I am reading the book titled 'A Companion to Philosophical Logic,' where I gained insight into how logic serves as a tool for representing our thoughts, which are expressed in natural language.

In my experience, languages vary in their power of expressiveness, which depends on the richness of the language itself.

It's quite absurd to assume that all languages are universal in terms of expressiveness. For instance, some languages can be fully contained within others through translation. Consider Arabic and English—without starting a language debate, as someone who speaks both languages (as well as three others), it's evident that while English words can be translated into Arabic, there are many Arabic words that are virtually impossible to translate into English.

This example serves as a counterargument to anyone claiming that a language is universal.

Doesn't this suggest that Tarski's assumption that natural language is universal is incorrect? Although, according to the book, he faced criticism for this premise, using the argument I've presented above, it becomes straightforward to see why.


2 Answers 2


You're correct in stating that one of the current controversial issues in philosophy is determining to what extent language is in some sense universal. True language certainly, according to anthropologists and thinkers like Donald Brown, is a cultural universal. Donald Brown in his work Human Universals (GB) certainly shows the universality of the human psychology that gives rise to culture and language.

According to Noam Chomsky, all humans are born with an innate universal grammar. From WP:

Universal grammar (UG), in modern linguistics, is the theory of the innate biological component of the language faculty, usually credited to Noam Chomsky. The basic postulate of UG is that there are innate constraints on what the grammar of a possible human language could be. When linguistic stimuli are received in the course of language acquisition, children then adopt specific syntactic rules that conform to UG. The advocates of this theory emphasize and partially rely on the poverty of the stimulus (POS) argument and the existence of some universal properties of natural human languages. However, the latter has not been firmly established, as some linguists have argued languages are so diverse that such universality is rare, and the theory of universal grammar remains controversial among linguists.

This thesis is also supported by contemporary neurological data such as the use of fMRIs to monitor Broca's and Wernicke's areas as well as other academic efforts. For instance, clearly an exploration of natural language ontology (SEP) and the main thesis of quantifier variance also support the idea that no language is inherently superior to another in terms of meaning, if semantics is taken broadly to include a number of theories such as truth-conditional semantics and cognitive semantics.

Even the counter-evidence to Pinker and Chomsky's assertions about the domain-specificity for the basis of language, such as that offered by Elizabeth Bates who argued that general plasticity could readily accommodate language acquisition, may be seen as supporting the idea that the characteristics of language are relatively universal. If languages, in this way, are merely a facility for linearizing phonologically brain state, then one should expect that the brain as a whole (for instance, the organization of neocortex) might be responsible for bringing about the neural substrate to maximize the ability to send and receive messages via the auditory (and visual in the case of ASL and others) features of embodied cognition (SEP).

The idea that Arabic is somehow more expressive than German, or Spanish is more expressive than Chinese would require some notion of a metric of expressiveness outside of the typical notions of expressiveness associated with the Chomskian hierarchy. I don't think any such metric exists. There are difficulties in translating radically different languages, to be sure. But, generally the nuances of translation revolve around, not so much denotation, but the connotations that language carry. From WP:

A connotation is a commonly understood cultural or emotional association that any given word or phrase carries, in addition to its explicit or literal meaning, which is its denotation.

Also, languages carry lots of different conceptual metaphors, which may vary greatly by culture, even if they are built from the same neural substrate. You add to that even part of ontology is sociological in nature (SEP), and it could be easy to mistake what is expressed for how it is expressed. Imagine trying to translate modern Japanese including all of the technical vocabulary into PIE.

With that background, in philosophy and linguistic, research and debate still occurs about the nature of translation and expressivity especially regarding linguistic relativity and indeterminacy of translation. Some relatively contemporary researchers such as Goddard and Wierzbicka believe there is a set of semantic primitives, for instance, and have put forth and defend the belief there is a natural semantic metalanguage that is universal among all people and languages.

Tarski was pivotal to moving forward a metasemantic theory around truth-conditionality and meaning, and to that extent, the many thousands of languages on the earth, as far as I know, all use complete thoughts which can be represented as propositions which can be understood in terms of classical and non-classical logics. In this sense, it is a universal property of languages that they express ideas and truth conditions. This after all, is the sort shared intentionality that languages, at least according to Tomasello, have evolved from and towards.

Certainly not all languages are equal and have the same content, but I'd say the idea that there are languages that are somehow impervious to general and informative translations seems a bit far fetched. It may seem languages are much farther apart then they really are given how difficult it is to acquire second languages after the age of five or so. Languages, after all communicate our experience, and human experience is relatively universal in the broad strokes given how many cultural universals there are. It should be noted that being ego- and cultural-centric is itself a universal cognitive bias of sorts that may encourage us to see languages as more distinct than they really are.

  • Thanks for your thorough response. Do you reckon it's crucial to establish a universal measure for gauging the expressiveness of languages? Also, in your final paragraph, are you suggesting that a language's characteristics depend on the experiences of its speakers? Commented Apr 25 at 22:42
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    I'm suggesting that all language conveys experience. Hot is an experience. Adding two and two is an experience. Talking about falling in love or having a passion for a god is an experience.
    – J D
    Commented Apr 26 at 0:59
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    And languages are extensible. If there is really no equivalent for an expression, you can simply import it. English vocabulary is an excellent example for this.
    – wra
    Commented Apr 26 at 5:41
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    Added a note about Bates. scientificamerican.com/article/…
    – J D
    Commented Apr 26 at 13:42
  • I appreciate it! Commented Apr 26 at 14:21

Are all languages universal?

The universal feature that all languages possess is the ability to pass information between entities. It's typically (but not limited to) communication between living enitities.

In living entities, information is received via the senses. So it's possible to create languages based on the senses:

  • Auditory Languages (speech)
  • Visual languages (writing, sign language)
  • Tactile languages (Braille)
  • Olfactory languages
  • Gustation based languages

Clearly the methods to convey information are not universal and attempting to rank these methods based on "expressiveness" is problematic and based on context: Which is more expressve: saying F.you or giving someone the finger?

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    So, you have examples of olfactory and gustatory languages?
    – J D
    Commented Apr 26 at 17:20
  • Thank you for the reply. expressiveness itself is a multifaceted concept, encompassing not only the conveyance of information but also emotional resonance, cultural nuances, and situational appropriateness. Besides this point, I believe you asserted that they are not universal. Commented Apr 26 at 17:24
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    @JD I couldn't find a gustatory languages but there is a Wiki page for Olfactory languages: Olfactory language - Wikipedia en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olfactory_language. Commented Apr 26 at 17:27
  • @JD Dogs use an Olfactory form of communication when they urinate to mark territory. Commented Apr 26 at 17:31
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    And since dogs' sense of smell is hundreds of times better than ours, the messages conveyed are likely very expressive and subtle.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Apr 26 at 20:41

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