In the beginning was the word. And that word – the word of God? – may perhaps be ‘Huh?’ In a study stretching over five continents and several languages, researchers have found that this one word, ‘Huh’, seems to be pretty universal. It occurs in similar sound and context in many languages across the world.
This was what Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira and Nick Enfield of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, concluded after examining scores of languages from around the world. ‘Huh?’ exists in pretty much the same form and function in at least 31 of these languages. It either acts like a question word (like ‘what?’) or as an interjection of what they call “other-initiated repair” – which is like a signal in a conversation signifying that the listener has not fully followed what the speaker has said. The study examines 10 languages in detail, to find similarities in more detail – like in pronunciation and intonation.
Not impressed? Well, it is rather impressive actually. Because words in unrelated languages usually do not sound similar.
You don’t think ‘huh?’ is a word at all? Well, you are not alone. There are people who believe that ‘huh?’ is as much of a word as a grunt would be – in any language – and deserves the same status. Many have called it a ‘filler word.’ But researchers studied ‘huh?’ carefully, especially the phonetics, and concluded that it was indeed a word. It had systematic variations. And it had to be learnt. It was not an innate noise that every baby would be capable of making – like sneezing or crying.
And there was good reason for ‘huh?’ to be learnt in any language. After all, language is about communication. People everywhere need to communicate. They need to ask questions. They need to signal that they did not hear what was said. Or that they did not understand it. ‘Huh?’ is a signal to keep communication on track. It is a quick and easy way to say, “Excuse me?” “Come again?” “Can’t hear you!” “Didn’t understand that.” (Or even, “Gosh, are you daft?!”) Yes, ‘huh?’ is a word, a somewhat universal one. A word with a very important role – a word that repairs cracks and breaks in conversation.
Traditionally, many languages have some belief about a universal language – the language of gods shared by humans and animals. It is believed that over time this universal language of myth and mystery crumbled and produced all the different languages spoken by people around the world.
There has always been this effort to create a universal language that would be understood by everyone globally, a centuries-old effort that perhaps can be traced back to Leibniz and his dream of a universal, firmly rational, precise and almost mathematical, constructed language. In our times, we have Esperanto, an artificially constructed language with elements of several languages that has speakers around the world.
But the fact is, there is no real universal language. We each speak our own tongue. We express our loves and fears and hopes in the language closest to our hearts. We tell our stories in our own language. We share our thoughts and emotions, in poetry or fiction or any other genre, in our own language. But we like to share each other’s thoughts and emotions. So we share, we learn each other’s language, we translate. So our stories migrate, from person to person, language to language, region to region. As a story migrates, it changes. And it also changes the person or language or culture that receives the story. Such is the magic of translation.
Because each language has its own worldview – and when two worldviews meet, they create a more nuanced, more complex, far richer world for us. And we do have hundreds and thousands of languages. In India alone we have about 800 languages, though not all of them are listed now. The 1961 census listed 1,652 languages. Curiously, the 2001 census lists only 122 languages. Recently, the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, a mammoth effort led by cultural activist and linguist, Ganesh Devy, has listed 780 languages, but they do not claim this to be a final list.
The point is, we have scores of culturally rich languages – the Sahitya Akademi gives awards in 24 – and as many worldviews. We live among an extraordinary wealth of diverse cultural beliefs. And it is a shame that we do not share our stories enough.
Very often we remain prisoners held by our language, unable to reach out to others, blocked from a view of the world by the protective walls of our mother tongue. Translation, at least within Indian languages, is essential to understand ourselves better, to recognise our multicultural, pluralistic identity as an Indian.
Of course, translation is not always easy. Because when we translate, we translate more than words, we translate cultures. And we cannot simply pluck words out of one culture and plant them into another. Words have their own soil clinging to them, they smell of the land they grew in. When we translate words, we also need to explain the breadth of meaning that a tiny word may hold. And translating into English – once the colonisers’ tongue which we have made our own – is particularly difficult, especially because of these cultural connotations.
It is easier to translate within Indian languages. We have done it for ages. Generations of Malayalam or Marathi speakers have grown up on Bengali stories by Rabindranath Tagore, many Bengali or Tamil speakers have been nurtured by Premchand’s Hindi or Urdu stories. We have taken to these translations instantly, feeling completely at home. Even the most complex Indian literature, when translated into other regional languages, seem oddly similar, their spirit and style seem familiar, they seem to be born of the same womb. They are still not the same, but the ethos is similar.
Because most of these languages share the same roots, and those which do not have become so entangled in their branches and shoots and leaves and flowers with other languages, that it is easy to climb from one tree to the other just by swinging from branch to branch.
The internet age is now creating a new universal language, and that will certainly help in cultural, social and political understanding. But however many universal languages we may have, and however many universal words and grunts, the key to cultural understanding in a globalised world will perhaps always be translation.
Antara Dev Sen is editor, *The Little Magazine*. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Antara Dev Sen