Researchers traveled to cities and remote villages on five continents, visiting native speakers of 10 very different languages. Their nearly 200 recordings of casual conversations revealed that there are versions of “Huh?” in every language they studied — and they sound remarkably similar.
Minus the question mark, that word also happens to be my last name: 허. Most Korean surnames are easy to romanize (e.g., 김, 정, 안, 윤, 신, 문, 조 etc.), while names like 박 and 이 and have close-enough Western spellings. Alas, 허 poses a somewhat greater challenge.
When my dad first came to the United States, he spelled his name the way it sounds: Huh. Needless to say, that didn’t go over too well in his newly adopted country. Invariably, people would puzzle over it for a moment, then valiantly forge ahead with either “hoo” or “huh?”
Dad soon had enough of this and opted instead for “Hau,” which we pronounce “how.” Over the years, we’ve stuck with it, even though it was an imperfect solution because 1) people still mispronounce our altered last name (usually as “haw”) and 2) it sounds so Chinese that even other Koreans get confused when they hear it. Pair it with my first name (Lou) and you might as well stamp “中國” on my forehead.
Because of his amusingly ambiguous last name, John Huh has jokingly been referred to as Johnny Question Mark. Except that uncertain moniker may soon be changing…Johnny Question Mark, it seems, is quickly turning into Johnny Exclamation Point.