What Is Universal Language?

Dan Harkins

Some say love is the universal language; others insist it is mathematics. Thus far in recorded human history, though, a universal language has not been attained. Some theorize one existed a few hundred thousand years ago, at the dawn of the Homo sapiens, from which all the various modern languages have evolved. The other side of that debate insists that one must emerge organically, as English is doing, through a shared interest in global understanding and business affairs.

Many people think that English will be the universal language of the near future.
Many people think that English will be the universal language of the near future.

The idea of a universal language has been the subject of linguistics research and literary musings for centuries. Nevertheless, it can be said that these languages exist "universally" in only certain areas of the globe. For instance, in countries like China, or in whole regions such as the Middle East, a single language is observed — Mandarin Chinese and Arabic, respectively. Visitors to even these homogenized regions, however, still note differences in dialect and syntax that keep the languages far from universal.

Declining in importance as a world language, French is nonetheless still spoken in dozens of nations, in addition to France.
Declining in importance as a world language, French is nonetheless still spoken in dozens of nations, in addition to France.

Some religious traditions contain stories relating to a belief in a universal language that existed in prehistorical times. The biblical story of the Tower of Babel, for instance, describes how the world's conflicting languages, or "confusion of tongues," came from the original language started by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In India's Brahmanic tradition, as with the Judeo-Christian belief, a scattering of languages occurred as an act of a punishing god. The ancient Greeks insist that Hermes created the diverse tongues as a boon to mortal diversity and enjoyment.

Several centuries ago, the idea of a universal language was conceived, primarily in the interests of commerce and scientific discovery. The German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz and his French contemporary, René Descartes, both mused at length about what Leibniz described as a "characteristica universalis" — a mathematical means of expressing ideas across linguistic boundaries. Though modern calculus and analytical geometry have gone a long way to standardize complex ideas in a "universal language," these subjects are hardly universally understood.

Some have attempted to formulate their own universal languages, like Esperanto in the late 19th century and Lojban in the late 20th century. Both languages are still in existence, propagated by linguistics groups slowly growing in membership. Though the intent is creating what is called an international auxiliary language, none have come close to achieving a global acceptance.

Many consider English to be the universal language of the near future, largely due to the spread of British- and American-dominated capitalism across the globe. But more people are taught Chinese as a first language in 2011 than English, and by 2050, according to National Geographic news, just as many people will be taught Arabic, Hindi and Spanish. Perhaps the best chance the human race has of a universal language is epitomized by the U.S. Pentagon's development of a super translation computer that speaks in whatever language the user needs to understand.

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Discussion Comments


@MrsPramm - We might find it odd that some things like time are different in different languages, but I'm sure there are still a fairly large number of universal concepts. A word for food, for example and a word for water. And probably a word for thirsty and a word for hungry.

I do think that it's foolish to try and unite everyone under a single language if it means abandoning the richness of experience that comes from multiple ways of seeing the world.


@Mor - It's a lovely notion and I think it would probably work more often than not, but I don't think there is any kind of universal concept like that which would truly cross all cultures. Humans are so adaptable that they contort into all kinds of different understandings with their culture and language. Smiling with your teeth might be seen as a threat or disrespectful to some people. Helping someone at their daily chores might be seen as an insult to their abilities.

Language is even more complex. There are concepts like time which you might think should be universal, but are very different to different cultures. Even direction can be interpreted differently. Some languages don't have a term for left and right, for example, so how would that translate from languages that do have that concept?

I think the fact that humans can communicate in spite of not having many universal concepts or a universal language is actually a wonderful thing and shows how adaptable we truly are.


I've traveled quite a bit in countries where I didn't speak much of the language and I've found that there are usually a few things that people will respond to universally. A smile, for example, or a bow as an expression of gratitude. Sharing food tends to be seen as a good gesture as well. Playing with children, or helping out with everyday tasks as well.

I think compassion is our universal language. Human beings are made to be communal creatures and we respond to kindness with kindness. That's about as universal as we can be.

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