What Do All Languages Have in Common?

Language and how it came to be is a subject of intense study and research. How did language evolve? Why do some languages die out while others rise to prominence? There are an estimated 7000 languages globally, each one as complex and rich as the next. Despite a multitude of differences, the concept of universality across languages has always intrigued language enthusiasts.

With the sheer number of languages and dialects spoken the world over, uncovering the universals in each is a tall ask. Linguists and scientists have nonetheless made attempts and conceptualized various ideas of what these universals could be.

In the early 1950s, Noam Chomsky proposed the Universal Grammar theory to look at how familiar grammatical structures, even in unfamiliar languages, can indicate speakers to its meaning. The theory suggests that there are universal grammatical rules that apply to all languages. It also proposes that humans have the innate ability to process language basis these rules.

Chomsky’s theory would chart the course of linguistics for years to come. With time, most linguists would change their school of thought. Despite copious amounts of data, mapping the intrinsic structure of language proved immensely complex. Linguists could only scratch the surface in deciphering English itself, even after decades of study.

Perhaps one of the loopholes in the theory was its emphasis on using Euro-centric languages as a base. Since European languages evolved from a common ancestor, their grammars contained several overlapping elements.

As linguists gathered data on several world languages, clear and glaring inconsistencies in the Universal Grammar theory emerged. These unfamiliar languages had nothing in common with European languages. They appeared to defy every established notion of syntax and grammar. Chomsky’s position that there is a specific, innate language faculty in the brain was seemingly incorrect.

Universality is an elusive concept, even at the level of phenomes (sound). All languages should have small units of sound that combined, form syllables and words. But what of sign language that does not make use of any sound at all?

The Universal Grammar theory could not achieve what it set out to do, but it had unintended consequences. It re-evaluated established linguistic theories and prompted a further study of the human brain. Moreover, it sparked curiosity about different cultures in the attempt to discover what connects each of us.

Linguists today posit that despite numerous differences between languages, all human languages have some universal properties – some at the phonological levels while others at more complex levels such as morphology and syntax. All languages, for instance, contain consonants and vowels or have clear distinctions between nouns and verbs.

The universal truth – all languages have a specific way of forming words, turning words into sentences, and systems that assign meaning. It holds even for oral languages or those without any sound, like sign language. With increasing discoveries of new people and languages, there is no saying how these universals will evolve in the future.

Regardless of the context, we can rely on certain truths. Languages are fascinating endless variables that evolve, each with its grammar and sound systems. At their most fundamental, what languages have in common is a shared mental system that enables people to communicate and convey meaning.