Linguistic universal
A linguistic universal is a pattern that occurs systematically across natural language
Natural language
In the philosophy of language, a natural language is any language which arises in an unpremeditated fashion as the result of the innate facility for language possessed by the human intellect. A natural language is typically used for communication, and may be spoken, signed, or written...

s, potentially true for all of them. For example, All languages have noun
In linguistics, a noun is a member of a large, open lexical category whose members can occur as the main word in the subject of a clause, the object of a verb, or the object of a preposition .Lexical categories are defined in terms of how their members combine with other kinds of...

s and verbs,
or If a language is spoken, it has consonant
In articulatory phonetics, a consonant is a speech sound that is articulated with complete or partial closure of the vocal tract. Examples are , pronounced with the lips; , pronounced with the front of the tongue; , pronounced with the back of the tongue; , pronounced in the throat; and ,...

s and vowel
In phonetics, a vowel is a sound in spoken language, such as English ah! or oh! , pronounced with an open vocal tract so that there is no build-up of air pressure at any point above the glottis. This contrasts with consonants, such as English sh! , where there is a constriction or closure at some...

Research in this area of linguistics
Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. Linguistics can be broadly broken into three categories or subfields of study: language form, language meaning, and language in context....

 is closely tied to the study of linguistic typology
Linguistic typology
Linguistic typology is a subfield of linguistics that studies and classifies languages according to their structural features. Its aim is to describe and explain the common properties and the structural diversity of the world's languages...

, and intends to reveal generalizations across languages, likely tied to cognition
In science, cognition refers to mental processes. These processes include attention, remembering, producing and understanding language, solving problems, and making decisions. Cognition is studied in various disciplines such as psychology, philosophy, linguistics, and computer science...

, perception
Perception is the process of attaining awareness or understanding of the environment by organizing and interpreting sensory information. All perception involves signals in the nervous system, which in turn result from physical stimulation of the sense organs...

, or other abilities of the mind. The field was largely pioneered by the linguist Joseph Greenberg
Joseph Greenberg
Joseph Harold Greenberg was a prominent and controversial American linguist, principally known for his work in two areas, linguistic typology and the genetic classification of languages.- Early life and career :...

, who derived a set of forty-five basic universals, mostly dealing with syntax
In linguistics, syntax is the study of the principles and rules for constructing phrases and sentences in natural languages....

 (see the list), from a study of some thirty languages.


Linguists distinguish between two kinds of universals: absolute (opposite: statistical, often called tendencies) and implicational (opposite non-implicational). Absolute universals apply to every known language and are quite few in number; an example is All languages have pronoun
In linguistics and grammar, a pronoun is a pro-form that substitutes for a noun , such as, in English, the words it and he...

. An implicational universal applies to languages with a particular feature that is always accompanied by another feature, such as If a language has trial grammatical number, it also has dual grammatical number, while non-implicational universals just state the existence (or non-existence) of one particular feature.

Also in contrast to absolute universals are tendencies, statements that may not be true for all languages, but nevertheless are far too common to be the result of chance. They also have implicational and non-implicational forms. An example of the latter would be The vast majority of languages have nasal consonant
Nasal consonant
A nasal consonant is a type of consonant produced with a lowered velum in the mouth, allowing air to escape freely through the nose. Examples of nasal consonants in English are and , in words such as nose and mouth.- Definition :...

. However, most tendencies, like their universal counterparts, are implicational. For example, With overwhelmingly-greater-than-chance frequency, languages with normal SOV order are postpositional. Strictly speaking, a tendency is not a kind of universal, but exceptions to most statements called universals can be found. For example, Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

 is an SOV language with prepositions. Often it turns out that these exceptional languages are undergoing a shift from one type of language to another. In the case of Latin, its descendant Romance languages
Romance languages
The Romance languages are a branch of the Indo-European language family, more precisely of the Italic languages subfamily, comprising all the languages that descend from Vulgar Latin, the language of ancient Rome...

 switched to SVO, which is a much more common order among prepositional languages.

Universals may also be bidirectional or unidirectional. In a bidirectional universal two features each imply the existence of each other. For example, languages with postpositions usually have SOV order, and likewise SOV languages usually have postpositions. The implication works both ways, and thus the universal is bidirectional. By contrast, in a unidirectional universal the implication works only one way. Languages that place relative clause
Relative clause
A relative clause is a subordinate clause that modifies a noun phrase, most commonly a noun. For example, the phrase "the man who wasn't there" contains the noun man, which is modified by the relative clause who wasn't there...

s before the noun they modify again usually have SOV order, so pre-nominal relative clauses imply SOV. On the other hand, SOV languages worldwide show little preference for pre-nominal relative clauses, and thus SOV implies little about the order of relative clauses. As the implication works only one way, the proposed universal is a unidirectional one.

