A new study that looks at the ways in which words and meanings are connected to each other in 81 global languages has indicated that all languages may share a common underlying semantic structure. This suggests that the way in which humans conceptualize the world may be defined more by our intrinsic nature than by the various environmental, social, and historical contexts that lead to the creation of distinct cultures.
Though many people take language for granted, the reality is that the words we use say as much about the way that concepts are arranged within our brains as they do about the things they actually denote; they assign meaning to phenomena by picking out those attributes that seem most worthy of meaning to us. Subsequently, the fact that different languages use words to assign meanings in different ways has led to a long-running debate about whether humans naturally conceptualize the world in culturally relative – rather than universal – ways.
To test this, an international group of researchers decided to create what they call “semantic networks,” indicating how different words relate to each other in different languages. Using printed dictionaries, they examined the words used to describe 22 different concepts in 81 languages. They specifically chose concepts that denote natural geographic features – such as Sun, Moon, mountain, star, and sea – since the ways in which meanings are assigned to such concepts are likely to be highly influenced by historical and environmental experiences.
For instance, coastal and inland communities are likely to have a different relationship with the ocean, and may, therefore, conceptualize it in different ways.
Publishing their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study authors describe how they looked for polysemous words, meaning those that refer to more than one thing. For example, they note that the Lakhota language of the Sioux tribes contains a word for "Sun" that also means "Moon" and "month." In this way, multiple concepts are grouped together under a single word.
Using this technique, the researchers were able to create semantic maps for each language, which illustrate the ways that different concepts are connected via these polysemous words. Comparing these semantic networks to one another, they identified a universal underlying structure, with strong correlations between the ways that concepts are grouped in all languages.
For example, in every language, the words "ocean" and "salt" were found to be more closely connected to one another than either were to the word "Sun." As such, the authors conclude that concepts are connected via a “universal set of relationships,” which reflect the intrinsic properties of human cognition, and are not influenced by cultural or environmental factors.
It is worth noting, however, that linguistic meaning is an abstract construct and is therefore very difficult to quantify scientifically. As such, although this study has produced some fascinating and noteworthy findings, it cannot provide any categorical conclusions to the debate as to whether human cognition is universal or culturally relative.