Hein? Hunh? Hey? Hrm?

Ou l’on constate que l’anglais possède le mot hein.

In my pursuit of acquiring at least some of the trappings of British geek and pop culture, getting a basic grasp on Doctor Who I came across a word that I hadn’t been aware the English language possessed.

This is from last Staturday’s episode (”Utopia”), about 7 or 8 minutes in. The protagonists have just arrived in an unknown location and are walking through a dark rocky landscape. While the Doctor is rather pensive and monosyllabic, his companions, Captain Jack Harkness and Martha Jones, are chattering away. There is an undercurrent of jealousy, and at one point Martha gets a bit snippy. Here’s how the Doctor calls them to order:

To me, the interjection after “end of the universe” sounds pretty much like the French word hein. Moreover, it has here exactly the meaning of hein: something like a rather aggressive question tag, which could be glossed as “right?” or “isn’t it?”

But here’s the problem. If I transcribe this passage as:

  • You two — we’re at the end of the universe, hein? Right at the edge of knowledge itself, and you’re busy … blogging! Come on.

… then it looks to the reader as if the speaker was speaking with a French accent, which would be misleading.

I asked some irquaintances for other, more English-looking spellings. The suggestion that might fit best was hunh.

(That this was one of the funniest TV quotes I’ve encountered in a while may have contributed to my noticing this.)

6 comment(s) for 'Hein? Hunh? Hey? Hrm?'

  1. (Comment, 2007-06-20 16:50 )
    #1 — Deborah

    Il ne s’agirait pas plutôt du « eh » exclamatif qui fait la renommée des Canadiens?

    You two — we’re at the end of the universe, eh! Right at the edge of knowledge itself, and you’re busy … blogging! Come on…

  2. (Comment, 2007-06-20 17:57 )

    Hunh is close, but the vowel sounds farther forward than that spelling suggests. Hein is more accurate, but if you want a more English-looking spelling, I just happened across one in the latest (June 25) issue of The New Yorker. Nancy Franklin, also transcribing something she heard on television, uses henh for what I assume is essentially the same interjection:

    As the immortal Paulie Walnuts said in the last episode [of The Sporanos], when he sat down after a big meal at Bobby Bacala’s funeral and unzipped his pants to give his full belly some breathing room, “In the midst of death, we are in life, henh? Or is it the other way around?”

    On the other hand, this is the same Doctor who decided to start saying allons-y because he liked the sound of it, so maybe hein isn’t so bad, eh?

  3. (Comment, 2007-06-20 23:48 )

    Ah, je n’avais pas pensé aux Canadiens ! Needs two Canadians to remind me, eh?

    I hear a pretty clear /h/ at the onset of the word, which probably made me discard “eh” before I even though about it.

  4. (Comment, 2007-09-12 21:32 )

    Do I get royalties from the use of my name?

  5. (Comment, 2007-09-16 11:10 )

    @Manfred: Unfortunately, your name is a perfectly legit French word, which predates you…

  6. (Comment, 2007-12-10 04:49 )
    #6 — TargetDriver

    You two — we’re at the end of the universe, ‘ri’? Right at the edge of knowledge itself, and you’re busy … blogging! Come on…

    That would be an abbreviated interjection of “alright?” There was no hein in it…no nasalization of the terminal vowel…the context wouldn’t support it either. He has already addressed them as “You two” to get their attention…he wouldn’t need to throw a hein in. Listen to it again.