Huh?If you can’t understand what someone said, there’s one thing you can say in most countries and be understood.

“Huh?”

If you want to be universally understood around the world when traveling, there’s almost no phrase or even gesture that works across all cultures. A nod of the head is “no” in some places, a thumbs up is offensive in some spots, and even “mama” changes across languages.

Some linguists think they might have found the one syllable that works, however.

Yes, according to this article in the New York Times, some Dutch researchers have discovered that the questioning syllable “huh” with a rise upward at the end will be understood almost anywhere. Good news if you’re confused or don’t understand—which happens a lot when you’re traveling of course.

The researchers tested a variety of words and phrases in 10 languages, “including Dutch, Icelandic, Mandarin Chinese, the West African Siwu and the Australian aboriginal Murrinh-Patha.”

It makes sense that this syllable would rise above all others, they say, since language is about communication and a core principle of communication is making sure that you’re being understood.

“We think of this as the core of language: managing common understanding as we talk,” Dr. Enfield said in an interview. Confirming and checking with other people, he added, “are really fundamental to the use of language.”

While one of the key points of the research study is that this word is universal, the second and equally important part is that it must be learned: it is not just a grunt or expression of pain that occurs without social training. So while it’s not much of a word, it is a word.

This one word is not going to get you very far, of course, so you’ll still need a good phrase book or language app along to do more than just confirm the fact you have no idea what anyone is talking about. It’s always a good idea to learn some basic phrases and the staples yes, no, hello, thank you, and “Do you have a room?” But at least you don’t have to learn this one. You’ll land with one word in your vocabulary everywhere.

[Flickr Creative Commons photo by JoeBenjamin]