Welcome to a special bonus edition of Dear Duolingo, an advice column just for learners. This is even more special than usual—before you read, make sure to check out part 1 and part 2 of this question, which will provide helpful context!
We're back this week with the third part of our trilogy on universal words! We recently wrote about possible "universal" words that are the same in many—and maybe even all—languages, and you all wrote in with interesting exceptions and fascinating new possibilities. Today we'll explore those reader-submitted suggestions to decide if any of them are universal. I loved researching your creative, thoughtful ideas!
When considering whether a word is shared across spoken languages, it's important to compare languages that aren't related and languages that are far apart geographically (and so have had less opportunity to borrow from each other). Often, a word might be shared across German, Spanish, Russian, and Greek simply because they all got the word from a common source—either an ancestor language long ago or they borrowed it from each other—but if we see the same word in German, Arabic, Korean, and Thai (all totally unrelated to each other), then that is noteworthy!
Some languages, like Chinese, Hebrew, and Icelandic, are often outliers when it comes to universal words, since these communities make a real effort to create brand-new words instead of borrowing existing ones. They're good ones to check, too!
Here are the results:
11 words that didn’t make the cut
These reader-submitted suggestions were not shared across enough languages to count as near-universal:
- bathroom (or toilet)
- coup d'etat
Can you guess why? They are nearly all things that have existed around the world for centuries (or millennia!), and so communities didn't need to adopt a word from another language. They already had their own! Unlike tomatoes and taxis—which had to be exported or invented—things like water and music have been a part of human societies since the very beginning.
But some of the words y'all suggested have other explanations!
Are language names universal?
One interesting suggestion (worthy of its own post!) was language names. I'll save all the details for another day, but language (and country) names can be quite different in other languages. That's in part because how people think of and name themselves is an entirely different question from what other people—external to the community—call them.
Historically, in many parts of the world, a community's name for themself was something like "people" and the name for their language similar to "speech"... and their names for other languages and people could be downright mean! Did you know the word barbarian has its roots in how "other languages" sound? Those people over there, who sound like they're saying barbarbarbar, are simply barbarians!
My favorite example of this is the names for "German," even just in other European languages: It's alemán in Spanish, tedesco in Italian, Немецкий (Nemetskiy) in Russian, tysk in Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian… and Deutsch in German itself! 🤩
Are technology names universal?
Technology words were another smart suggestion from our learners. Some come close, but there are surprising exceptions, too! Robot, originally from Czech, is used in many communities around the world, but there are different forms in Arabic, Chinese, Icelandic, and Vietnamese.
Other science and technology words are widespread, maybe even universal, but I left them off the list for a sort of selfish reason: I think they're not surprising! 😬 As communication has become more globalized, these new science and tech words have been adopted almost instantaneously (think Einsteinium, the name of a recently-discovered element). In the modern age, the naming of something in one language can mean they are named everywhere at once—leaving little opportunity for them to hide in plain sight (like some of the words for chocolate).
But there are some surprising tech exceptions, too, even among related languages: Computer often alternates with words like ordenador (used in European Spanish) and the French word ordinateur. Here are other languages with technology exceptions:
- television: unrelated words in Chinese and Icelandic
- telephone: unrelated words in Arabic, Chinese, Icelandic, Japanese, and Korean
- radio: unrelated words in Chinese and Icelandic
Are mama and papa universal?
Words like mama, papa, and dada are similar across much of the world… but I didn't include them for a few reasons.
First is why they're similar around the world: It's partly due to biology and physics!
These words, and variants like ama, apa, oma, and opa, are made up of sounds that are among the earliest ones babies can pronounce. "M," "b," and "p" are all formed by touching your lips together and releasing them quickly with a little pop, and babies first make these sounds when they babble at just a few months old (think of bababa). In fact, by one theory, that's *why* these early babbles became the words for parents—babies call out to their parents using the only sounds they have, and parents interpret these calls as their *names*!
But there are interesting exceptions, too: While many (even most?) languages used words like mama and dada for parents, there are differences across cultures in which word is for the mother and which for the father. A sort of famous example (among linguists, anyway 🤓) comes from Georgian, where the m- word is the one for "father" and the d- word is for "mother"! There are many other languages where the meaning is swapped, not to mention Ukrainian (and others) where the d- word is for "uncle"!
Are amen and hallelujah universal?
These words are definitely used worldwide, but not quite in all *languages*—but again, it depends on how you count! Amen, hallelujah, and its variants (like alleluia) are mostly restricted to Jews and Christians—so they aren't really in all *languages*, even though Christians and Jews use these terms no matter their language background. Since more than ⅔ of the world's population isn't Christian or Jewish, they didn't make the list.
Are proper nouns and regional dishes universal?
It's true that some brands, like Coca Cola, and specific dishes or cuisines, like curry and pizza, are used in much of the world. So they count! What makes them different is that they are still very closely associated with a different language, place, or cuisine—so I thought they'd be less surprising (does everyone know pizza is Italian?). Another technicality! 😉
Are these recent global exports universal?
Similarly, some cultural phenomena like foods, traditions, and events have been exported globally nearly instantaneously, especially in the last century. They can count! Here are some examples y'all submitted:
- karaoke (from Japanese)
- kiwi (from Maori)
- sauna (from Finnish—although Swedish has a different word!)
- tattoo (from a Polynesian language)
- tofu (originally from Chinese, borrowed by Japanese)
- yoga (originally from Sanskrit, then in Hindi)
- yogurt (from Turkish)
Ok, ok: We'll add one more to the list
Alright—there is *one more* viable candidate for universal word: ok! Whether you spell it okay or abbreviate it to k in a text, this word does seem to be used worldwide. Its origins are unclear (and there are many convoluted stories about how it started or if it's an abbreviation), but it has become a near-universal form of acknowledgement!
The final count
No matter how you count, the list of "universal" words is small—and it's pretty impressive that it exists at all. I think the consensus is that there may be only one comprehensible request in all languages: "Mama! Chocolate, ok?" Amen!