* Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira, and N.J. Enfield, ‘Is “Huh?” a Universal Word? Conversational Infrastructure and the Convergent Evolution of Linguistic Items’, PLOS One, 2013:
* Mark Dingemanse, Seán G. Roberts, Julija Baranova, Joe Blythe, Paul Drew, Simeon Floyd, Rosa S. Gisladottir, Kobin H. Kendrick, Stephen C. Levinson, Elizabeth Manrique, Giovanni Rossi, and N.J. Enfield, ‘Universal Principles in the Repair of Communication Problems’, PLOS One, 2015:

I found myself looking at Nick Enfield’s work (homepage here) and got interested in this study of ‘huh’. I like the way Enfield et al. dealt graciously with the award of an ‘Ig Nobel’ award — look at the acceptance speech here. I probably miss the layers of generous irony in the Ig Nobel process when I say… this is a classic example of why these awards seem small-minded and depressing to me. I recognise the point of what this article is aiming at, and the second piece cited above gets across more of the importance of ‘language repair’, so it’s frustrating to see people taking a shallow skim across the surface of the article in order to invite a scornful crowd to say ‘huh?’.
      So ‘huh’ is (i) ‘not trivial’ — it’s part of an indispensable system for cooperative language repair, which is crucial to communication, which is crucial to… everything; (ii) ‘universal’ — in 31 languages examined a similar sound exists, with a similar function; (iii) ‘a word’ — it is ‘integrated into each linguistic system’, varying with the phonetic characteristics of different languages, and is thus different from universal sounds like sneezing and crying; (iv) ‘not innate’ — apes don’t do it and children have to learn to do it; (v) ‘likely shaped by convergent evolution’ — because the need for a ‘simple, minimal, quick-to-produce questioning syllable’ applies everywhere. All of which I buy and/or like: there’s a link with a favourite topic of mine, turn-taking.
      Into the mix I will put a very neat bit of represented-observed conversational business in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, 3.3. It has a very nice ‘huh?’ equivalent (a ‘ha’) and some very subtle manoeuvring as the Greeks work on Achilles, trying to get him back into the battle. I suppose there may not be lots of other things quite like this in theatrical dialogue: perhaps (as in this case) it’s only going to be useful on rare occasions, or even realistic, to have characters failing to understand one another. Then again, something like language repair could appear in lots of other forms.


We’ll execute your purpose, and put on
A as we pass along:
So do each lord, and either greet him not,
Or else disdainfully, which shall shake him more
Than if not look’d on. I will lead the way.
What, comes the general to speak with me?
You know my mind, I’ll fight no more ‘gainst Troy.
What says Achilles? would he aught with us?
Would you, my lord, aught with the general?
Nothing, my lord.
The better.
Good day, good day.

What, does the cuckold scorn me?
How now, Patroclus!
Good morrow, Ajax.

