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universal vocabulary list


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Jul 2, 2012, 12:55am Top

'Mama, papa, coffee, taxi.'

These words, along with a few others, are the same in almost every language I've encountered, with slight variations in pronunciation. 'Papa', for example, is 'baba' in Chinese, 'appa' in Korean, and 'abba' in Hebrew. 'Mama' and 'Papa', of course, come from the sounds babies make.

Globalization has produced a few words which are used all over. 'Taxi' or 'Teksi' and 'coffee' or 'kafe' are the same words used worldwide, with few exceptions (in Chinese there are two different words for taxi, neither of which sounds like 'taxi'. 'Coffee' is the same: 'ka fei')

Anyways, just wondering if there are other words you know of which are universal. Do you think, in 50 years, there will be a few hundred words which will form a globally understood, universal vocabulary?

Universal/near universal words:

tea or cha/chai


Jul 2, 2012, 1:17am Top

airport (though not airplane, curiously)

I find this especially interesting for items that have been around for centuries, such as coffee, tea, and sugar. The universal name suggests each spread from a single location (or perhaps two, in the case of tea/chai?) and its name spread with it, gladly embraced along with the product.

Jul 2, 2012, 1:23am Top

When the concept of the word is new to the certain language and doesn't have an exact word for it, the new word would have to be imported to that language. Hence there are so many words which sound simuler to the other foreign languages... Am I following you alright?

How about ... Jumper in English, Japanese, Korean ;pan (bread) in Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese; rickshaw in Chinese, English, Japanese; Tsunami in Japanese, English, etc.

I can't think of any but pretty sure there are more...

Jul 2, 2012, 1:39am Top

On second thought, maybe "sugar" changes its sound too much from one language to another; that may be a judgment call. Although the word is a recognizable cognate across languages that are unrelated or distantly related, they're not identical the way "taxi" and "coffee" are. (French "sucre," Arabic "sukkar," Russian "sakhar," Swahili "sukari," Hungarian "cukor," Basque "azukre")

Jul 2, 2012, 1:55am Top

Most scientific vocabulary is like that. "Biology" is an interesting example of a word that appeared simultaneously in many European languages, with no unique ancestor.

Chinese frequently chooses not to simply copy foreign vocabulary, and doesn't have the phonetic system to adopt many Western words, so Chinese always going to be a problem.

On the other hand, I think you're stretching it with papa. It's got false cognates--it's Pope in Italian and several other languages--and baba and appa (and the Slavic tata and Turkic dədə) and worse yet the Georgian mama are not going to be universally understood as referring to father.

Another example is banana; in the top six languages by native speakers, Chinese (Mandarin) has 香蕉 (xiāngjiāo), Spanish has banana or banano some places, but uses completely different words elsewhere*, English uses banana, Hindi uses केला (kelā), Arabic uses موزة (máwza), and Bengali uses কলা (kôla). (All from Wiktionary)

* Spanish: banana (es) f (Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay), banano (es) m (Central America, Colombia, Ecuador), cambur m (Colombian Llanos, Venezuela), guineo m (Colombian Atlantic Coast, Dominican Republic, Eastern Bolivia, Eastern Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Northern Honduras), mínimo m (Central Honduras), plátano m (Spain, Chile, Mexico, Peru), plátano fruta m (Cuban standard usage) (from Wiktionary)

Jul 2, 2012, 2:53am Top

airport (though not airplane, curiously)

metro - no, airport - no, computer - no. None of these are universally used.

Jul 2, 2012, 3:10am Top

Of the ones suggested, Finnish drops telephone (puhelin), airport (lentokenttä), computer (tietokone) and football (jalkapallo).
And football doesn't even have established meaning in English, with Americans talking about different sport than British...

New concepts starting at given point do carry their names with them though in some cases it would be necessary to compare the languages around the places of origin. So for fruits growing in, say, South America, it is not enough to look at European languages but also numerous native languages, and it would be surprising if they had agreed on a name...

Plenty of newer scientific words are probably shared though. I wonder if any language has come up with a new word to "genome" or "integral" (as math term).

Edited: Jul 2, 2012, 3:16am Top

Re #6: Certainly nothing is 100%, but these are found across a wide selection of unrelated languages. For example, "metro" has the same meaning and nearly identical pronunciation in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Russian, Turkish, Tagalog, Basque, Finnish, and Hungarian. (Obviously, some of those are related, but several aren't.) Moreover, in languages such as Hindi it's used and understood alongside a more indigenous synonym. Excluding Chinese, which as prosfilaes noted is often an exception, just the above-listed 12 example languages account for 44% of the world's speakers.

