The term language universal refers to those features or properties of language that are common to all languages. The notion that languages might share universal features creates a tension of sorts with conceptions of language, as developed by Boas and other early linguistic anthropologists, that held that languages (along with their respective cultures) were infinitely variable, that there were no constraints on the form a human language could take. This view was seriously challenged, in the second half of the 20th century, by the work of Chomsky and other linguists, and also by work on cultural universals carried out by anthropologists such as Berlin, Kay, and Brown. Universals can be found at all levels of language analysis, including phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics. However, it is important to note that some universals are more universal than others; universals may be absolute, implicational, or relative.
Features that are found in all languages, without exception, are called absolute universals. For example, all languages: make use of dual patterning (phonemes morphemes), have a low unrounded vowel similar to [a], have the principle of structure dependency, allow both yes-no and Wh- questions, allow for negation, have morphemes with the properties of nouns and verbs, and have pronouns for both first and second persons.
Implicational universals take the form of entailment propositions: if x is present, then y is also present. For example, if a language has a rounded front vowel, such as the [y] of French tu, it will also have the corresponding unrounded front vowel, in this case [i] as in dire. If a language has, like Japanese, subject-object-verb (SOV) word order, it will probably have post (rather than pre-) positions. If a language has a word denoting the color blue, it will also have words for green and yellow.
Relative universals refer to tendencies, features that most, but not all, languages have. For example, languages tend to have at least five vowels, but some, such as Aymara (Bolivia) have three. Most languages have nasal consonant sounds like [m] and [n], but Wichita (Native American language from western USA) does not. Similarly, languages tend to have pronouns for third person (she, he, they), but Latin does not.
All proposed language universals are hypotheses constructed from a sample of what is available; as hypotheses, they are always subject to falsification. For example, while it appears that all known languages had or have a vowel similar to [a], we could, in principle, come across a previously unknown language lacking that vowel. It could also be the case that languages that existed in the past, but that disappeared before any written or other record of them could be made, did not have a vowel similar to [a].
- Brown, D. (1991). Human universals. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
- Cook, V., & Newson, M. (1996). Chomsky’s universal grammar: An introduction New York: Blackwell.
- Croft, W. (1990). Typology and universals. Cambridge University Press.