Universalities in Human Communication

Human communication is remarkably universal, in spite of the apparent differences that exist between languages and cultures. This essay deals with the various modes of communication, verbal or nonverbal and elicits their differences across distinct sociolinguistic environments. Having stated that, it goes on to prove how minor and insignificant such differences actually are. The scholarly work of linguists like Noam Chomsky and Benjamin Lee Whorf are made use of to substantiate the claims.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis claims that people’s interpretation of the world around them is restricted by the scope their language would provide. This is partially true in that an individual’s world view is limited to the extent the vocabulary would permit. For example, some tribal cultures use languages that are a little different to the languages of the civilized world. When asked to label various colors, some primitive people approximated all presented shades into a few categories. Although this suggests that their representation of colors is limited, it would be wrong to assume that their perceptions are limited by the language they use. So, richness in linguistic resource may help people cope with subtle variations, but do not restrain in any way the perceptive abilities. In other words, though languages differ in their range of codes they do not in any way limit an individual’s view of the world. (Thomson 2006: 63-75)

The fact that any pair of languages is mutually translatable is another evidence for the universality of human language. Baring a few exceptions, any language can be translated into any other language to a reasonable approximation. This strongly suggests that languages are fundamentally common and differ only in some minor details. This claim is further supported by the renowned linguist Noam Chomsky. According to Chomsky, it would appear for a hypothetical Martian observer that people in all corners of the world are speaking the same language with very minor variations. (Chomsky 2004)

The prevalence of concepts like euphemisms across cultures is another proof for the universality of human languages. For example, take the evolution of English language across the Atlantic over the last few centuries. Descriptions like “restroom”, “washroom”, and “bathroom” are used instead of “men’s toilet” in the United States. For similar purposes “loo” is used in the United Kingdom. Here in the U.S. “Morticians” and “Funeral Directors” are used for undertakers. Similar equivalents could be found across languages and cultures in the rest of the world. (Thomson 2006: 63-75)

Another pervasive concept is propaganda by political organizations, with the intent to mislead, coerce and manipulate the general public. This point is supported by George Orwell in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”. Orwell claims that, “political language has to consist largely of euphemisms, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness” (Thomson 2006: 63-75). This remark is equally applicable to all political machinery from time immemorial throughout the history of civilization.

That all languages are governed by rules of grammar and socio-linguistic theories is further evidence for the universality of language. For instance, a seemingly simple act of asking for a drink in a Bar is actually a “complex set of speech events that involve speech acts and components of speech acts” (Mann & Spradley 2006: 75-84). Every such utterance is the result of choosing a speech event that serves a particular objective. The range of available speech events may vary between cultures. For example, there could be as many as a score of possible outcomes in the speech event of asking for a drink. Socio-linguistic rules essentially combine meaningful utterances in the backdrop of a social context to deliver the intended message. Though such rules differ in the meaning they help deliver, they are basically similar in most languages of the civilized world. (Mann & Spradley 2006: 75-84)

Non-verbal communication is another important mode of communication among humans. The body positions we assume, the gestures we make, the facial muscles we exercise, etc., all contribute towards this form of information transfer between members of a society. Body Art is another element that can communicate significant messages. Notably, this form of communication could be observed across all communities in the world from the very primitive to the most advanced. Every culture has its own idea of beauty and symbolic significance. Based on these set of notions, each society practices its own unique array of artistic expressions. These expressions could help convey the status of an individual within the community, the attainment of a membership, a certain rite of passage, etc,. (Schildkrout 2006: 85-93)

Body art could be any “decorative addition to or alteration of the human body, temporary or permanent, dramatic or subdued, colorful or plain” (Schildkrout 2006: 85-93). It usually takes the form of piercing, hairstyle, makeup, brand, tattoo, painted design, etc. It could signify a certain ideal of beauty or a vital life transformation. It may even imply personal rebellion. What ever the purpose and meaning of these non-verbal messages, they are to be observed in all societies of the earth. (Schildkrout 2006: 85-93)

In other words, Body Art is like a visual language. To be able to interpret a visual message, one must be acquainted with the unique vocabulary, symbols, values and myths of the specific society. It is only within these societal confines that any visual message makes sense. However, all such visual messages serve the dual purpose of aesthetic and communicative function. In the modern world, the transitions of designs, motifs and techniques of body modification lose their special significance when they move across cultures. This is especially true of tattoo designs, which are regarded as purely aesthetic implements devoid of their original culturally associated message. (Schildkrout 2006: 85-93)

Thus, in conclusion, it could be said that, modes of communication, verbal or nonverbal may differ in minor and insignificant ways. However, they are fundamentally similar and carry features that apply universally across cultures and communities.


Chomsky, Noam
2004 “Universality of Language” The official Noam Chomsky website

Mann, Brenda & James P. Spradley .
2006 “How to Ask For A Drink,” in Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology, 12th ed. James Spradley & David W. McCurdy, editors. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, p.p. 75-84.

Schildkrout, Enid.
2006 “Body Art as Visual Language,” in Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology, 12th ed. James Spradley & David W. McCurdy, editors. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, p.p. 85-93.

Spradley, James & David W. McCurdy
2006 “Introduction to Section Two” in Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology, 12th ed. James Spradley & David W. McCurdy, editors. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, p.p. 59-61

Thomson, David S.
2006 “The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: Worlds shaped by Words” in Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology, 12th ed. James Spradley & David W. McCurdy, editors. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, p.p. 63-75.