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Language Universals – approaches to their study.

Types of universals

Human communication relies on language. Every society or ethnic group in

the world uses languages. There are about 7000 different languages. Each one of
them possesses specific features and is unique. But does that mean that there are
about 7000 different language structures? Fortunately, linguistic typology
successfully deals with exploring and grouping languages in order to make it easier
this phenomenon to be deeply understood. Many linguists tried to answer the
fundamental question “what is a possible human language?” Answering it includes
dealing with a very delicate subject: typology and universals. These are more or less
similar to each other and, in other hand, inseparable. They are 2 paradigms which
complement each other in many insightful ways. They are different aspects of a
single research. The following paragraphs are to answer 2 basic questions
concerning language universals. First of them is “What are the types of
universals?” and the second one – “What are the approaches of their study?”
These approaches depend on the understanding of what a universal is.

I. Linguistics knows so far several types of universals. It is easier to remember

them by forming pairs wherever possible: formal vs. substantive, absolute vs. non-
absolute, implicational vs. non-implicational, semantic, phonological, syntactic,
morphological, pragmatic and interpersonal. An explanation and an example follow
for each one of the listed.


To begin with, the American linguist Noam Chomsky has a significant contribution
to the development of the concept “language universals”. He suggested that since
every human being has the language ability innately there is and has to be some
genetic bone that makes the phenomenon possible. His views are somehow focused
on the biological aspect of the issues. And he offers two types of universals which
serve his purposes: formal and substantive universals. The formal universals are
simply the rules of languages, the principles which operate it. They are directly
connected to the possible form a grammar can take. Substantive universals, on their
behalf, describe any mental object which can universally be present in grammars, or
at least if not used, available. To put it another way, substantive universals are like
building blocks which “fill” the language: the vocabulary.


Sometimes, there could be a fact that is valid for each and every language in the
world. Linguists call this an absolute universal. Example: all languages have at
least 2 vowels. And when a particular feature can be found in many or almost all, or
most languages, we have a non-absolute universal (also known as near-absolute
or tendency). Example: most languages have nasal phones.

Some universals are stated without the need of any references to any other
properties of the different languages. They do not require another property of the
language in order to exist as universals. Example: all languages have nouns, verbs
and objects which will be used to form a sentence in one way or another. These
universals are called non-implicational and they are usually like general facts
which are valid for each and every language. On the contrary, there is a type of
universals which are based on some kind of logical connection between two other
universals (no matter if these universals are absolute or non-absolute). These are
the implicational universals. Their formula is: if a language has A, it also has B. It is
very important both parts of the formula to represent either absolute universals or
non-absolute universals. Mixtures within the implicational universals are incorrect.


When we are talking about universals in phonology we begin with the fact that a
language must have at least two vowels. We could go one step further and
hypothesise that if there are only three vowels in a language, they must be the
three cardinal vowels in greatest opposition to each other => /a/ and /u/ or /i/, which
according to Kelz (1976) is the case in Guarani. If there are four, either /e/ or /o/ will
be added; if five, they will be /i, a, u, e, o/, which is the case in Spanish.

A tendency in morphology is that most languages prefer the use of suffixes,

followed by the use of prefixes, next infixes and finally circumfixes.

Berlin and Kay (1969) examined a large number of languages and found a
remarkable regularity in the distribution of basic colour terms all over the world. This
has to do with semantics and the following example is known as “Sequential order
of colour terms” or “The colour theory”. All languages have at least two basic colour
terms, i.e. those displaying the greatest attention such as “black” and “white” (or
“dark” and “light”). If a language has three terms, the third is “red”. If four or five,
they are either “yellow” or “green” or both. The sixth term is “blue”. The next
term is “brown” and subsequently we get four possibilities from either “purple”,
“pink”, “orange” or “grey”.

