Do Universal Words Exist? From evolution to cognates & iconicity


With a loose definition of the word universal, a number of words from many languages are almost universally understood.

We learn many words across multiple languages just to function as a society – a 6900 language strong society. Language has been a hallmark of the Human condition for at least 200,000 years (structured sounds) with crude precursors 27 million years ago (unique, deliberate sounds).

We aren’t the only ones with a language btw, dolphins have a pretty sophisticated language too. The acoustic pulses they emit may be like dolphin-words. And just like human babies, dolphin babies might be babbling their way to glory.

Think: Language must’ve evolved through natural selection – starting with senseless but consistent sounds and pointing at objects. We then formed simple grammar structures to communicate within our groups. At some point in time, we must’ve developed a large enough vocabulary to send meaningful deliberate acoustic signals to any other human with our mouths. Were any of those words universal? Are new universal words born out of human evolution? The answer is yes – there are several universal words and they have fascinating origin stories.

Let’s look at 6 categories of universal and pseudo-universal words.

  1. Words like “Ma” which denote maternal figures and mothers.
  2. Words like “Huh?” that had a convergent evolution in most languages.
  3. Words like “Boom” & “aaaaaargggh” which sound like what they mean.
  4. Words like “Xerox” that are genericized trademarks and are universally known.
  5. Words like “Taxi” that have spread through globalization
  6. Words like “Guitar” & “Gitarre” that are siblings of a common root.

Universal words mean the same for everyone, with only a few exceptions. If everyone in the world learns Klingon, it’ll be universal. But, we aren’t going to look at a learned universality that emerges through deliberate effort. We’ll only look at organically and naturally developed universality which does not require learning the meaning.

Universal words: Iconicity, Cognates, Convergent evolution Globalization, Genericized trademarks

1. Words like “Ma” – Organic associations

One of the first sounds a child learns is the “mmmm” sound, as early as 6 months. All you have to do (biologically speaking) is to make a sound with the mouth closed. Once you open your mouth, you get something similar to “ma.” These babbling sounds are a direct evolution of the primitive gurgling sounds. It is the easiest sound that requires only 2 important steps in producing it. The building blocks of speech called phonemes (smallest sound elements) develop later, at around 12 months of age.

Naturally, the association between these sounds to address someone and the that someone being a mother or a maternal figure is strong. The association is universal and likely to occur in most cultures. These associations normalize certain sounds and meanings.

These associations also occur for “papa” and get normalized. Papa and Dada are just another step ahead of Words, in a sense, are about labeling and communicating information. So the most obvious and apparent labels tend to stick around because they are effective. Simple associations are enough to normalize labels.

2. Words like “huh?” – conversational repair initiation

Winners of the 2015 Literature Ig Nobel prize – the renowned Mark Dingemanse and his colleagues – gave us a fun but deep insight into the universality of spoken words. They propose that the interjection “Huh?” is a universal word that had to have emerged because evolution and social dynamics laid down the precise conditions for this word to evolve simultaneously across languages.

They argue that the word “huh?” has a universal meaning: It indicates an interruption of a conversation for one person to request additional clarity in a 2-way conversation. Most communication is a back and forth of information exchange but there could be a loss of information and clarity as the conversation progresses. Mark Dingemanse suggests that “huh?” is a conversational repair initiation – between 2 people when one loses clarity, the other uses “huh?” to repair the previous conversational transaction.

The researchers suggest that the “Huh?” is not just an innate sound like grunts, roars, and emotional cries. It evolved and succeeded as a linguistic tool due to at least 3 factors which make it a perfect meaningful repair initiation:

  1. It requires low biological resources to produce and it is a small/narrow word that is produced very quickly to “fit” within a continuously flowing conversation.
  2. It has the sound of questioning something with a distinctly identifiable sound.
  3. It emerged independently as a word in many languages (convergent evolution) because the right conditions were present and the need for such a word was high.

Convergent evolution means something similar evolved independently in different groups of people who did not interact with each other.

Distinct, consistent, simple, and short: Across languages, these interjections usually take the form consonant + vowel that demands low-effort tongue movements (little back, little high). “Huh?” starts with a sudden constriction of the vocal cords (glottal stop) and ends with an un-rounded simple, mild vowel sound which gives it a distinct identity. Compared to other innate sounds, “huh?” has low variation across cultures but is the optimal word we acquire through experience.

Questioning sound: The sound or intonation of the word is typical of question words like “whaaaaaaa?” – they have a marked rise in pitch in most languages. However, in some languages like the Cha’palaa, question words typically start high and then go low and their repair initiations also follow the same pattern.

Because of the consistency in form and function but differences in melody, it belongs to a particular language/cultural system in spite of how universal it seems. To our knowledge, it doesn’t build upon any other word (it is mostly phylogenetically independent). Unlike laughs and cries that vary culturally and appear at birth, “huh?” does not vary much and in English speaking children, appears at approximately 2.5 years of age.

So all of these factors are necessary for some universal word to be the perfect “repair initiator”. “Huh?” meets all the criteria well enough with the least amount of effort. Not many other words win against huh. The more it was used after convergent evolution, the more it spread and become a convention across the world. As a result, “huh?” won the battle of repair initiations and established a stronghold in dramatic conversations. Other words called continuers like “aaaaaa” and “mmmmm” may have also evolved similarly with a specific form and function.

3. Words like “Boom” – Iconicity

Let me introduce one of my favorite concepts from psycho-linguistics. It’s called “Iconicity.” Iconicity is the correspondence and congruence between the form and meaning (and function) of the word.

