5 Real Linguistic Universals About Language

Linguistic Universals Understanding is very important job of every language student.Properties which are universal to all languages are appreciated by every linguist.We will discuss universal linguistic propeties in language in this article.


Most linguists believe that language is a modular system. That is, people produce and interpret language using a set of component subsystems (or modules) in a coordinated way. Each module is responsible for a part of the total job; it takes the output of other modules as its input and distributes its own output to those other modules. Neurolinguistic studies show that different regions of the brain are associated with different aspects of language processing and, as the following chapters show, dividing language into modules facilitates linguistic analyses greatly.

5 Real Linguistic Universals About Language

Some modules have been central to linguistics for a long time.Phonetics is about production and interpretation of speech sounds. Phonology studies the organization of raw phonetics in language in general and in individual languages in particular. Larger linguistic units are the domain of morphology, the study of structure within words – and of syntax, the study of the structure of sentences. Interacting with these modules is the lexicon, the repository of linguistic elements with their meanings and structural properties.

In recent decades, philosophers have developed the formal study of semantics (the detailed analysis of literal meaning), and linguistics has incorporated and added to semantics as another module of language. Still more recently, discourse – organization of language above and beyond the sentence – has been recognized by most linguists as another important subsystem of language.

Constituency and Recursion

All languages are organized into constituents, allowing more complex units to enter structures where simpler ones are also possible. So we can say in English, “She sat down,” “The smart woman sat down,” “The tall, dark-haired, smart woman with the bright red sweater and pearl necklace sat down.” Being composed of constituents gives language a balance of structure and flexibility. Constituents can be replaced by other constituents, but you can’t replace a constituent with a series of words that is not a constituent.So you can’t replace she with smart with the bright red sweater (“Smart with the bright red sweater sat down” doesn’t work).

Linguistic Universals Facts You Must Know

Constituents can be moved, but you can only move a complete constituent. She is very smart is possible and  so is Very smart, she is, but not Smart, she is very. Being composed of constituents also allows languages to be recursive. Recursion is the property of language which allows grammatical processes to be applied repeatedly, combining constituents to produce an infinite variety of sentences of indefinite length. Recursion is what allows someone to expand a short sentence like:He was tall into longer sentences like He was tall and strong and handsome and thoughtful and a good listener and . . or to embed clauses, as in This is the mouse that nibbled the cheese that lay in the house that Jack built.

The reclusiveness’ of language has profound implications. It means that no one can learn a language by memorizing all the sentences of that language, so there must be some other explanation for how human beings are able to learn them. The human brain is finite, but reclusiveness’ means that it is capable of producing and understanding an infinite number of sentences.

Another property of all languages is discreteness. The range of sounds that human beings can make is continuous, like a slide whistle. For example, you can slide from a high “long e” sound (as in feed) all the way down to a low “short a” sound (as in bat) and then slide back to a “long o” sound (as in poke) – all in one continuous glide. But all languages divide that continuous space of sound into discrete, incremental territories, just as most western music divides the continuous range of pitch into discrete steps in a scale. Sounds that are discrete in one language may not be discrete in another. In English, for example, we distinguish “short a” from “short e,” so that pat and pet are different words.

The same is not true in German, so German speakers have trouble hearing any difference between pet and pat. At the same time, German has a vowel that is like the English “long a,” but with rounded lips, spelled ö and called “o-umlaut.” The distinction between the vowel that is like English “long a” and this rounded vowel is responsible for the meaning difference between Sehne (‘tendon’) and Söhne (‘sons’).This distinction is as easy for German speakers as the pet and pat distinction is for English speakers, but it is hard for English speakers. Precisely what is discrete varies from one language to another, but all languages have the property of discreteness.

Discreteness also shows itself in other modules of language, for example, meaning. The color spectrum is a clear example. Color variation is a continuum – red shades through red-orange to orange to yellow-orange to
yellow and so on through the spectrum. But all languages divide the color spectrum into discrete categories, although languages differ in how they divide those continua into words. In some languages there are only
two basic color terms, roughly meaning ‘light’ and ‘dark;’ others add red, yellow, and green, whereas still others, including English, have developed words for many more colors.