Jul 2, 2012, 3:27am Top

Several countries actively try to make their own words when they get newcomers: Finland has been mentioned (computer=tietokone), France does it too (computer=ordinateur), and so does Iceland (computer=tölva). So there definitely are forces to localize vocabulary as well as to globalize it.

Jul 2, 2012, 5:16am Top

I've pretty much forgotten my schoolgirl French and German but there are a few discrepancies here as far as modern Greek is concerned (quite odd really when you consider how many other languages have Greek as their source).

okay = εντάξει (pronounced en-daxee)
autobus = λεωφορείο (lay-oh-for-ee-oh)
computer = ηλεκτρονικός υπολογιστής (electronic-os ippo-log-ees-tees)
football = ποδόσφαιρο (poth-os-fair-oh - though 'football' is also common nowadays)
sugar = ζάχαρη zach-ar-ee (the obvious link here is with 'saccharine')

Jul 2, 2012, 5:27am Top

The word "bar" is pretty widespread...

Edited: Jul 2, 2012, 10:26am Top

I suspect no one is contending that a word needs to occur in 100% of languages to qualify as universal; if so, it would be impossible, in practice, ever to prove that a given word meets that test. Moreover, there are probably none that would qualify because there'd always be some isolated language in New Guinea that doesn't include it. Of course, unless we're agreeing that 100% is the benchmark, it doesn't really disprove a word's universality by citing a single language (or two, or five) that doesn't contain it, so we'll have to devise more examples to confirm both positives and negatives.

One objective test might be to establish a threshhold, such as that the word occurs (with a given meaning, and nearly identical pronunciation) in a set of languages entailing at least X% of the world's native speakers, similar to the checks I did for "metro." If X is set too high, it requires checking a prohibitive number of languages because of the steady decline in number of speakers as one goes down the list of languages; I just compiled a spreadsheet and found that, for example, reaching 60% would require proving a word's presence in a minimum of 42 languages, those languages obviously being the world's 42 most spoken. Maybe a benchmark of 30-40% could be considered sufficient. A rougher but far less time-consuming heuristic might be to call a word provisionally universal if, say, it occurs in at least six languages representing at least four language groups or linguistic isolates, the logic being that a word extending into multiple families could be extrapolated as having extended into some or many of the other languages in those families as well.

Those are just a couple of ideas that come to mind; I'm eager to hear others. Because Scott began this engaging thread, I'll defer to him to offer the criterion, if he chooses.

Re #10: That's another great example for "sugar." It seems English is the odd one out by having the middle consonsant be a "g" instead of a "k" or "kh" sound. The "r" is surprisingly consistent, and it seems almost any sibilant can be the initial consonant sound. Interesting.

Jul 2, 2012, 11:01am Top

>12 buckjohnson: Good points, buckjohnson. Yes, there will always be exceptions, and no word will ever be adopted by every language. Some languages, like English and Korean, readily adopted foreign words, while others, like French and Chinese, are very resistant (the former because of pride, and the latter because of the difficulty in transliterating loanwords into Chinese characters).

I like your idea of calling a word universal if it is used by 6 different languages in 4 different language families. Although 6 seems too few. How about 10? What does everyone else think?

Most of these universal words are nouns. I wonder if there are any universal verbs?

Jul 2, 2012, 11:05am Top

Oh, speaking of football, I've noticed that 'Score!' seems to be fairly widely understood. I guess that's a verb...

Jul 2, 2012, 12:43pm Top

It's interesting that two out of the eight words proposed in Post 2 are actually French words with only limited acceptance in English: "autobus" (understood, but not used at all in normal English) and "metro" (only quite recently took over from underground/subway as the default term, not used at all in cities like London and New York that have older systems). I suppose that's the point Buckjohnson made about words "used and understood alongside a more indigenous synonym". We all know what a metro is, even if we take the tube to get to work.

Maritime language ought to be a good place to find words that have crossed between languages, but it doesn't seem to work very well for the words I tried. "Capstan" goes quite a long way, for instance, but it's nowhere near universal. Words like "sheet" and "halyard" don't seem to go across more than two language families: probably those are things invented independently in many different cultures.

I'm sure that there must be a de facto set of basic maritime command verbs that are understood by all merchant seamen independent of where they come from (to express things like "pull", "stop pulling", "make fast", "let go", "come up to my place for a good time").

What about tattoo (verb and noun)? That seems to be a good candidate in western languages, but it only appears in a few Asian ones.

Why has no-one mentioned pizza yet? Surely that's the most universal word that's not a trade-mark.

Jul 2, 2012, 3:40pm Top

Not exactly a word, but there is one thing that appears to be nigh-universal: "schhh" for quieting someone. May be the only verbal communication that is as universal as a smile.

