I posted this in the wrong place https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/234744/universal-words?noredirect=1#comment505372_234744, and it generated some good discussion.

Years ago I found in the internet a list of "Universal Words". i.g. words that exist in the same form (with minor variations) in all (or most?) languages, and that don´t have synonyms (there are no other words in any language to refer to the same thing).

This list included words like: Chocolate, Bikini, etc.

Doing extensive research (e.g. googling) I can't find any reference to such a list or linguistic concept. The person that posted the list claimed that there was wide consensus from the language/linguistic experts community about most of these words.

Any thought about this list/concept?

  • 2
    I'm pretty sure you're talking about loanwords.
    – Zgialor
    Commented Mar 21, 2015 at 0:56

4 Answers 4


If you're looking for a list of such words, then be aware that Stack Exchange sites aren't the correct forum for discussing list questions.

Regarding the (limited) linguistic significance of these words, it's worth noting that there are actually two types of "universal" words. The first are words that are often (but not always) similar even in languages that have had no contact with each other. The archetypal example is mama and papa, which are often the first word-like sounds made by babbling babies and so are frequently associated with the parents. Other examples include the interjection huh (cf Is 'Huh?' a Universal Word? Conversational Infrastructure and the Convergent Evolution of Linguistic Items) and a few onomatopoeias such as haha and meow.

The second type of "universal" words are highly successful borrowings such as coffee, bikini or OK. As @user6726 mentioned, these are not that interesting linguistically, though it's worth noting that these are never truly universal (no word is). Some languages prefer calques (e.g. tequila in Mandarin is lóngshélán jiǔ ['agave wine']; clarinet is dānhuángguǎn ['single reed instrument']). Others use new coinages (e.g. coffee in Armenian is surč̣) and some use alternative character readings (e.g. tea in northern Vietnamese is chè, which comes from the non-Sino-Vietnamese reading of 茶).

  • 5
    Wanderwörter can be pretty linguistically interesting. Commented Mar 22, 2015 at 0:22
  • Another nearly universal borrowing is "vulcan".
    – vectory
    Commented Jun 10, 2019 at 22:59

It's not an idea that would be taken seriously. First, such a list wouldn't be based on a particularly large sample of languages, so the "universality" of the word would be mere speculation. Second, it doesn't reveal anything significant about language, it only tells you that the bikini was a recent invention and that languages are generally quite willing to borrow words for new things.


Proper names. E.g. John should be John in most languages, and I'm pretty sure that Percival, Gwendolyn, Hugh, Sandra Bullock and Howland as in Howland Island are the same in all languages

  • Do you have a reason to say that Sandra Bullock is "in" Chinese when a Chinese speaker mentions her in a Chinese sentence? Why is [tʃiŋgis qaγan] Chéngjísī Hán in Chinese and [dʒɛŋgəs kɑn] in English?
    – user6726
    Commented Jun 7, 2019 at 19:49
  • @user6726 If you noticed, I didn't mention Genghis Khan in my comment. So not all proper names are universal in this sense. As for Bullock, it likely isn't in a Chinese dictionary (so not "in" Chinese in this sense) and doesn't have to be -- first, because like most proper names, it's never translated, and second, because it's used in Chinese as is. The OP asked about "words that exist in the same form (with minor variations) in all (or most?) languages, and that don´t have synonyms". Sandra is a word, and I claim that every word consistently used in a language exists in it
    – jaam
    Commented Jun 7, 2019 at 22:48

The words or 'mother' and 'father' are quite similar across languages. The word of 'mother' is most probably /mama/, and 'father' is most probably /papa/. Quote rom Wikipedia:

In linguistics, mama and papa are considered a special case of false cognates. In many languages of the world, sequences of sounds similar to /mama/ and /papa/ mean "mother" and "father", usually but not always in that order. This is thought to be a coincidence resulting from the process of early language acquisition.

These words are nearly universal. Exception is, atleast Georgian, where 'mama' is 'father', and' mother' is 'deda.' Something similar is also attested in Old Japanese, where 'papa' means 'mother'.


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