Language is composed of separate sounds, words, sentences and other utterance units. The fact that we hear speech as a sequence of individual sounds sounds, words, and sentences is actually an incredible accomplishment (and all the more incredible for how instantaneously and unconsciously we do it). Acoustically sounds and words blend into each other. (If you have tried to learn a second language as an adult, you know how hard it can be to separate words spoken at a normal conversational pace.)Remarkably, babies only a few weeks old are able to distinguish even even closely related sounds in the language of their home from each other and to distinguish the sounds that belong to the language they are learning from the sounds in other languages at a very early age. Furthermore, children in the first year or two of life learn to pick out words from the stream of speech with no instruction.

Another key feature of language is productivity. When people hear a word for the first time, they often ask, “Is that a word?” If they ask a linguist, the answer is likely to be, “It is now.” If the novel word is formed according to the morphological and phonological rules of its language and it is understandable in context, it is a bona fide word, even if it’s not found in a dictionary. Languages can systematically combine the minimal units of meaning, called morphemes, into novel words, whose meaning is nonetheless deducible from the interaction of its morphemic components. Imagine each speaker in the world coining just one new word, and you’ll have some idea of just how productive a language can be. Most of these spontaneous coining – inspired by a particular context – are not
used frequently enough to ever make it into a dictionary, but some coinings do become part of the lexicon because they meet a new need. Productivity is one way in which languages change to meet the changing
communicative needs of their speakers.

The productivity of languages derives, in large part, from the fact that they are organized around a finite set of principles which systematically constrain the ways in which sounds, morphemes, words, phrases, and sentences may be combined. A native speaker of a language unconsciously “knows” these principles and can use them to produce and interpret an infinite variety of utterances. Another fundamental property of language is its arbitrariness. With few exceptions, words have no principled or systematic connection with what they mean. In English, the first three numbers are one, two, three – but in Chinese they are yi, er, san. Neither language has the “right” word for the numerals or for anything else, because there is no such thing. Even onomatopoetic words for
sounds, like ding-dong and click, that are supposed to sound like the noise they name, actually vary from language to language.

Do You Know Linguistic Universals Is important Part of Every Language

Arbitrariness is a property of sign languages as well as spoken language. Some visual signs in sign languages are iconic – they look like what they mean – but most signs give not the slightest clue to their meaning. It’s important to remember that arbitrariness doesn’t mean randomness. It means that, for example, the sounds that one language uses and the principles by which they are combined are inherently no better or worse than those of any another language. Likewise, it means that the principles of one language for arranging words are inherently no better or worse than those of another.

Reliance on context
A corollary of arbitrariness – of association between sound sequences and meanings or in the order of words in phrases – is duality. Because there is nothing about the pronunciation of the word one (transcribed phonetically –
as it sounds – it would be [wn]) that necessarily associates it with the Reliance on context is a crucial property of languages, not just in figuring out the meaning of words like one and won, but in interpreting the meaning of entire utterances.

The meaning of a sentence depends crucially on the context in which it is uttered. That context could be the sentence or sentences that immediately precede it, or it could be the broader physical or social circumstances in which the sentence it uttered.

 If someone says “One,” the meaning of that utterance is only clear in the context of a preceding utterance – for example, “Do you want one lump of sugar or two?” Similarly, “It’s cold in here” could be a complaint, a request to close a window, or even a compliment (about a freezer, perhaps). Who or what a given pronoun (like she, it, us, or them) refers to may rely on prior sentences or the immediate physical environment. Languages rely on the connection between form (what is said) and context (when, where, by whom, and to whom it is said) to communicate much more than is contained in a sequence of words.


Although all languages share some universal characteristics, languages also differ in many ways. The language that people use varies depending on who’s speaking and the situation in which they’re speaking. In fact, variability is one of the most important – and admirable – properties of language. Variation (also known as difference and diversity) is the essence of information. Without variation in light frequencies there would be no sight; without variation in sound frequencies, there would be no language and no music. (And as we are beginning to realize, without a certain minimum level of genetic diversity, our ecosystem is threatened.) Variability in language allows people to communicate far more than the semantic content of the words and sentences they utter. The variability of language is indexical. Speakers vary the language they use to signal their social identities (geographical, social status, ethnicity, and even gender), and also to define the immediate speech situation.

People also use language variation to communicate the situation and purpose in which they are talking, as well as the roles they are playing in those situations. A priest uses different forms of language during a sermon than during the social hour after a church service, playing different roles (and projecting different roles on the churchgoers he addresses). At work, people speak differently to subordinates than to superiors, and differently during coffee breaks than in meetings. Parents speak differently to their children than to other adults (or even to other people’s children). The language used in writing typically differs from the language used in speaking, reflecting and communicating the different conditions under which language is produced and its various purposes.

by Abdullah Sam
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