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‘Huh’ and Other Universal Words That Need No Translation

Some words, passing from one language to another, take on completely different expressions. Some of them are almost untranslatable. On the contrary, other words almost need no translation, because they sound strangely similar everywhere. Just like "huh", "coffee" and "ok". But also like "guitar"!

huh

Some words, passing from one language to another, take on completely different expressions. Some of them are almost untranslatable. On the contrary, other words almost need no translation, because they sound strangely similar everywhere. Just like “huh“, for example.

Perhaps there is something inherently human in their sound.

Or perhaps, they are objects and idioms that have managed to preserve their name by moving from one culture to another. Whatever the reason, here are some words that don’t need translation.

Huh?

The exclamation “huh?” – used when we do not understand what someone has just said – seems to be universal.

According to a study by the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen (Netherlands) published in the journal Plos One, this exclamation would have a similar function in languages all over the world.

These similarities exist since huh? has a unique function. In fact, it must fit into a conversation without interrupting the speaker too much. And as each language evolved, everyone independently discovered that this type of sound was better suited.

Coffee

Kofi, kahve, kava – these three sounds allow us to ask for coffee almost all over the world. This is because most languages have borrowed the Turkish word kahve, which in turn comes from the oldest Arabic word qahua. And no one has strayed too far from that point. Much of Europe has changed the “v” to “f”, some languages have even changed the “a” to “o”.

The word coffee has spread with the popularity of the drink. It’s a bit like what happened with Coca Cola, another word that anyone can understand.

Ok

It is one of the most used words in the world. “Ok” began to spread around 1830, a period during which the United States went crazy for abbreviations. Whatever its origin, the word spread quickly as an abbreviation to say that it’s all fine. There are several theories behind OK’s luck. One is that the sounds “oh”, “k” and “ay” exist in most languages, which would make it easily reproducible.

Mom

The word “mom” has similar words in a surprisingly large number of languages, such as eomma in Korean or mami in Czech. And it is curious because the term has spread independently in many different languages. How is this possible?

Research, starting with the studies of linguist Roman Jakobson, suggests that the spread of a similar word to indicate “mother” in all languages would have something to do with language development. A child’s stuttering is not a series of random noises but follows a pattern. In vocal experimentation, children often arrive first at the ah sound, the easiest to reproduce. Even closing the lips to create a “mmm” is quite natural.

These sounds would create a first common word: “mom”. And this refers to the person who takes care of the child. It’s like that all over the world: same sounds, same interpretation, same word.

Ok, Huh – but also Guitar!

Although it is more complicated to trace than “ok” or “huh?” or “mom”, the word guitar still finds many recurrences in different languages. The modern guitar is derived from a medieval instrument known as the Latin guitar. Yet, the Spanish guitar has roots in the Greek word kithara and the Arabic gypsy.

But both the word and the instrument go much further back. “Tar” would derive from the more ancient Persian and Sanskrit. In fact, it appears in other instrument names, such as tar and sitar. This long evolution across continents has created a common word for similar instruments in many cultures.

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