Brobdingnagian is a huge word and it means something huge. That means there is a strong association (correspondence and congruence) between the sound of the word, the length of the word, and the meaning of the word. However, the word “big” is not iconic at all because it is a small-sized word. In simple words, iconicity is high when the word matches its meaning (Brobdingnagian) and iconicity is low when the word does not match its meaning (big). Such congruence between form and meaning is fascinating when applied to our thinking. For example, people tend to like those whose names match their faces. People also remember iconic things better than non-iconic things. This congruence also changes how we experience food and drinks.

This is even more apparent when you look at the word “Tiny” which means small. Shared iconicity for the word pair comparison of Tiny Vs. Brobdingnagian is LOUD. It’s easy to understand the meaning if you point at a plant and call it tiny and then point at a banyan tree and call it Brobdingnagian. The meaning is understood in an abstract sense. So you won’t really need to learn the meanings for such words because it will be iconic.

Most words are just symbolic and not very iconic. That means, there is little to no relationship between the form and meaning of the word. Most of the words in this answer and all the things you’ve read are going to be symbolic. They may have a natural history and a pattern that connects with other languages (cognates, point 6), but they are not iconic because the very form of the word doesn’t correspond to its function or meaning.

Iconic words are easier to identify. Some of the most well-known iconic words are onomatopoeias – words that describe sounds. Shush, hiss, kaboom, aaaaarghh are all iconic because they sound like the meaning they carry..

It is easier to guess the meaning of iconic words than it is to guess the meaning of purely symbolic words. That is why I include these words as the second most universal set of words whose meanings are easily understood. because of their inherent form-meaning congruence.

The roman numerals I, II, III are iconic because they represent quantities quite literally. The amount of elements in those numerals are exactly the same as what those numbers represent.

4. Words like “Xerox” – Genericized trademarks

It’s now common knowledge that many of the words we use in day-to-day tasks are not generic, symbolic, or iconic words. They are, in fact, brand names. These brands ended up having such a high amount of ubiquity in the developed and developing areas of the world that they became standard representations of the brand’s most known products. Paper photocopies became Xerox, hook and loop fasteners became Velcro, zipper storage bags became Ziplocs… you get the idea!

These are called Generecized trademarks because trademarks and brands are used to label a generic concept (eg: photocopying) or all examples of a category (eg: mineral water). Genericized trademarks are commonly identified examples that describe and represent the whole parent category. These words are not exactly universal but they connote universal ideas within a specific geography or economy.

Genericized trademarks are universal only when there is a publicly shared memory for that word. Information like genericized trademarks needs to be a part of a people’s shared memory – that’s called Transactive memoryKnowledge of what others know. It’s only when genericized trademarks are stored in our transactive memory, they become universal.

5. Words like “Coffee” and “Taxi” – Globalization

Our final category of universal words is those that spread through globalization and cultural exchanges. The intermingling of people from different regions of the world introduced new concepts, products, and ideas which were relatively absent in other areas. While these socially transmitted concepts could engender new words in their respective languages, those words would make it harder to communicate new, borrowed ideas. So these words stuck around as a convention and convenience even though they are re-conceptualized in other languages. Most new ideas conveyed and globalized through one language and are absent in most cultures are likely to be new universal words.

Trivia: In psychology, not having the right words to describe a new idea is called “Hypocognition.” Hypocognition is a little stricter than awareness in the sense that one can be aware of an idea but hypocognitive to make that idea meaningful.

Let’s look at a few examples of globalization which introduced new words across cultures and languages. At least 20 countries/languages have adopted a word that is phonetically (sound) or orthographically (spelling & form) similar to the original words “Coffee,” “Taxi,” and “Telephone.”

Coffee (source)

French: Café; German: Kaffee; Japanese: コーヒー (Kōhī); Korean: 커피 (Keopi); Portuguese: Café; Russian: Кофе (Kofe); Spanish: Café; Afrikaans: Koffie; Dutch: Koffie; Finnish: Kahvi; Greek: Καφές (Kafés)

Taxi (source)

Spanish: taxi; Swahili: teksi; Malay: teksi; Polish: taxi; Irish: tacsaí; Slovak: taxi; Italian: taxi; Filipino: taxi; Finish: taksi; French: de tax; Afrikaans: taxi; Danish: taxa

Telephone (source)

Spanish: teléfono; Polish: telefon; Romanian: telefon; Greek: τηλέφωνο (tiléfono); Azerbaijani: telefon; Marathi: टेलिफोन; Telugu: టెలిఫోన్; Welsh: ffôn

6. Words like Gitarre and Guitar: Cognates

Cognates are related but different words from 2 or more languages that share the same root. They are often derived from an earlier common ancestor language. Those roots usually evolve into similar-sounding but differently spelled words which mean the same in different languages. That is, they are usually orthographically or phonologically similar. Cognates are intuitive enough within a set or family of languages so they are almost universal. At least 25% of words in English have cognates in other languages.

Fun fact: Multilingual people who have a large vocabulary of cognates often mix them while speaking. This mixing of words from multiple languages is called Code-switching.

Some of the oldest words that have cognates in 4 or more languages are: Thou, I, Man, Fire, Black, Flow, Hand, Pull, Worm, Spit, Mother, Hear, Old, Bark, Ashes, Ye, Who, This, What, Give, We, That, and Not.

The word Father has many cognates: Italian (padre), French (pere), Latin (pater), and Sanskrit (pitar). The word “guitar” also has cognate such as Gitarre in Spanish and Cithara in Latin.

It’s easier to find cognates within a language family like the Indo-European family (throughout Eurasia) or the Indo-Aryan family (South Asia).

On an unrelated note, understanding how languages emerge and how we communicate meaning universally might, one day, help us to communicate with aliens from outer space.

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