Greenberg’s results for 30 languages show that there is a tendency in the

preferred word order. 13 languages prefer SVO order, 11 – SOV order, 6 – VSO
order and then follow VOS and OVS orders. It is very important for us to make it
clear that when searching for language universals it is often more important what
languages we explore than how many we choose. If we focus on 100 similar
languages it is not very likely to get satisfactory results. But exploring 50 very
different languages can be really fruitful. Greenberg’s results define a significant
universal within syntax of languages and thus prove that even our differences in
the way we think, speak and live are not that big.

EXAMPLESof possible combinations of absolute/non-absolute & implicational/non-

implicational universals:

Absolute non-implicational universals:

All languages have syllables, consonants and vowels.

All languages have at least one stop phone.

All languages have lexical words and distributional words (minimal free forms).

All languages distinguish between grammatical units of at least three sizes, word,
phrase and clause.

Non-absolute non-implicational universals:

Most languages have CV (consonant vowel) syllables.

Most languages have nasal phones.

Most languages have an alveolar stop, and most have the high front vowel.

In most languages a part-of-speech distinction can be drawn between nouns and


Absolute implicational universals:

If a language has phonemic mid-vowels it has phonemic high vowels.

If a language has voiceless nasals it also has voiced nasals.

If a language distinguishes dual number (a grammatical category indicating “two”)

in pronouns it also distinguishes plural number.

Non-absolute implicational universals:

If a language has phonemic affricates, it usually has phonemic fricatives as well.

If one of two number categories is marked by an affix to a noun, it tends to be the


If a language has front rounded vowel phones, it will usually have front spread and
back rounded vowels.

II. Since we discussed some of the basic language universals it is important

to figure out how they are explored. There are many different approaches but we
are going to have a look at the two fundamental ones: Chomskyan and


At the most superficial level the term universals reminds us that all human
languages use the same stock of elements: consonants, vowels, nouns, verbs, and
clauses and so on. There is some variation from language to language: all languages
have consonants only some have fricatives (such as "f" and "v" in English.); all of
them use nouns and verbs, only some of them have articles, adjectives, or
classifiers… Chomsky’s universals are common to all human beings in the initial
state of the language in the human mind. He takes “universal grammar*” to be a
study of the biologically necessity. For him studying a single language is sufficient
to abstract from the data the underlying universal. One ethnic language for him is
an exemplar (pattern) indicative of the PROPERTIES of LANGUGE.


According to J. Greenberg the term "language universals" refers to the general

principles that govern all the spoken languages around the world. These can be
attested only after detailed analysis of a large number of the languages spoken
around the world. We can draw conclusions about universal phenomena and
tendencies only on the basis of statistical data. He thinks that these are the most
important reasons universals to be so important:

1. Universals state what is possible in human language and what is not.

2. They help us to understand the characteristic of the human brain relevant to the
functioning of language and principles that govern interpersonal communication in
all cultures.
3. They help us to understand what in the human brain and social organization of
everyday life enables people to communicate through language.


Modern linguistics know several types of language universals. Some of them

are: formal, substantive, absolute, non-absolute, implicational, non-
implicational, semantic, phonological, syntactic, morphological, pragmatic
and interpersonal. Each one of these universals sheds light on a specific aspect of
human languages by showing where the different languages (cultures) cross. There
are 2 basic approaches – Chomskyan and Greenbergian. Chomsky perceives the
universals more like some biological similarity of all human beings. His approach is
based on studying a single language in order to find which these similarities are.
That raises the degree of abstraction. On the contrary, Greenberg is convinced
that analysing is the key for finding language universals. He trusts the information
provided not by a single language, but by the data of exploring as many
languages as possible. There the degree of abstraction is lower. He also suggests
that different universals must have different explanations.
* Universal Grammar - the grammatical properties shared by all human
languages. The general idea is that a child is equipped with a set of
blueprints that define and limit what a human language can be like. This idea
is first developed by the American linguist Noam Chomsky in the 1960s.

**Greenbergian approach - with him are also Comrie and Croft.




Key Concepts of language and linguistics

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Elly Zareva