Good morrow.
Ay, and good next day too.
What mean these fellows? Know they not Achilles?
They pass by strangely: they were used to bend
To send their smiles before them to Achilles;
To come as humbly as they used to creep
To holy altars.
What, am I poor of late?
‘Tis certain, greatness, once fall’n out with fortune,
Must fall out with men too: what the declined is
He shall as soon read in the eyes of others
As feel in his own fall; for men, like butterflies,
Show not their mealy wings but to the summer,
And not a man, for being simply man,
Hath any honour, but honour for those honours
That are without him, as place, riches, favour,
Prizes of accident as oft as merit:
Which when they fall, as being slippery standers,
The love that lean’d on them as slippery too,
Do one pluck down another and together
Die in the fall. But ’tis not so with me:
Fortune and I are friends: I do enjoy
At ample point all that I did possess,
Save these men’s looks; who do, methinks, find out
Something not worth in me such rich beholding
As they have often given. Here is Ulysses;
How now Ulysses!
Now, great Thetis’ son!
What are you reading?
A strange fellow here
Writes me: ‘That man, how dearly ever parted,
How much in having, or without or in,
Cannot make boast to have that which he hath,
Nor feels not what he owes, but by reflection;
As when his virtues shining upon others
Heat them and they retort that heat again
To the first giver.’
The beauty that is borne here in the face
The bearer knows not, but commends itself
To others’ eyes; nor doth the eye itself,
That most pure spirit of sense, behold itself,
Not going from itself; but eye to eye opposed
Salutes each other with each other’s form;
For speculation turns not to itself,
Till it hath travell’d and is mirror’d there
Where it may see itself. This is not strange at all.
I do not strain at the position,
, but at the author’s drift;
Who, in his circumstance, expressly proves
That no man is the lord of any thing,
Though in and of him there be much consisting,
Till he communicate his parts to others:
Nor doth he of himself know them for aught
Till he behold them form’d in the applause
Where they’re extended; who, like an arch,
The voice again, or, like a gate of steel
Fronting the sun, receives and renders back
His figure and his heat. I was much wrapt in this;
And apprehended here immediately
Heavens, what a man is there! a very horse,
That has he knows not what. Nature, what things there are
Most abject in regard and dear in use!
What things again most dear in the esteem
And poor in worth! Now shall we see to-morrow —
An act that very chance doth throw upon him —
Ajax renown’d. O heavens, what some men do,
While some men leave to do!
How some men creep in skittish fortune’s hall,
Whiles others play the idiots in her eyes!
How one man eats into another’s pride,
While pride is fasting in his wantonness!
To see these Grecian lords! — why, even already
They clap the lubber Ajax on the shoulder,
As if his foot were on brave Hector’s breast
And great Troy shrieking.
I do believe it; for they pass’d by me
As misers do by beggars, neither gave to me
Good word nor look: what, are my deeds forgot?
Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,
Wherein he puts alms for oblivion,
A great-sized monster of ingratitudes:
Those scraps are good deeds past; which are devour’d
As fast as they are made, forgot as soon
As done: perseverance, dear my lord,
Keeps honour bright: to have done is to hang
Quite out of fashion, like a rusty mail
In monumental mockery. Take the instant way;
For honour travels in a strait so narrow,
Where one but goes abreast: keep then the path;
For emulation hath a thousand sons
That one by one pursue: if you give way,
Or hedge aside from the direct forthright,
Like to an enter’d tide, they all rush by
And leave you hindmost;
Or like a gallant horse fall’n in first rank,
Lie there for pavement to the abject rear,
O’er-run and trampled on: then what they do in present,
Though less than yours in past, must o’ertop yours;
For time is like a fashionable host
That slightly shakes his parting guest by the hand,
And with his arms outstretch’d, as he would fly,
Grasps in the comer: welcome ever smiles,
And farewell goes out sighing. O, let not virtue seek
Remuneration for the thing it was;
For beauty, wit,
High birth, vigour of bone, desert in service,
Love, friendship, charity, are subjects all
To envious and calumniating time.
One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,
That all with one consent praise new-born gawds,
Though they are made and moulded of things past,
And give to dust that is a little gilt
More laud than gilt o’er-dusted.
The present eye praises the present object.
Then marvel not, thou great and complete man,
That all the Greeks begin to worship Ajax;
Since things in motion sooner catch the eye
Than what not stirs. The cry went once on thee,
And still it might, and yet it may again,
If thou wouldst not entomb thyself alive
And case thy reputation in thy tent;
Whose glorious deeds, but in these fields of late,
Made emulous missions ‘mongst the gods themselves
And drave great Mars to faction.
Of this my privacy
But ‘gainst your privacy
The reasons are more potent and heroical:
‘Tis known, Achilles, that you are in love
With one of Priam’s daughters.

Let’s all search for more examples of the literary ‘huh?’.

i.e. they are going to pretend not to notice him, or to consider him important
As Achilles’ reaction makes clear, this is a brush off, not a polite question.
And here’s our ‘huh’: Ajax is pretending not to have heard what Achilles said, and he uses the (possibly) universal word to indicate this. So it’s not really a case of language repair, but rather a blunt gesture, in keeping with Ajax’s style, designed to show indifference — he can’t be bothered to pay attention.
Now begins an exchange I keep coming back to. Achilles sees Ulysses reading, and thinks he can take the upper hand by breaking his concentration.
He takes the bait: Achilles thinks he can help Ulysses with an intellectual problem, and he gets stuck in.
The tables are turned: Achilles thinks he has solved the problem, but his contribution is dismissed as commonplace. Ulysses is actually working towards a position that reflects sharply on Achilles’ actions. He should be proving his virtue in battle with the Trojans.
Ulysses pretends to be attacking Ajax, his usual antagonist.
This sounds rather hollow after Ulysses has confronted Achilles so powerfully with his prowess and his failure to demonstrate it.
This one is not a ‘huh’: this is an exclamation at what Ulysses has said. It suggests that Achilles, having been lured into an attempt at eloquence, has been somewhat defeated. Where he thought he could reassert some social dominance, in fact he has been outwitted. There isn’t much language-repair to be done among these super-eloquent Greeks in the scene, which makes the Ajax ‘ha’ all the more interesting.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

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