Huh? What? - a first survey in twenty-one languages

N. J. Enfield, Mark Dingemanse, Julija Baranova, Joe Blythe, Penelope Brown, Tyko Dirksmeyer, Paul Drew, Simeon Floyd, Sonja Gipper, Rósa S. Gísladóttir, Gertie Hoymann, Kobin H. Kendrick, Stephen C. Levinson, Lilla Magyari, Elizabeth Manrique, Giovanni Rossi, Lila San Roque, Francisco Torreira

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

65 Scopus citations


Introduction. A comparison of conversation in twenty-one languages from around the world reveals commonalities and differences in the way that people do open-class other-initiation of repair (Schegloff, Jefferson, and Sacks, 1977; Drew, 1997). We find that speakers of all of the spoken languages in the sample make use of a primary interjection strategy (in English it is Huh?), where the phonetic form of the interjection is strikingly similar across the languages: a monosyllable featuring an open non-back vowel [a, æ, ə, ʌ], often nasalized, usually with rising intonation and sometimes an [h-] onset. We also find that most of the languages have another strategy for open-class other-initiation of repair, namely the use of a question word (usually “what”). Here we find significantly more variation across the languages. The phonetic form of the question word involved is completely different from language to language: e.g., English [wɑt] versus Cha'palaa [ti] versus Duna [aki]. Furthermore, the grammatical structure in which the repair-initiating question word can or must be expressed varies within and across languages. In this chapter we present data on these two strategies - primary interjections like Huh? and question words like What? - with discussion of possible reasons for the similarities and differences across the languages. We explore some implications for the notion of repair as a system, in the context of research on the typology of language use. The general outline of this chapter is as follows. We first discuss repair as a system across languages and then introduce the focus of the chapter: open-class other-initiation of repair. A discussion of the main findings follows, where we identify two alternative strategies in the data: an interjection strategy (Huh?) and a question word strategy (What?). Formal features and possible motivations are discussed for the interjection strategy and the question word strategy in order. A final section discusses bodily behavior including posture, eyebrow movements and eye gaze, both in spoken languages and in a sign language.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationConversational Repair and Human Understanding
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages38
ISBN (Electronic)9780511757464
ISBN (Print)9781107002791
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2011
Externally publishedYes


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