Human Universals

From DefinitionOfLife

Do all natural human languages have a word that translates to "alive"?

Dunno about the word but, according to a list of "human universals" compiled by Donald Brown and included in StevenPinker's book The Blank Slate, "death rituals", "fear of death", "magic for increasing life", and "magic to sustain life" have been found in every human culture studied.

[Yes, I'm sure they do. See for instance "life" in Cross-Cultural Universals of Affective Meaning, Osgood et al, ISBN 0252004264 . BTW despite the interesting topic, this book is very specialized, and most people wouldn't want it even if interested in the topic -- see it in a library before buying.]

[It's also clear from evolutionary psychology that this is necessarily a universal concept, and from Zipf's Law that one would additionally expect such common things to be short words, in the absence of countervailing factors such as taboos leading to euphemisms and circumlocutions.]

[Following is Pinker's summary of Brown's Human Universals (It takes for granted more basic questions like "life"). -- DougMerritt]

[ "The Language Instinct", S. Pinker, discussing "Human Universals", D.Brown ]

"According to Brown, the Universal People have the following:"

"Value placed on articulateness. Gossip. Lying. Misleading. Verbal humor. Humorous insults. Poetic and rhetorical speech forms. Narrative and storytelling. Metaphor. Poetry with repetition of linguistic elements and three-second lines separated by pauses. Words for days, months, seasons, years, past, present, future, body parts, inner states (emotions, sensations, thoughts), behavioral propensities, flora, fauna, weather, tools, space, motion, speed, location, spatial dimensions, physical properties, giving, lending, affecting things and people, numbers (at the very least "one," "two," and "more than two"), proper names, possession. Distinctions between mother and father. Kinship categories, defined in terms of mother, father, son, daughter, and age sequence. Binary distinctions, including male and female, black and white, natural and cultural, good and bad. Measures. Logical relations including "not," "and," "same," "equivalent," "opposite," general versus particular, part versus whole. Conjectural reasoning (inferring the presence of absent and invisible entities from their perceptible traces)."

"Nonlinguistic vocal communication such as cries and squeals. Interpreting intention from behavior. Recognized facial expressions of happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, disgust, and contempt. Use of smiles as a friendly greeting. Crying. Coy flirtation with the eyes. Masking, modifying, and mimicking facial expressions. Displays of affection."

"Sense of self versus other, responsibility, voluntary versus involuntary behavior, intention, private inner life, normal versus abnormal mental states. Empathy. Sexual attraction. Powerful sexual jealousy. Childhood fears, especially of loud noises, and, at the end of the first year, strangers. Fear of snakes. "Oedipal" feelings (possessiveness of mother, coolness toward her consort). Face recognition. Adornment of bodies and arrangement of hair. Sexual attractiveness, based in part on signs of health and, in women, youth. Hygiene. Dance. Music. Play, including play fighting."

"Manufacture of, and dependence upon, many kinds of tools, many of them permanent, made according to culturally transmitted motifs, including cutters, pounders, containers, string, levers, spears. Use of fire to cook food and for other purposes. Drugs, both medicinal and recreational. Shelter. Decoration of artifacts."

"A standard pattern and time for weaning. Living in groups, which claim a territory and have a sense of being a distinct people. Families built around a mother and children, usually the biological mother, and one or more men. Institutionalized marriage, in the sense of publicly recognized right of sexual access to a woman eligible for childbearing. Socialization of children (including toilet training) by senior kin. Children copying their elders. Distinguishing of close kin from distant kin, and favoring of close kin. Avoidance of incest between mothers and sons. Great interest in the topic of sex."

"Status and prestige, both assigned (by kinship, age, sex) and achieved. Some degree of economic inequality. Division of labor by sex and age. More child care by women. More aggression and violence by men. Acknowledgment of differences between male and female natures. Domination by men in the public political sphere. Exchange of labor, goods, and services. Reciprocity, induding retaliation. Gifts. Social reasoning. Coalitions. Government, in the sense of binding collective decisions about public affairs. Leaders, almost always nondictatorial, perhaps ephemeral. Laws, rights, and obligations, including laws against violence, rape, and murder. Punishment. Conflict, which is deplored. Rape. Seeking of redress for wrongs. Mediation. In-group/out-group conflicts. Property. Inheritance of property. Sense of right and wrong. Envy."

"Etiquette. Hospitality. Feasting. Diurnality. Standards of sexual modesty. Sex generally in private. Fondness for sweets. Food taboos. Discreetness in elimination of body wastes. Supernatural beliefs. Magic to sustain and increase life, and to attract the opposite sex. Theories of fortune and misfortune. Explanations of disease and death. Medicine. Rituals, including rites of passage. Mourning the dead. Dreaming, interpreting dreams."

"Obviously, this is not a list of instincts or innate psychological propensities; it is a list of complex interactions between a universal human nature and the conditions of living in a human body on this planet. Nor, I hasten to add, is it a characterization of the inevitable, a demarcation of the possible, or a prescription of the desirable. A list of human universals a century ago could have included the absence of ice cream, oral contraceptives, movies, rock and roll, women's suffrage, and books about the language instinct, but that would not have stood in the way of these innovations."

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