Universals of language
All languages share certain things which separate them from all other kinds of communication.
- A language has rules which are shared by a community.
- All human languages are based on sound and hearing, or in the case of sign language, vision. All the basic sound units, or phonemes, have this in common: they can be spoken by the human voice, and heard by the human ear.
- The sounds come out in a sequence, not all at once. This is mimicked in writing, where the marks are put on the paper or screen in the same sequence.
- The stream of sounds have little gaps between them, and come in bigger packages. We call the bigger packets sentences or questions or replies or comments.
- In most languages, English being one, the syntax or order of the words can change the meaning: "the cat sat on the man" is different from "the man sat on the cat".
- Words (which may be made up of more than one phoneme) divide up into two classes: content and non-content. Content words have meaning: nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. Non-content words are there to make the language work: and, not, in, out, what, etc. Grammar consists of studying how words fit together to mean something.
- All languages have:
- sentences with two types of expression: nouns and verbs: Jill is here.
- adjectives to modify nouns: good food.
- ways of linking: sink or swim.
- dummy elements: Jill likes to swim, so do I.
- devices to order or ask questions: Get up! Are you ill?
- Most of the languages have a written form. Before the invention of audio recording, the writing system was the only way to keep track of spoken information.
- All languages constantly evolve. New words appear, new forms of saying things, new accents.
There are many more things in common between languages.
The capacity to learn and use language is inherited. Normally, all humans are born with this capability. Which language is learned by a child depends on which language is spoken by the child's community. The capacity is inherited, but the particular language is learned.
Children have a special period, from about 18 months to about four years, which is critical for learning the language. If this is seriously disrupted, then their language skills will be damaged. Older people learn differently, so they seldom learn a second language as well as they learn their native language.