Basic universals

I have long been intrigued by language universals – those characteristics that all human languages must share. It is a great puzzle that although we instinctively ‘know’ what human language is, it is surprisingly difficult to nail down concrete, incontrovertible universals. Naively, one might assume that it would be easy to state such apparent truisms as ‘all languages have nouns and verbs’, but this is more problematic than one might believe (cf. Croft, Tomasello). Nevertheless, if we hear people chatting in an unfamiliar foreign tongue on a train, although we cannot understand what they are saying, we sense they are using a human language like ours in a way that we do not with the whistles of dolphins, songs of birds or dances of bees. And the fact that, with sufficient exposure, any human child can learn any human language provides ample and repeated proof of the universals that must be present. It is astonishing that human languages can appear outwardly so different in their sounds, grammar and vocabulary, yet any human child can learn any human language without instruction. Why, then, cannot linguistics identify a full spectrum of universals when informally we can easily recognise the commonality of language and learning language is child’s play?

A few years ago, I met Joseph Greenberg at Stanford University, as I was interested in his work on pronouns. Professor Greenberg was a person of great knowledge and intellect. He wrote in his seminal study on universals that ‘we would prefer to have as few universals as possible … to deduce them from as small a number of general principles as possible’, but his ‘universals of grammar with particular reference to the order of meaningful elements’ was able to list few if any absolute universals. This was a highly significant negative finding.

However, one obvious and rudimentary universal we can recognise in Greenberg’s study is combination to make meaning. Different languages may have different patterns of combination, but all have combination to make meaning. This simple universal gives enormous power and precision to human language. Its appearance in various guises in diverse theories shows it to be basic and overarching. It has been put forward by Chomsky as ‘Merge’, by Jackendoff as ‘Unification’, and is a more universal mechanism than the narrow syntactic recursion proposed by Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch. It is the process combining phonemes to make meaningful units. It is the cognitive process underlying chunking (Bybee) and analogy (Fauconnier and Turner). It includes hierarchical and long-distance relationships. It enables discourse. And is it the mechanism linking the linguistic and extralinguistic – most fundamentally, it is the ability that enables us to link a concept in our head to something outside ourselves, symbolically, with our human interlocutor, i.e. combination enables reference.

Significantly, if we look at communication outside humans we find that this apparently simple ability is far from so. In contrast, it is observed in children early on – a child’s instinct to combine may be evidenced in reduplication, and children combine words meaningfully already from around 18 months.

I am currently working on how humans communicate ‘yes’ and ‘no’.


Work in progress

Howe, Stephen (2012) ‘A re-examination of Greenberg’s universals’, Fukuoka University Review of Literature and Humanities, vol. XLIV, no. I, pp. 209–253.

Howe, Stephen (2014a) ‘Language variation and change: What varies and what never changes’, Paper presented at the Language Variation and Change Research Forum, Kyushu University, May 2014.

Howe, Stephen (2015b) ‘Are “yes” and “no” universal?’, Paper presented at the Language Variation and Change Research Forum, Fukuoka University, 30 May 2015.

Howe, Stephen (2015d) ‘The origin and meaning of “yes” and “no”’, Invited talk, Fukuoka Linguistic Circle, Fukuoka University, Japan, 18 July 2015.

The starting point of this presentation is the forms for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in my home dialect of East Anglian English. In this dialect, unemphatic forms for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are, as in much of English, yeah and no. However, emphatic forms are jearse and dow; neither is recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary or the Survey of English Dialects. The paper will suggest a possible origin of these forms. The presentation then examines the origin and meaning of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ particles in language more generally. It asks how languages express ‘yes’ and ‘no’, what ‘yes’ and ‘no’ stand for, and whether ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are universal. It also examines the well-known difference between English and Japanese and other languages in answering negative questions (such as Don’t you love me anymore?), where ‘yes’ in one language corresponds to ‘no’ in another. Finally, I will discuss paralinguistic ‘yes’ and ‘no’ (as in English uh-huh, uh-uh, Japanese un, uun) and ‘yes’ and ‘no’ gestures, also asking whether these are universal. The presentation will conclude by suggesting a possible origin of forms for ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

Howe, Stephen (in preparation) ‘Pirahã and the red herring’.

Howe, Stephen (in preparation) ‘Revisiting Hockett’s duality of patterning’.

Howe, Stephen (in preparation) ‘Language variation and change: What varies and what never changes’.