Language is arguably the most significant tool for human communication. It is an essential aspect of everyday life that is embedded in every culture across the world. Every language is unique in its characteristics and features, yet some similarities exist, and these similarities are what make language universal. Language universals are the common linguistic features shared among languages across the world. They are patterns of structure and behavior found in all languages regardless of location, culture, or environment.
Defining Language Universals
Language universals are patterns, principles, or rules that are common among all languages. These patterns can be seen in various aspects of language such as sound, grammar, syntax, and morphology. According to chomsky (1988), essential features of language, such as structure-dependency and recursion, are universal, and this makes them part of our genetic makeup.
Language universals result from shared cognitive abilities among humans that allow us to acquire language. This means that no matter the language we learn, humans possess the innate ability to understand and acquire the language’s rules and structures. For instance, all languages have grammatical categories, such as nouns, verbs, adjectives, and prepositions, even if the categories’ make-up differs.
Examples Of Language Universals
Phonology is an aspect of language that is universal: that is, all languages have distinct sound systems. Every language has specific sounds that structure the language, and languages may vary in number and pronunciation of sounds. For instance, mandarin has four tones that use different pitch patterns to differentiate words, whereas english uses intonation to communicate varying degrees of emphasis and meaning. Words in every language also have a specific sound order that follows specific rules. These rules determine the order that sounds occur in words and which sounds follow one another, such as syllable structure and phonotactics.
All languages have some form of grammar, which is another example of a language universal. Grammar refers to the rules governing the structure of language, including sentence structure, parts of speech, and inflection. While the details of grammar may vary, all languages have nouns and verbs and all other essential grammatical categories. For example, the verb typically comes before the subject in english, while in mandarin, the subject comes before the verb.
Another example of a language universal includes iconicity, whereby the relationship between a word and its meaning is based on perceivable elements of the word’s structure. For instance, “thunder” and “lightning” are more intense and dramatic than “hum” and “flash,” and the intensity and drama of these words emulate the real-world phenomenon.
Significance Of Language Universals In Linguistics
The study of language universals is essential to linguistic theory. Linguists use these universals to study the underlying principles of language structure and the common characteristics among languages. Language universals are significant in that they allow linguists to identify the general principles behind language, which can be used to improve language learning and teaching methods.
Moreover, language universals have practical applications in the development of natural language processing systems. Nlp systems require accurate descriptions of language universals to work effectively. Understanding language universals can also facilitate cross-linguistic communication and help mitigate language barriers.
Specifics Of Language Universals In Linguistics
Linguists have classified language universals into two categories: absolute and statistical universals. Absolute universals are characteristics of language that occur in all known languages without exception, while statistical universals are features found in many, but not all, languages. Some specific examples of absolute universals include the fact that all languages use vowels and consonants to form words, and all words contain at least one vowel. In contrast, a statistical universal could be the phonemic difference between voiced and voiceless consonants.
Linguists have studied language universals by identifying patterns and principles that exist among different languages. They have approached this by examining language across typology and/or genealogy: typology is the grouping of languages that share particular structural features regardless of their ancestral relationship. Genealogy groups languages that share a common ancestor.
Theories About Language Universals
Many theories aim to explain language universals. One of these theories is the “innate” theory which suggests that all humans have an innate language capacity hardwired into our brains, making language acquisition possible. Another theory is the “evolutionary” theory, which suggests that the development of language is related to the evolution of humans. This theory holds that the establishment of language universals is related to the evolutionary process of humans and the capacity for language evolved due to natural selection.
Research On Language Universals
Linguists have conducted numerous studies on language universals to better understand their intricacies, principles, and how they shape language structure. The most notable of these studies is the world atlas of language structures (wals) project. Wals is a database created by anthropology at the max planck institute for evolutionary anthropology that catalogs information about more than 2,500 phonological, grammatical, and lexical features of 267 languages globally. The database provides a broad overview of language structure and enables linguists to identify language universals.
Critiques Of Language Universals
Not all scholars agree with the idea of language universals. Some argue that language universals are superficial and do not effectively account for the nuances of language structure and differences among languages. Others argue that language universals are oversimplified or not empirically grounded, and thus their validity is questionable.
Implications Of Language Universals For Language Learning
The study of language universals has significant implications for language learning. Understanding shared linguistic features can improve learners’ knowledge and comprehension of a new language and enable them to identify patterns and make connections. For instance, the principles of syntax and morphology apply regardless of the language, so a basic understanding of these features can help learners to acquire a new language quickly.
Language universals are patterns that exist in all known languages and have been significant in shaping linguistic theory and research. They provide a basis for understanding the underlying principles of language structure and can be used to improve language learning methods. Linguistic research is ongoing, and as we continue to study language, the concept of language universals will continue to evolve and become more nuanced.