Do we all share a universal language?

Research carried out at Cornell’s Cognitive Neuroscience Lab in the United States seems to support the idea that humans have much more in common than is sometimes realised. We tend to focus on the things that make us appear different from each other much more than the things we all share. One of the most obvious of the things we share is language, and even though we use thousands of different languages, it just might be that they are basically all much the same. 

Lots of languages are clearly similar

Now it’s no surprise that many languages share some common elements, and that’s a great help for anyone trying to learn a new language. It doesn’t take long to realise that with many languages there are dozens, maybe even hundreds, of similar words and sounds to the ones we’re used to. In fact, whole groups of languages share similarities; the romance languages for example (spoken mainly in Europe and the Americas), all stem from Latin and you don’t have to dig very deep to come across the foundational elements that the languages are built on.

But the study at Cornell suggests that people worldwide may actually be speaking what is basically the same language, although with regional variations of course (rather like different areas in a country sharing the same language but having their own recognisable accents). Researchers looked into commonly used words in literally thousands of languages and found that they very often share the same sounds. And it doesn’t seem to matter where the languages originated, or how long ago. There seems to be something universal about language, although nobody is really clear just yet how this comes about.

Dr Morten Christiansen is a professor of psychology and director of Cornell’s Cognitive Neuroscience Lab. He says

“These sound symbolic patterns show up again and again across the world, independent of the geographical dispersal of humans and independent of language lineage.

“There does seem to be something about the human condition that leads to these patterns. We don’t know what it is, but we know it’s there.”

The more basic the word, the more common to every language

new words - language learningThe study found that the word for nose, for example, often includes the ‘neh’ sound, or the ‘oo’ sound (as in ‘ooze’). And incidentally, most of the words that seem to share a commonality in terms of sounds seem to be very basic words, i.e. they are names of parts of the body, or names of domestic animals, or things that all humans experience almost every day, such as ‘water’. Whiskey (or whisky in Scotland), and vodka (Russian), both come directly from the word for water. The associations between the basic sounds of words for parts of the body seem to be particularly strong. And that’s no surprise really, when you consider that you can’t get much closer to us than our own bodies.

They also found that certain words, specially pronouns, are unlikely to use certain sounds (e.g. words for ‘I’ are unlikely to include sounds involving u, p, b, t, s, r and l, and words for ‘you’ are unlikely to include sounds involving u, o, p, t, d, q, s, r and l). The team included linguists, physicists and computer scientists from the US, Argentina, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland, and they examined between 40 and 100 common words in about 3,700 languages (which is about 60% of the langages currently in use worldwide).

Is it due to the first sounds we make?

Although they found a great deal of similarity in the sounds used in basic vocabulary words, they don’t know why these same sounds are used all over the world, and in virtually all languages and cultures. One theory is that the simplest sounds we make as children become the simplest words, e.g. the ma-ma-ma sound and the da-da-da sound become mum, mom, mummy, da, dad, dadda, daddy, and so on. And there might be some sort of basic connection between certain things and certain sounds in the human brain. For example, it has been shown that words for objects that are small or spiky tend to include high pitched sounds, while those for larger and rounder objects more often contain what we think of as ’rounder’ or ‘softer’ sounds, such as ‘oo’.

my nose - language learningSo how come people from different parts of the world come up with so many striking similarities in the words they use? Is it due to something in the human brain that just ‘knows’ how a certain thing should be expressed? Or is it, like in the case of the spiky and  round objects, that the brain just naturally finds itself describing them in certain specific ways? The answer is out there somewhere, but researchers haven’t found it yet.

There isn’t universal support for the findings of this research, although it is tempting to accept them as correct. Dr Lynne Cahill, a lecturer in English Language and Linguistics at the University of Sussex says

“You could argue that the words chosen here are very old and therefore most likely to have a common ancestor language in the past, from which they all derived. I think this is an interesting study which has looked at so many languages but I don’t think it quite justifies their claim that it debunks the idea that language is arbitrary, and I think they looked at too few words to make any firm conclusions.”

Which seems like a reasonable and circumspect way of looking at it. The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

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