You’ll rarely see this word written down – and you certainly won’t hear it in your German classes.
And yet – it’s an irreplaceable part of the German language.
“Hä?” (listen to the pronunciation here) is an efficient way of saying “What you just said doesn’t make any sense to me, could you repeat it in simpler and clearer language?” Or “Eh?”
Though it can sometimes mean “What you just said makes absolutely no sense, you complete and utter fool.”
It’s considered quite rude in German and would definitely be out of place at a business meeting or first date. Teachers and parents will often correct children who use it, telling them to use the more polite – but less expressive – “wie bitte?”.
German dictionaries go so far as to call it “Salopp: als unhöflich oder ungezogen angesehen” (“crude: seen as ill-mannered or ill-bred”).
But among friends, family, youngsters and Berliners, it’s basically just a more effective way of saying “I’m confused”. You’ll definitely hear it being used in casual conversations, in bars, or by unruly teenagers.
It’s almost directly equivalent to the English “huh”, the French “hein” and the Italian “eh”. In fact, “Hä?” is a bit of a linguistic superword.
Language researchers have discovered “Hä?” (with only slightly different pronunciations) in 31 different languages. This includes Japanese, Siwu – a Ghanaian minority language – and Cha’palaa, a language spoken by an indigenous group of Ecuador.
So, “Hä?” actually exists all over the world.
Mark Dingemanse, one of the researchers who made the discovery, sees no reason why “Hä?” should be seen as so ‘crude’.
“The variations of ‘Hä?’ are probably much older than the more polite forms. And polite forms are slowly dying out,” he wrote.
How to use “Hä?”
When using “Hä?”, the way you say it also plays a big role in how it comes across. There’s the more obnoxious “Häääää?” (number of ‘ä’s vary) which expresses complete confusion, but also questions the sanity of the previous speaker.
“Ich finde den Physiklehrer voll süß.”
“I find the physics teacher kinda charming.”
“Are you crazy?!!!”
Then there’s the shorter, more muted “Hä?”, which is usually followed by a full question to mask the automatic expression of surprise.
“Ich finde deine Kunst, also, gewöhnungsbedürftig.”
“Hä, was soll das jetzt bedeuten?”
“I think your art is, well, an acquired taste.”
“Huh? What’s that supposed to mean?”