Language is constrained by a biological, evolutionary apparatus, as well as by the pressures of repeated transmission and acquisition. For this reason, all languages share some characteristics, meaning human language can be considered “universal”, or common to all peoples. There is no such thing as an a-linguistic people, whereas there are individuals who, for pathological reasons, remain a-linguistic. 

Language is central: it allows for socialization. It is through talking, whether with our vocal cords, hands or other, that we learn and through talking that we build families and societies. Our languages build our cultures, entertain us, bond us and divide us. Language also allows for the technological accumulation which characterizes our species: the oft-cited ability to see further on the shoulders of giants is notably the result of these giants being able to communicate their findings and leave us oral or written traces of their work. As an object of study, language is at the heart of many fascinating research questions: where does it come from? To what extent is it constrained by genetics? To what extent does language structure thought? How do we isolate words out of a continuous acoustic flow? How do we take into account context to decode the communicative intent of a speaker? What are the cognitive consequences of multilingualism? 

Whereas language is a universal, languages differ greatly, in terms of the sounds they are composed of, the lexicon they have developed and the rules which structure them. Generally speaking, the further back the common ancestor is, the larger the distance between languages: it is easy for instance to identify common points, and thus common roots, between Italian and French, for instance, or between Arabic and Hebrew, but much more difficult between Dutch and Pukapuka. In this way, our languages carry the stories of our ancestors, of their migrations and contacts with other peoples, traces of which can be found in so-called “borrowed” vocabulary. Mastering our language also allows for access to our written and oral cultures and can thus be considered an integral part of our identities, explaining their protected status in texts of international law. 

The study of the particularities of languages and their shared characteristics is the agenda of descriptive linguistics and comparative grammar studies. Describing and comparing languages is difficult, because languages are not fixed objects but subject to constant innovation and exceptions. The value of this work is not to be underestimated because, on the one hand, it allows for leaving traces of languages which change or disappear, and on the other hand, it is necessary for pedagogical purposes. In fact, in order to transmit a language, establishing a grammar and lexicon is necessary. The capacities of imitation and induction with which we learn our mother tongues are no longer within our reach when we learn a language as an adult. 

Comparing languages also contributes to our knowledge of human history, particularly migrations, and contributes to better understanding our species in its social and psychological aspects. In order to understand what we share, we thus need to study what distinguishes us, and on the contrary, speaking these languages which divide us is one of our greatest shared traits. 

Updated on September 17, 2019