Although a considerable amount of languages around the world seem to have nothing in common with each other on the surface, the majority of linguists propose that all languages share certain universal principles. These principles are a set of rules referred to as a Universal Grammar. It is true that the formation of sentences in Hungarian (an agglutinative language) seems to have very little, if anything in common with the formation of sentences in Farsi (Modern Persian, a fusional language)). It is also true that Chinese verbs are not conjugated (inflected for tense, number, etc.), whereas Italian verbs have six conjugations. However, the fact that these four languages all adhere to some type of sentence structure formation and use verbs shows that at a basic level, they all share certain characteristics.
General Universal Principles
There are many features that the languages of the world seem to share. Some are more basic, such as the notion of ‘sentence’ or ‘verb,’ some are more complex, such as Wh- movement (content question formation). And not all of these characteristics are observable to the same extent. The rules which all languages have in common, with either very few, or no exceptions are called absolute universals. Consider the following statements.
· All languages are equipped with the grammatical structures needed to give orders, negate a thought, and ask a question.
· All languages use verbs which can be interpreted as occurring in the past, present, or future.
· All languages possess a finite set of phonemes (sounds) including vowels and consonants, that are strung together to form syllables, and words.
· All languages share the basic categories of words, such as nouns, verbs, description words, relative clauses, and a method for counting.
· All languages use pronouns.
· All languages include any blend of or subcategory of the basis five colors: red, blue, yellow, black and white. Did you know that that the colors red, white, and black are included in every language?
Those linguistic features that are shared by many but not all languages are referred to relative universals or universal tendencies. These include the fact that most languages have nasal stops, however several do not. Or that phonemic inventories of most languages include nasality and the voicing of obstruents. Syllables are constructed of various combinations of vowels and consonants, with the vowel being in the nucleus in most languages (however some permit consonants in the nucleus, such as Berber). Most languages have a category for adjectives however Blackfoot (an American Indian language) uses a stative verb “to be…” to describe nouns.
Another type of universal is implicational. This means that the presence of X in a language implies the presence of Y. For instance, according to Greenberg, languages that have gender categories for nouns will also have gender categories for pronouns. And if a language has gender categories, it will also have number categories.
These universal principles help linguists to not only understand the nature of all languages as well as specific languages, but also shed light on the nature of how humans acquire and use language.
Chomsky, N. (1988). Language and problems of knowledge. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Glougie, Jennifer R.S. 2000. “Topics in the syntax and semantics of Blackfoot quantifiers
and nominals.” MA thesis, University of British Columbia
Greenberg “Some Universals of Grammar with Particular Reference to the Order of Meaningful Elements,” Universals of Language, London: MIT Press, pp. 110-113.
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