What are the language features — perhaps a word for a concept, or a method of creating words, type of writing system, first words acquired, grammatical features, etc., — that can be argued to be similar across all languages that have been examined?

This is different from the innateness hypothesis because I don't care if humans are born with knowledge of a language, but just if isolated languages are likely to develop at least some of the same or similar features.

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    No part of writing is similar across all languages, because writing is an invented technology, not part of human language. Many (probaby most) languages that have ever existed have not been written.
    – Colin Fine
    Oct 4, 2021 at 23:17
  • @ColinFine is there writing that is not one-to-one pronounceable? For example, the writing encodes a concept, and the way that concept is portrayed via speech is up to the interpretation of the reader. Oct 14, 2021 at 2:53
  • @theonlygusti that depends on how big an excerpt of writing you're talking about. Many languages have homographs, words that are written identically but pronounced differently, and so certainly have this at the word scale (and with clever choices, potentially even at the sentence level). Some definitions of writing, as opposed to proto-writing though use the ability to encode an utterance, rather than merely an event (which could be described with multiple utterances) as a criterion, and that criterion seems closer to what you are getting at
    – Tristan
    Oct 14, 2021 at 9:10
  • @theonlygusti: certainly. Sumerian, and the languages whose writing were influenced by it, had the idea of determinatives, characters which had no reading of their own but gave guidance how to interpret and read the characters around them.
    – Colin Fine
    Oct 14, 2021 at 9:46

1 Answer 1


The question appears to be whether there are any properties of human language which are directly attested in all human languages and "sufficiently similar" then one would say that they are essentially the same. But, this apparently should exclude anything that is arguably due to an innate property of the human language faculty, thus is intended to elicit examples of accidental universals (as stated, "this is different from the innateness hypothesis").

The best candidate that I know of is "mother, although even comparing [mʌðr], [mʊr], [matʲ], [ʔum] the similarity is not striking. When you factor in Finnish äiti and Georgian deda, it turns out that the statistically significant similarity of words for "mother" is still just a tendency and not an absolute universal.

You say that you do not care if humans are born with knowledge of a language, which I assume is a wording mistake since nobody claims that humans are born with knowledge of a specific language: the innatist claim is that humans are born with knowledge of general properties of all human languages, i.e. the architecture of the language faculty. An example of something that is true of all human languages, but something that is innate and not learned, is the fact that language is based on grouping smaller units of one type into units of a broader type, and so on up the tree. Example: groups of features form individual sounds; groups of sounds form morphemes; groups of morphemes form words; groups of words form phrases, groups of phrases form clauses, which group into sentences. This is the essence of the innatist hypothesis, which I assume you are setting aside in favor of accidental universal properties. There are none.

  • The second half of your first paragraph isn't what I meant. So maybe I misunderstood the innateness hypothesis. I thought the innateness hypothesis was: we are born with some knowledge of our language or of grammar at birth. An "innate property of the human language faculty" is actually exactly what I hoped to discover by asking this question. This seems different to me than innate knowledge. Oct 4, 2021 at 19:29
  • Innately, humans are better than fish at learning maths. But innately we are not born with knowledge of maths. We are innately born with "knowledge" of how to breathe. Maybe I just confused the question by referencing the vaguely-defined innateness hypothesis, that I actually know almost nothing about. Oct 4, 2021 at 19:30
  • "born with knowledge of general properties of all human languages, i.e. the architecture of the language faculty" — what are more of these general properties? Oct 4, 2021 at 19:31
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    In linguistics, the "innatist hypothesis" only refers to having some innate ability / tool for learning language, and never implies that anyone has genetic knowledge of a specific language. Some non-linguists believe e.g. that genetically Chinese people have special genetic advantage for learning Chinese, and we spend much of our time trying to explain that this is just not true. Many of us also do not consider the ability to breathe or grow hair to be "knowledge", but that is a more philosophical topic. As for other general properties, this is what is generally known as "Universal Grammar".
    – user6726
    Oct 4, 2021 at 19:54
  • It is a matter of protracted debate what / how much is in UG, and the general trend these days is to "claw back" claims, and say that many "always true" observations are still learned.
    – user6726
    Oct 4, 2021 at 19:56

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