2015 Ig Nobel Prize winner

This paper won a 2015 Ig Nobel Prize for ‘research that first makes you laugh, then think’. We couldn’t attend the official ceremony in Harvard, and instead sent in the acceptance speech below.

Fortunately, two weeks later, the Ig Nobels came to Europe, where one of us could attend, and part of the ceremony was repeated to award us the prize.

Our initial acceptance speech was the shortest one on record. It was also a demo of the extraordinary power of the word ‘Huh?’. Consider:

  1. On Sept 17, 2015 in Harvard, we were awarded the prize (in absentia)
  2. We said “Huh?”
  3. Then on Oct 3, 2015 in Amsterdam, they repeated the awarding of the prize

That’s when we got it.

Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira & N.J. Enfield

Thank you for your interest in our work. To learn more about what’s special about ‘Huh?’, read the original paper, have a look at the frequently asked questions, or check out some of the media coverage. Also be sure to read our team’s newest study on universal principles in the ‘repair’ of communication problems.

Ig Nobel prize for MPI researchers

Nijmegen, September 15, 2015

MPI researchers Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira and Nick Enfield have won a coveted Ig Nobel Prize for their work which shows that ‘Huh?’—a word people use when they missed what someone just said—may well be a universal word. The prize was awarded in the same week that their research group published a major follow-up study on how people deal with misunderstandings in conversation.

The Ig Nobel Prizes honour scientists for achievements that first make people laugh and then make them think. Dingemanse: “What may be most surprising about our finding is not that ‘Huh?’ appears to be universal, but that this was discovered only now. Linguists have only recently started to compare conversation across cultures. There’s a lot still to find out.”

Earlier this week, a large team led by Dingemanse and Enfield released a major comparative study which shows just how crucial the system for fixing misunderstandings is in everyday conversation. The team found that people ask for clarification on average every 90 seconds, and do so in the same ways regardless of the language being spoken. The word “Huh?” is only one of the ways in which people worldwide fix the tiny rifts in understanding that regularly crop up in conversation.

The Ig Nobel-winning paper on “Huh?”, which came out in November 2013, became one of the most widely read papers in the open access journal PLOS ONE. Dingemanse: “It’s amusing to get an Ig Nobel for this study, which was essentially bycatch in our larger research project on how people worldwide fix misunderstandings. We hope the prize helps draw attention to the larger body of work revealing the social shape of language.” The MPI’s Language and Cognition Department, where the work was carried out, has a strong tradition of research on conversational structure, much of it organised through the “Interactional Foundations of Language” project.

  • Dingemanse, Mark, Francisco Torreira, and N.J. Enfield. 2013. “Is ‘Huh?’ a universal word? Conversational infrastructure and the convergent evolution of linguistic items.” PLOS ONE.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078273.
  • Dingemanse, Mark, Seán G. Roberts, Julija Baranova, Joe Blythe, Paul Drew, Simeon Floyd, Rosa S. Gisladottir, Kobin H. Kendrick, Stephen C. Levinson, Elizabeth Manrique, Giovanni Rossi, and N. J. Enfield. 2015. “Universal Principles in the Repair of Communication Problems.”PLOS ONE 10 (9): e0136100. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0136100.