When you start learning a new language, it can seem like nothing makes sense. The nouns don’t go in the right place, verbs change in incomprehensible ways, and the sentence structure is just plain dumb. But, in fact, all languages share a remarkably similar structure. Comparing human languages to the honeybee’s dance, for example, it’s clear that even the most remote spoken tongues are actually shockingly similar. Starting with Joseph Greenberg’s work in 1963, many linguists have taken up the challenge of trying to find universals that apply to all languages (so far) discovered on Earth. And the list is actually pretty impressive.
How much all languages actually share, you can read in today’s blog post.
Table of Contents
The very basics
When you start to look beyond the apparent differences between languages, you’ll find almost painfully obvious universals.
For example, all known languages separate words into nouns and verbs. If it’s a spoken language (not a signed one), it’ll make use of both vowels and consonants. There are even eerily similar words for “mom” and “dad” found across the globe.
Going further, there are some other interesting trends. A team of scientists at Cornell looking at thousands of languages found a striking list of rules that most seem to follow. They seem to like the “r” sound for the words “round” and “red”, for example. The word for nose will often include a “neh” or “oo” sound, and if a language has a word for “leg”, it’ll have a word for “arm”.
Similarities in structure
The similarities between languages go on with the way they set words in order. English uses a subject-verb-object word order, one of the two most popular ways of creating a sentence. What that means is that the default setting for an English sentence puts the doer in the first position, followed by the action, and then the object the action affected. For example, The dog chased Mary. Based on that word order, it’s easy for you to decipher who did the chasing of whom in this particular language.
While there are technically six possible combinations for word order – SVO, SOV, VSO, VOS, OVS, and OSV – the two most popular ones account for 87% of the world’s languages. So, that means The dog chased Mary order and subject-object-verb, or The dog Mary chased, make up almost nine in every ten languages you might expect to counter. Actually, The dog Mary chased or SOV is the single most popular way of ordering words across languages – it features in 45% of them.
This might not count as an exactly universal rule for all of the languages, it still shows a very particular trend.
Subjects before objects, verbs and objects close
Continuing with word order rules, in very nearly all languages, subjects occur before objects in sentences and verbs are placed next to their objects. The one word order that violates both of these rules – OSV – is so rare that it pretty much counts for zero percent of the world’s languages. Most of the ones that do use this word order are spoken in the same region – the Amazon basin. In fact, not all linguists agree that even those languages follow the OSV pattern. The next least popular one, object-verb-subject, is less contended but still a very rare word order, occurring in about one in every hundred languages.
In pretty much all other regions, you will find the agents specified before objects and the objects adjacent to the verbs they’re affected by.
If X, then Y
Looking at language universals more closely, one will find a list of rules or implications for languages. Again, these don’t necessary fit the bill when it comes to 100% of languages, but the rules are pretty watertight.
Essentially, if a language has X, it will also have Y.
For example, if you take an average language with SOV word order, you will find that if you are to make a question in that language, you’d put the question word at the end of the sentence. That language will also favour postpositions. For SVO word order, you’d add the question word at the beginning of the sentence and the language would also prefer prepositions.
And so on.
Black, white. Black, white, red.
The next language universal comes from the realm of colour terms. It’s not that all languages denote colours the same way. Far from it – most languages actually have between two and eleven words for the basic colours.
However, there is a very fixed pattern languages use when adding colour terms to their vocabularies. If a language has two words, they will be something like black and white, or dark and light. If there’s three, the third one will be a word for red. Next comes either green or yellow. The fifth term will, again, be either yellow or green – adding the one that was missing before. And if a language is still adding colour terms after all these bases are covered, it’ll go for blue and brown.
The Chomskyan approach
All of the former seems to corroborate Noam Chomsky’s claim that language is something innate to humans. That we’re born with a specific language gene that directs our learning to speak much in a way a young beaver will have a healthy interest towards felling trees. He has famously claimed that if a Martian anthropologist came to Earth, they would promptly conclude Earthlings to speak different dialects of a single language.
While the debate over the innateness of language is still very much open, there is plenty to wonder about in the aspects all human languages seem to share.
Conclusion – All languages share certain characteristics, but patterns are more common
While all languages make use of nouns and verbs, the rest of the “universal” rules actually turn out to be more like patterns. However, it’s important to keep in mind that these patterns hold surprisingly true even when considering thousands of languages. Whether it’s word order or colour words, languages do seem to follow a certain path in their development. Of course, that does not automatically mean we speak a universal language, even if a Martian might think that. Still, it’s nice to remember that even when separated by different-sounding tongues, all humans, to some extent, share this magical gift of language.