From Wikiversity
Jump to navigation Jump to search

In a hierarchy of words perhaps the ones that are most general which serve as a start at understanding are the universals.


"When we examine common words, we find that, broadly speaking, proper names stand for particulars, while other substantives, adjectives, prepositions, and verbs stand for universals."[1]


"Talk of linguistic universals has given cognitive scientists the impression that languages are all built to a common pattern. In fact, there are vanishingly few universals of language in the direct sense that all languages exhibit them. Instead, diversity can be found at almost every level of linguistic organization. This fundamentally changes the object of enquiry from a cognitive science perspective."[2]

"We are the only known species whose communication system varies fundamentally in both form and content."[2]

Counterexamples: "(4) Some languages (e.g., Riau Indonesian) exhibit neither fixed word-order nor case-marking (Gil 2001).

(5) Many languages (e.g., Chinese, Malay) do not mark tense (Comrie 1985, pp. 50–55; Norman 1988, p. 163), and many (e.g., spoken German) lack aspect (Comrie 1976, p. 8).

(6) Many languages lack auxiliaries (e.g., Kayardild, Bininj Gun-wok).

(7) Many languages (e.g. Mwotlap; Franc ̧ois 2005, p. 119) lack dedicated reflexive or reciprocal constructions altogether, so that “they hit them dead” can mean “they killed them,” “they killed themselves,” or “they killed each other” (Levinson 2000, p. 334 ff.). Some Southeast Asian languages lack clear personal pronouns, using titles (of the kind “honorable sir”) instead, and many languages lack third-person pronouns (Cysouw 2001). Sign languages like ASL (American Sign Language) also lack pronouns, using pointing instead.

(8) Not all languages (e.g., Chinese, Japanese, Lakhota) move their wh-forms, saying, in effect, “You came to see who?” instead of “Who did you come to see _” (Van Valin & LaPolla 1997, pp. 424–25)."[2]

"Some further universalizing claims with counterevidence:

(9) Verbs for “give” always have three arguments (Gleitman 1990); Saliba is a counterexample (Margetts 2007).

(10) No recursion of case (Pinker & Bloom 1990). Kayardild has up to four layers (Evans 1995a; 1995c).

(11) No languages have nominal tense (Pinker & Bloom 1990) – Nordlinger and Sadler (2004) give numerous counterexamples, such as Guarani “my house-FUTURE-FUTURE” “it will be my future house.”

(12) All languages have numerals (Greenberg 1978b – Konstanz #527). See Everett (2005; Gordon 2004) for counterexample.

(13) All languages have syntactic constituents, specifically NPs, whose semantic function is to express generalized quantifiers over the domain of discourse (Barwise & Cooper 1981 – Konstanz #1203); see Partee (1995) and sect. 5."[2]

"Languages may or may not have derivational morphology (to make words from other words, e.g., run > runner), or inflectional morphology for an obligatory set of syntac- tically consequential choices (e.g., plural the girls are vs. singular the girl is). They may or may not have constituent structure (building blocks of words that form phrases), may or may not have fixed orders of elements, and their semantic systems may carve the world at quite different joints."[2]

In contrast to absolute universals are tendencies, statements that may not be true for all languages but nevertheless are far too common to be the result of chance.[3] They also have implicational and non-implicational forms. An example of the latter would be The vast majority of languages have nasal consonants.[4]

Theoretical "categories, and their inter-relations construe an abstract model of language...; they are interlocking and mutually defining".[5]

"When people ask about 'universals', they usually mean descriptive categories that are assumed to be found in all languages. The problem is there is no mechanism for deciding how much alike descriptive categories from different languages have to be before they are said to be 'the same thing'"[5]


