The Bible and folklore tell the story of our ancient ancestors’ attempt to build the Tower of Babel. The plan was for the tower to reach heaven and provide an easy backdoor entrance. God canceled their building permit and put a damper on the project by depriving mankind of its universal language. Suddenly, the architect could no longer converse with the construction supervisor and the super’s orders to the bricklayers sounded like gibberish to them.

This polyglot situation is still in effect and is quite comprehensive. A linguistics expert at the Max Planck Institute in the Netherlands claims there is only one word that means the same in every language, and it’s more of a grunt than a word. “Huh” is supposed to have the same meaning around the world whether it’s uttered in Brooklyn, Bangladesh or Bolivia. I guess the universal meaning is “I didn’t hear or understand what you just said.”

Maybe “huh” is the only completely universal word, but others must be in hundreds of vocabularies. Experts say the M’s and P’s in “mama” and “papa” are the easiest consonants for babies to pronounce, so those parental titles are used in many languages, but not all.

“Ah: is also widespread, usually meaning “I like that,” or “Please keep scratching there.” If “ah” is drawn out and accompanied by a scowl, it means “I don’t like that” or “The Mets just blew another one!”

There is a universal version of “ah” if it’s followed by “choo”, meaning “Something is tickling my nostril” or “You’re not supposed to smoke in here.” This reminds me of the joke about the American tourist lost in Berlin, very anxious and having a sneezing fit. A passerby politely said “Gesundheit” and the tourist remarked,”Thank goodness, someone who speaks English!”

It’s surprising that “ouch” is not a universal word. Pain is greeted with many different exclamations around the world. Japanese dental patients say “Itai!”. A German carpenter yelps “Autsch!” when his hammer hits his thumb and “Ay!” is what a Spanish toreador shouts after a too close encounter with the bull.

I’m not convinced about that one. Do we really have to learn what to shout if we scrape a knee in Nepal or get a cramp in Croatia? I’ll have to think about that. Hey, what about “hmm” for a universal word? Do you have any other suggestions?

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