Jul 3, 2012, 5:03am Top

There certainly should be a universal word for 'help!' I can't guarantee that I would remember a 'second language' version as I'm sinking beneath the waves for the third time.

Jul 3, 2012, 5:37am Top

Well.. not really. papa is "tati" in Bulgarian... so it is not as universal as you might think...

Jul 3, 2012, 6:00am Top

One bet for help is "mayday". I'm not sure more people will understand it then "help", but they'll appreciate that you're trying to be international instead of parochial. SOS is there, but I don't think it has a universal pronunciation.

As a side note, I've been looking these up in Wiktionary. Esperanto is sometimes interesting; there's been arguments from day one about whether to adopt international words or build them internally; e.g. hospitalo versus malsanulejo--literally a place for sick people. (While I'm rambling, hospital is interesting internationally; how close does it have to be count? We've got Basque ospitale, French hôpital, Romanian's spital, Polish (szpital), Swiss German Spital, Italian ospedale, Luxembourgish Spidol, and Maltese sptar. Tetum, Tagalog, Hiligaynon and Swahili all fall in this range. It's got big holes, but it passes the four language family test.)

Volapük is always funny. It is, of course, naturally, completely obvious that the name of the language is a simple combination of World + Speech with natural phonetic changes; I would say that the same thing is true of nünöm and computer, but someone would claim it was derived from ordinateur or rekenaar, and I could not gainsay them. (Perhaps a bit unfair, as a non-Esperantist could not make head or tails of malsanulejo, but Volapük is consistently distant from the universal vocabulary and consistently etymologically opaque.)

Jul 3, 2012, 6:02am Top

>17 Booksloth:
I suppose you could try "Mayday!", which was invented for that purpose, but wouldn't necessarily be understood by anyone who hadn't done a radio course at some point in their life.

Jul 3, 2012, 6:13am Top

I don't know about outside of English, but I think it's fairly well-known to English speakers. It comes up in aviation, and I'm pretty sure they wouldn't name a TV show "Mayday!", nor title as many books Mayday as they do, if it were obscure jargon. (Of course, well-known to English speakers doesn't mean much on this topic.)

Jul 3, 2012, 6:46am Top

>17 Booksloth:,21
According to Wikipedia, "sloths are competent swimmers", so absent-mindedly uncurling that third toe from the branch might not be the end of the world...

I'm sure that prosfilaes is right, that most people who read books, watch movies, etc., will know about "Mayday". But if you splash down on some remote stretch of the Orinoco or the Amazon, I wonder if you can count on the indigenous people being aware of an international concept that goes with the worlds of shipping, aviation and wireless?

Jul 3, 2012, 9:29am Top

Y'all do know that Mayday is just an English spelling for M'Aide (not sure about the spelling), French for Help Me!

Jul 3, 2012, 10:11am Top

I believe the original French for Mayday is "m'aidez!" which does indeed mean help me, and is pronounced Mayday (or close thereto).

Jul 3, 2012, 11:21am Top

Because recent technology words seem to be pretty good candidates, one possible universal verb might be "photograph." I knew there were similar verbs in French ("photographier") and Russian ("fotografirovat'"), and some research shows Spanish ("fotografiar"), Italian ("fotografare"), Luxembourgish ("fotograféieren"), and Czech ("fotografovat'"), but I'm having trouble finding the verb (as opposed to the noun) in most bilingual dictionaries. Verbs can be expected to vary more than nouns across languages because of the required verb endings, but a speaker who knows any one of these would surely recognize the meaning of the others.

The noun "photo" or "photograph" seems to be a universal; "photo" easily passes the 10-4 test, and I'm just shy of meeting the test for "photograph," though that's only because I'm enough of a purist to exclude several languages in which it appears as "fotografia."

photo: English, Spanish, Romanian, German, Afrikaans, Russian; Swahili, Lingala; Indonesian; Estonian; Basque

photograph: English, French, Swedish, Albanian, Welsh, Hindi; Turkish; Japanese

Jul 3, 2012, 11:36am Top

There is something to be said about this though - in Bulgarian there is a derivative word but using it is not common. So if you read a dictionary, the word is there. If you speak the language - well... chances are you are going with a different one.

Jul 3, 2012, 4:45pm Top

I thought snimka was the common Russian word and that foto applied more to film photography. Anyhow, I can confirm 'photo' also for Swedish. I think it's a good candidate, albeit somewhat trivial.

Jul 3, 2012, 5:41pm Top

>27 anglemark:

Yes, it is. Same as Bulgarian. Dictionaries don't give the full story - words exist but if they are not used, they don't really count for such statistics.

Jul 3, 2012, 5:48pm Top

Wikipedia on the etymology of 'mayday.'

