5

Are there any words probably understood by “everyone” in the world?

I understand that this question needs multiple clarifications, including the following:

  1. By a 'word' I mean a word used in the spoken language; it need not be listed in any dictionary.
  2. The 'word' may be a loan; the point is not its origin, but whether it is universally understood.
  3. As to the meaning of such would-be universal words, although it may be expected to differ a bit across languages, it should still be roughly the same in all of them.
  4. By words being 'understood', I mean that most/all? people speaking the languages involved will convey and retrieve roughly the same meaning when they use them.

Please try to give me answers listing the words (if any) that you think are understable by most/all? people in the world.

  • OK. (with a smile). Help! (with appropriate gestures and facial expression). – jlawler Nov 25 '14 at 18:44
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    Given my interactions with monolingual illiterate people in India, I'd nominate OK, doctor, and police, with hello somewhat farther behind. AFAIK of German, though Arzt is the preferred word, Doktor can refer to a medical doctor. Of course, no word can be understood by literally everyone. There are plenty of isolated tribes all over the world that are unlikely to have any words in common with the rest of us. – prash Nov 25 '14 at 19:34
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    I doubt very much whether people in, say, Burma would understand "ciao". – fdb Nov 25 '14 at 20:09
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    That is why the answer to this question is probably "no". – fdb Nov 25 '14 at 20:59
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    @jlawler I very much doubt an old woman next door will understand "help". – Anixx Nov 26 '14 at 1:30
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No. Plain and simple. But let's break down your question. There are several aspects to the whole idea of 'word in a language' that make the question a lot more difficult to formulate properly. In fact, I'd say that there's two quite distinct questions in here that would require quite different disciplinary approaches.

Question 1. Is there a word that (either through loan or historical descent) occurs in the lexicon of all languages in such a way that through some empathetic effort could be made understood by its speakers regardless of their exposure other other languages?

The answer here is, no. The best candidate may seem 'mama' because it's associated with an early language development but it's not at all universal. Even the underlying concept is not unambiguously universal because of the variety of child rearing practices around the world.

Question 2. Is there a word that has had such global impact (through media or trade) that it will be recognized and/or understood by all people in the world regardless of whether it is a part of the lexicon in their language.

Again, the answer is a simple no. The most plausible candidate here is 'OK' that will be recognized by a good chunk of the global population. But there are vast swathes of the globe that will not have been reached by 'OK'. You don't even have to go as far as 'uncontacted tribes'.

There is simply too much variation among languages and cultures for there to be even a single universal word. However, there are many words that will certainly have a good chance of being understood around much of the industrialized world but never by all.

There probably not even too many gestures that are universal. 'Smile' and 'pointing' are probably the best candidates but their meanings are significantly modified by context across cultures so even though they may have the same underlying referent, their use could still be misunderstood.

  • Would "mama", phonologically, the same in every language? Can gestures be seen as phonemes? – Ooker Aug 11 '17 at 21:14
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If I am not wrong, in some languages, the word for "mama" is used for other relatives rather than "mother", for example, "mama" means "father" in Georgian, also, "mama" means "grandmother" in Manchurian.

Also, it is said that the Eyak language don't have bilabial consonants in native words, they probably don't even have words like "papa" and "mama"

Also it is said that "huh" is a word that has the same meaning in (almost) every language, however, there could still be counterexamples.

  • Eyakian must be people wearing in ring on their mouths? – XL _at_China Nov 26 '14 at 1:24
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    probably not, I don't think they wear rings on mouths – k1234567890y Nov 26 '14 at 3:07
  • why don't they have bilabial consonants? – Ooker Aug 11 '17 at 21:15
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    @Ooker - why doesn't English have nasal diphtongs? – Luís Henrique Aug 12 '17 at 15:45
  • @LuísHenrique they don't? Why is that? I'm not a linguist or a native English speaker – Ooker Aug 12 '17 at 15:52
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According to this article (popular science, but quoting Mark Dingemanse of Max-Planck-Institut für Psycholinguistik in Nijmegen), there is one such word given in German orthography as hä? (English huh?) meaning "I don't understand you".

EDIT: Here is a link to the original work (thanks to ba for the hint!)

  • I think the source for the idea about "huh" being universal is here – b a Sep 12 '17 at 11:40
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Well, any word for a unique proper name. For instance, Obama, Putin, Apollo, Pluto etc will be roughly the same in all languages (although in Chinese they can be pronounced very differently from the original).

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    There are still "uncontacted" tribes in the Amazon jungle. I doubt whether they have heard of Obama and Putin. Not yet, anyway. – fdb Nov 25 '14 at 23:35
  • Let's not go so far as the Amazon jungle. Just ask a non-American 3 year old child who Obama is. – Midas Nov 26 '14 at 10:02
  • @Midas why not 3-month child? – Anixx Nov 26 '14 at 10:56
  • @Anixx do a 3-month child develop language already? – Ooker Aug 11 '17 at 21:16
  • MOST of these words will be pronounced differently in different languages. The first vowel in Obama may not be a diphthong; the first consonant might not be voiced or a stop; the last vowel might not be a schwa; a language might put glottal stops before vowels at the start of words; tones, pitch and/or length might be used instead of/alongside stress, etc. – Locoluis Aug 14 '17 at 18:55
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I would go for the word for silence/calm, namely "SSSS". One can argue if it is a word or not, but that is another discussion. It is an utterance that is understood in most if not all languages.

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    What evidence do you have for this? Vocalisations can mean very different things in different cultures. – curiousdannii Nov 26 '14 at 11:21
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I think "mama" and "papa" are two words which can be understood by every one in the world, because it is almost the same or similiar across all language.

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    In some (probably most) Indian languages, "mama" means uncle. – prash Nov 26 '14 at 1:01
  • Natural language is not like the formal one, rules are valid in the probability sense. – XL _at_China Nov 26 '14 at 1:25
  • I'm afraid that's not correct. – Gaston Ümlaut Nov 26 '14 at 3:02
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    Also see Old Japanese *はは papa "mother". – jogloran Nov 29 '14 at 8:05

protected by prash Aug 12 '17 at 16:17

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