UNIVERSAL GRAMMAR, SAY WHAT?!

Provided by Betul Erbasi from betulerbasi.com

How are you?    English
Wie geht es dir? German
Nasılsın? Turkish
 كيف حالك Arabic
你好嗎? Mandarin
お元気ですか? Japanese

The phrases in the set above mean the same thing in different languages. They look fairly different, right? I would not think that these languages could share anything at all.

Well, hint hint, some people disagree.

On top of that, take a minute to grasp the fact that there are about 6000 languages in the world. That is, 6000 ways of saying How are you?.

Now, another difference:

Çekoslovakyalılaştıramadıklarımızdanmısınız?  Turkish
Are you one of those people whom we could not make to be Czechoslovakian? English

What makes a sentence in English makes a word in Turkish. One single word. Same meaning, different ways.

Another difference:

Wabi-Sabi Japanese
a way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections in life and accepting peacefully the natural cycle of growth and decay English

Again, what one word says in one language is expressed by a lot of words in another, but this time because one lacks a concept the other has.

Another difference. Now in English.

I have not seen the sun in days. (Standard) English
I ain’t seen the currant bun in days. Cockney Rhyming Slang (a systematic slang word construction system)

Would you be able to guess what ‘currant bun’ means if you did not know Cockney Rhyming Slang?

So, the conclusion is that languages are so different that there is no way they can share anything in common, right?

Well, some linguists beg to differ. They argue that there is something called the Universal Grammar.

It is the idea that all languages share a basic, abstract structure that makes them a human language.

The idea that children are born with an innate ability to acquire and develop language.

Yes, children outsmart us adults by far in language because they have access to the Universal Grammar. We adults don’t.

Why do we think that children are born with that kind of a system?

First, even 2-day-old babies are able to differentiate between languages based on their rhythm (and even words in the same language).

Second, regardless of which language they are exposed to, all children learn languages using the same milestones at the same time. There is no harder or easier language for them.

Third, they can even learn multiple languages at the same time and they do not care. Talk about language learning!

Fourth, even when there is no language that children are exposed to, they create one using ‘default rules in the Universal Grammar’. That is how they take a pidgin and turn it into a creole in no time! A pidgin is an immediate communicative tool created by adults that is good enough only to serve immediate contact purposes such as trade. So, a pidgin is not a language. But a creole is. It is a language created by children.

What does Universal Grammar look like? That we don’t know. We can only speculate.

The topic of Universal Grammar is still debatable, as not all linguists agree that it exists.

My take on this is agnostic. But I would be happy if it did exist. Why? Because it tells me that there is something universal about humans. In fact, it was this vision that got me into Linguistics ten years ago.

Now let’s hear you.

Did you ever think that languages could be similar to each other after all? Did you notice any similarities in different languages? Did you ever reflect on how children speak so well at a time when they can’t even eat on their own properly? Do you think that language is a sign of human universality?

52 thoughts on “UNIVERSAL GRAMMAR, SAY WHAT?!

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    1. Yeap! Interestingly, m and a are the easiest sounds to make and kids start doing them because they are easy. Then, we adults took them as their first words (which are usually a reference to moms and dads). But indeed, this shows universality!

      Liked by 3 people

  1. Interesting post.
    I think languages are more similar than what we know. For example: Latin is the mother for all Romantic languages, but some words are similar in Arabic.

    When I seen German phrases (like directions written on products), one or two words look similar enough to Latin or English where I can decipher it enough to get an idea.

    I always wonder how infants can pick up on their parents’ language. When a parent speaks their home language around their child constantly, they know exactly what they’re talking about. I have a friend who spoke Spanish in their home, when she would converse in Spanish with him, he would respond to her in English🤣. Talk about babies making their own language look at twins. Fascinating how they only know what they’re talking about.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It is interesting to see so many similarities between languages, right? The similarities are crazy much if the languages are from the same family, like English, German and Romance languages. But Arabic, hmmm.

      How children pick up languages, it is still a big mystery. We only know they do it:) Well, we have some ideas how they do it, but nothing determinant yet.