The Mayday callsign originated in 1923 by Frederick Stanley Mockford (1897–1962). A senior radio officer at Croydon Airport in London, Mockford was asked to think of a word that would indicate distress and would easily be understood by all pilots and ground staff in an emergency. Since much of the traffic at the time was between Croydon and Le Bourget Airport in Paris, he proposed the word "Mayday" from the French m’aider. "Venez m'aider" means "come help me."


Jul 3, 2012, 9:36pm Top

#28: I think it's a more complex issue of whether they're understood. If you have to, in English you may call the organ that pumps blood the "coronary muscle", and a good number of people will understand, even if that's not the normal word for it.

Jul 4, 2012, 2:09am Top

#25, Finnish uses valokuva, which is a calque of photograph.

Edited: Jul 4, 2012, 2:33am Top

This user has been removed as spam.

Jul 4, 2012, 3:35am Top

Yeah, Samsung is definitely a good candidate. Water isn't but perhaps filter is? Thanks hairtrans02 for an interesting thought and give our regards to hairtrans01.

Jul 4, 2012, 4:44am Top

Yes, we all know about m'aidez/mayday but how many of us would think of it in a panic situation?

#22 There's always an exception. This sloth flounders around a bit then sinks like a stone :)

Jul 4, 2012, 8:43am Top

RE: #25
Buck - In 1943, by international accord of lusophone countries, the Portuguese language eliminated the use of -ph- in words derived from Greek letter Φ (phi) and employed the letter F instead, so the relevant words in current-day Portuguese are foto (noun) and fotografar (verb).

Jul 10, 2012, 12:55pm Top

regarding football, surely GOAL is understood as such by all who play the game, regardless of the language!

Edited: Jul 10, 2012, 3:22pm Top

But it's understood as an English word. It hasn't been borrowed into most languages.

Jul 13, 2012, 2:07pm Top

This user has been removed as spam.

Jul 13, 2012, 2:51pm Top

I think message #38 above should be flagged, but I have no idea how to do it. I tried the LT help section (which I've never found to be all that helpful, frankly) but didn't find instructions on how to do it. Can anyone explain the process to me (and perhaps to others in my predicament)?

Jul 13, 2012, 3:11pm Top

>39 jpyvr:

Click on "More" under the message and the Flag option shows up. Just click on Flag and then on "Flag this message"

Jul 13, 2012, 3:27pm Top

"Massage" might otherwise be a candidate for a universal word. I like to be positive.

Jul 13, 2012, 3:44pm Top

You can also flag the poster.


Jul 13, 2012, 6:14pm Top

Thanks all, for the tip. Looks like the work has already been done for me.

Jul 14, 2012, 1:06am Top

In a way, it's flattering that LT, and this thread in particular, are considered popular enough to be worth spamming, not once but twice.

Research shows that "spam" (for the electronic nuisance, not the brand name) really does seem to have become an international word:
English, French, Spanish, German, Danish, Czech, Albanian; Azeri, Kazakh; Hungarian; Indonesian

Edited: Jul 14, 2012, 1:59am Top

Chemical elements discovered in modern times (as opposed to silver, tin, etc.) seem to be good candidates for international words, but one shows an unusual behavior. It turns out that two etymologically unrelated words for nitrogen both qualify as international words:

nitrogen: English, Spanish, Catalan, Breton, Welsh, Norwegian, Farsi, Kurdish; Hungarian; Arabic; Indonesian; Swahili, Yoruba; Basque; Tagalog

azote: French, Italian, Portuguese, Corsican, Albanian, Greek, Latvian, Polish, Russian; Turkish, Azeri, Kazakh; Maltese; Lingala

It's interesting that two etymologically unrelated synonyms both span enough language groups to qualify, which of course in this case is made possible because some language families are divided (Spanish and Catalan vs. Italian and Portuguese, Arabic vs. Maltese, Yoruba vs. Lingala).

A few Germanic languages use a variant related to the German "Stickstoff" and Dutch "stikstof," which doesn't seem to enter any other families, and which I otherwise would have pegged as a word for "glue." Also, darsu brought up calques, and one of my favorites has always been the Russian word "vodorod," meaning "water-producer," hence a calque for the Greek-derived English word "hydrogen."

Jul 16, 2012, 6:00am Top

>45 buckjohnson:
...and hydrogen is waterstof/Wasserstoff in Dutch and German. Oxygen and sulphur also tend to have "localised" (or at least Germanised) names, presumably because they were also isolated quite a long time ago, but oddly enough phosphorus and the halogens don't seem to.

Jul 16, 2012, 10:07am Top

Hydrogen = väte
Oxygen = syre
Nitrogen = kväve
Sulphur = svavel

In Swedish.

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