Linguistic universals in syntax are sometimes held up as evidence for universal grammar
Universal grammar
Universal grammar is a theory in linguistics that suggests that there are properties that all possible natural human languages have.Usually credited to Noam Chomsky, the theory suggests that some rules of grammar are hard-wired into the brain, and manifest themselves without being taught...

 (although epistemological arguments are more common). Other explanations for linguistic universals have been proposed, for example, that linguistic universals tend to be properties of language that aid communication. If a language were to lack one of these properties, it has been argued, it would probably soon evolve into a language having that property.

Michael Halliday
Michael Halliday
Michael Alexander Kirkwood Halliday is a British linguist who developed an internationally influential model of language, the systemic functional linguistic model. His grammatical descriptions go by the name of systemic functional grammar .-Biography:Halliday was born and raised in England...

 has argued for a distinction between descriptive and theoretical categories in resolving the matter of the existence of linguistic universals, a distinction he takes from J.R. Firth and Louis Hjelmslev
Louis Hjelmslev
Louis Hjelmslev was a Danish linguist whose ideas formed the basis of the Copenhagen School of linguistics. Born into an academic family , Hjelmslev studied comparative linguistics in Copenhagen, Prague and Paris...

. He argues that "theoretical categories, and their inter-relations construe an abstract model of language...; they are interlocking and mutually defining". Descriptive categories, by contrast, are those set up to describe particular languages. He argues that "When people ask about "universals", they usually mean descriptive categories that are assumed to be found in all languages. The problem is there is no mechanism for deciding how much alike descriptive categories from different languages have to be before they are said to be "the same thing"

In semantics

In the domain of semantics
Semantics is the study of meaning. It focuses on the relation between signifiers, such as words, phrases, signs and symbols, and what they stand for, their denotata....

, research into linguistic universals has taken place in a number of ways. Some linguists, starting with Leibniz
Gottfried Leibniz
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was a German philosopher and mathematician. He wrote in different languages, primarily in Latin , French and German ....

, have pursued the search for a hypothetic irreducible semantic core of all languages. A modern variant of this approach can be found in the Natural Semantic Metalanguage
Natural semantic metalanguage
The Natural semantic metalanguage is a linguistic theory and a practical, meaning-based approach to linguistic analysis. The theory is based on the conception of Polish professor Andrzej Bogusławski...

 of Wierzbicka
Anna Wierzbicka
Anna Wierzbicka is a linguist at the Australian National University. She also lectures at Warsaw University and Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin, Poland. She studied at Warsaw University. From 1972 she moved from Poland to Australia.Wierzbicka is famous for her work in semantics,...

 and associates. Other lines of research suggest cross-linguistic tendencies to use body part terms metaphorically as adposition
Prepositions are a grammatically distinct class of words whose most central members characteristically express spatial relations or serve to mark various syntactic functions and semantic roles...

s, or tendencies to have morphologically simple words for cognitively salient concepts. The human body, being a physiological universal, provides an ideal domain for research into semantic and lexical universals. In a seminal study, Cecil H. Brown (1976) proposed a number of universals in the semantics of body part terminology, including the following: in any language, there will be distinct terms for BODY, HEAD, ARM, EYES, NOSE, and MOUTH; if there is a distinct term for FOOT, there will be a distinct term for HAND; similarly, if there are terms for INDIVIDUAL TOES, then there are terms for INDIVIDUAL FINGERS. Subsequent research has shown that most of these features have to be considered cross-linguistic tendencies rather than true universals. Several languages, for example Tidore
Tidore language
Tidore of eastern Indonesia is a language centered on the island of Tidore but also spoken in neighboring Halmahera. A Papuan language, it is unlike most languages in Indonesia which belong to the Austronesian language family. It, and the similar Ternate language, appear to be related to languages...

 and Kuuk Thaayorre
Kuuk Thaayorre language
Kuuk Thaayorre is a Paman language spoken in the settlement Pormpuraaw on the western part of the Cape York Peninsula, Queensland in Australia by the Thaayorre people. As of 2006, 250 of the 350 ethnic Thaayorre speak the language...

, lack a general term meaning 'body'. On the basis of such data it has been argued that the highest level in the partonomy
Partonomy is a classification based on part-of relation. This is not the same as taxonomy, because that is a classification based on similarities....

of body part terms would be the word for 'person'.

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