In semantics, research into linguistic universals has taken place in a number of ways. Some linguists, starting with Gottfried Leibniz, have pursued the search for a hypothetic irreducible semantic core of all languages. A modern variant of this approach can be found in the natural semantic metalanguage of Anna Wierzbicka and associates.[6] Other lines of research suggest cross-linguistic tendencies to use body part terms metaphorically as adpositions,[7] or tendencies to have morphologically simple words for cognitively salient concepts.[8] The human body, being a physiological universal, provides an ideal domain for research into semantic and lexical universals. In a seminal study, Cecil H. Brown (1976)[9] proposed a number of universals in the semantics of body part terminology, including the following: in any language, there will be distinct terms for BODY, HEAD, ARM, EYES, NOSE, and MOUTH; if there is a distinct term for FOOT, there will be a distinct term for HAND; similarly, if there are terms for INDIVIDUAL TOES, then there are terms for INDIVIDUAL FINGERS. Subsequent research has shown that most of these features have to be considered cross-linguistic tendencies rather than true universals. Several languages like Tidore and Kuuk Thaayorre lack a general term meaning 'body'. On the basis of such data it has been argued that the highest level in the partonomy of body part terms would be the word for 'person'.[10]


Languages "may have less than a dozen distinctive sounds, or they may have 12 dozen, and sign languages do not use sounds at all."[2]

Theory of universals[edit]

Def. a "characteristic or property that particular things have in common"[11] is called a universal.

To help with definitions, their meanings and intents, there is the learning resource theory of definition.


Such words as "entity", "object", "thing", and perhaps "body", words "connoting universal properties, ... constitute the very highest genus or "summum genus"" of a classification of universals.[12] To propose a definition for say a plant whose flowers open at dawn on a warm day to be pollinated during the day time using the word "thing", "entity", "object", or "body" seems too general and is.

See also[edit]


  1. Bertrand Russel (1912). Chapter 9, In: The Problems of Philosophy. |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Nicholas Evans and Stephen C. Levinson (2009). "The myth of language universals: Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science". Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32: 429-92. doi:10.1017/S0140525X0999094X. http://pubman.mpdl.mpg.de/pubman/item/escidoc:468682/component/escidoc:468681/FinalMyth.pdf. Retrieved 2015-07-21. 
  3. Dryer, Matthew S. (1998) "Why Statistical Universals are Better Than Absolute Universals" Chicago Linguistic Society 33: The Panels, pp. 123–145.
  4. Lushootseed and Rotokas are examples of the rare languages which truly lack nasal consonants as normal speech sounds.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Halliday, M.A.K. 2002. A personal perspective. In On Grammar, Volume 1 in the Collected Works of M.A.K. Halliday. London and New York: Continuum p12.
  6. See, for example, Goddard, Cliff and Wierzbicka, Anna (eds.). 1994. Semantic and Lexical Universals - Theory and Empirical Findings. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins and Goddard, Cliff (2002) "The search for the shared semantic core of all languages". In Goddard & Wierzbicka (eds.) Meaning and Universal Grammar - Theory and Empirical Findings volume 1, pp. 5–40, Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  7. Heine, Bernd (1997) Cognitive Foundations of Grammar. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  8. Rosch, E. & Mervis, C.B. & Gray, W.D. & Johnson, D.M. & Boyes-Braem, P. (1976) 'Basic Objects In Natural Categories', Cognitive Psychology 8-3, 382-439.
  9. Brown, Cecil H. (1976) "General principles of human anatomical partonomy and speculations on the growth of partonomic nomenclature." American Ethnologist 3, no. 3, Folk Biology, pp. 400–424.
  10. Wilkins, David P. (1993) ‘From part to person: natural tendencies of semantic change and the search for cognates’, Working paper No. 23, Cognitive Anthropology Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Enfield, Nick J. & Asifa Majid & Miriam van Staden (2006) 'Cross-linguistic categorisation of the body: Introduction' (special issue of Language Sciences).
  11. "universal, In: Wiktionary". San Francisco, California: Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. May 28, 2014. Retrieved 2014-06-04.
  12. Irving M. Copi (1955). Introduction to Logic. New York: The MacMillan Company. p. 472. |access-date= requires |url= (help)

External links[edit]