      I really like the twins example. I had not thought of that! It is interesting that they can make their own language when we adults struggle!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Since I speak a language other than English, I guess I agree. Even though there are some MAJOR differences, there are also major similarities. Interesting remarks though; never really thought about any of this =)

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Children can learn anything in the first two to three years of life. They are little sponges and the ability to learn is so easy compared to later on in life. As far as grammer goes I really don’t know. My daughter takes German and they have some similar words but I don’t know about sentence structure. I remember when I took Spanish they didn’t have all the words that English speaking people have. We have five hundred words to describe one thing and from what I could tell they didn’t have all those descriptive words. I’m in love with all things Korean. I tried to pick up the language and learned a few words but their sentence structure is backwards from ours. I personally think it’s funny because the more I tune into them the more I see we are the same but just opposite..even in the Got7 Just right video you can see it. Jackson dips his last two fingers into the cream and over here most of us with use the first two. Same but opposite. It makes me feel like God doesn’t have a very big imagination and so on the opposite sides of the world he made us the same but the exact opposite. I don’t think there is anything 100% across the board for the world. Even if we say something as basic as I love food, we do it in our own way and that’s perfectly okay.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Nice observations! Well, I totally relate to the opposite-sides comments. My native tongue is Turkish, it is like Korean. And I speak English. So, it is interesting to experience both of these opposite sides. I think these two word orders are the most common among languages, so there are not many languages that say (by default) ‘The book read I’. So, there is some pattern there (for some reason, we want to put the subject in the first place in sentence). But it is not conclusive.

      About words, I actually found it difficult to the way English partitions adjectives about feelings (afraid, terrified, frightened etc), because we don’t have that in Turkish. I find these differences interesting because at some level, it tells about culture and how people view the world.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yeah, I agree. I mean, some are understandable. Like, the fact that you will have a bigger vocab for words for snow if you are in a cold area where it snows a lot. But it is difficult to see how some other words have anything to do with environment or worldview.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. It’s definitely something to ponder on. Maybe the reason our vocabulary is bigger is because certain parts of the world had free time to set and make up dumb words while the rest were busy trying to stay alive and keep things going.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I have always been interested in language. Learning about Latin prefixes and suffixes was particularly interesting. I studied French in middle school and Spanish all through high school (though we got a new Spanish teacher every year that insisted on starting with the basics, so my grasp on Spanish could be so much better). There are words that are similar between all three languages- like chocolate. So the idea of Universal Language wouldn’t be too crazy. Of course, all this talk about how intelligent babies can be with language makes me think of the movie Baby Geniuses (or I just love that movie too much). Thanks for sharing about this interesting topic.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Babies are a gem, right! It is interesting to see such similarities, right! It makes you feel drawn to languages even more. And you see them even when you compare very distant languages. I was astonished when I saw many similarities between Turkish and Chinese.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. The universal language: To mean what you say and say what you mean. When the spoken word aligns itself with one’s true intent and action through speaking. This is the trinity. The word. Mind, body, soul. It cannot not be misunderstood because the truth cannot be denied. It will resonate with the truth inside each, bringing to light and to life the word within, each. And each through their own. Thank you for the post. I learned a great deal…

    Liked by 3 people

    1. This is an interesting way of looking at it! In fact, we can arguably say that the idea that made modern Linguistics into a more popular field was to find an alignment between meanings and sounds. Similar to what you said. And that is probably the one universal we cannot argue against or find exceptions of.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. In poetry, I like to say, “The sounds she makes through words she quakes; in body parts.” It’s funny, I have the answers, I see them, but don’t quite know what to do with them. I don’t feel like writing them. These are very simple truths but would take many words, I believe, to write them. I loved your post. It brought me so much. In that word, love, there is so much more, or less… depending on the moment delivered and to whom it is given. You see? And therein lies the heart of the dilemma. But I do know this, if present, completely, in every moment, there is and can be no misunderstanding. At least for the one completely present.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Words are consciousness, themselves. They are what you make of them. But in the end, they are truth, life, God, energy, source, whatever you want to call It. We are co-creators. It’s just very simple. The same is true of numbers. All is a living word and symbol. Life. It’s a very simple thing, life. But so beautifully complex.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. After my first French class, I came home and asked my mother if French people had different ears than we did, LOL….

    I think there IS a universality to languages – heck, look at all the different words for “meow”. They are phonetically similar. I think what differs in children and adults is the plasticity of the brain. It’s a lot easier to adapt to languages, or multiple ones, when you haven’t been hardwired for an individual set of boundaries. Children also aren’t limited by the boundaries of social constructs as yet; they’re still adapting to their bodies and abilities. So if grandma 1 speaks Farsi to grandchild, and grandma 2 speaks Japanese, while Mom only speaks in English and Dad only utilizes German – the child isn’t pulled in four ways, they are immersed. It’s a really beautiful and amazing thing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. French ears:)

      You know what, all you say are actually very true and supported by research. It is true that when we learn a language (or multiple of them), we put a limit to our capacity. But there are also a few cases where people were abandoned in a forest as a baby and somehow survived (sounds weird but it did happen in a few cases). When they were found later in life, they could not learn a language like babies do, although they did not know any languages. So, yeah, we both set boundaries and also lose flexibility.

      Liked by 2 people

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