in Simpsons and getting its own Broadway musical number, demonstrating just how quickly living languages can adopt and adapt words when they find a niche that needed filled.  Language is meant to be understood; don't be afraid to use "huh" to get there.  It's the one word you can always rely on.

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