Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Power to the Universal People!

In his fascinating book (and 1994 best-seller) The Language Instinct, Stephen Pinker argues convincingly that we humans are born with an instinct to communicate with our voices. How humans in China form and arrange their communicative vocal sounds differs markedly from how humans in Finland do, but, Pinker asserts, beneath the many world's languages lies one universal language, an inborn ability to spin webs of words much as spiders spin webs of silk and beavers build dams of tree trunks and branches.

Besides English, I can only read and speak a smattering of French, but The Language Instinct's ideas have intrigued me ever since reading the book a dozen years ago. According to Pinker and his mentor, Noam Chomsky, the languages of every culture share a Universal Grammar, UG, for short. Basque and Navajo, though unique languages totally isolated from each other, are not separated by uncrossable chasms of vocabulary and syntax; the differences between them are, instead, variations on a worldwide theme.

Toward the end of The Language Instinct, Pinker presents the work of an anthropologist, Donald E. Brown, who felt so inspired by the idea of a UG, that he searched ethnographic archives from around the world for human traits known to all cultures, hoping to find a matching Universal People, or UP, a genus quirky, capable, and determined enough to develop, over millennia, a language system as useful and beautiful as our universal grammar.  

Brown found his Universal People, and they are us. "Stunning," Pinker declares of Brown's results, "[with] something to startle almost anyone. Far from finding arbitrary variation, Brown was able to characterize the Universal People in gloriously rich detail." Pinker then devotes a few pages to a précis of Brown's Universal People common traits, beginning with:

Value placed on articulateness. Gossip. Lying. Misleading. Verbal humor. Humorous insults. Poetic and rhetorical speech forms. Narrative and storytelling. Metaphor. Words for days, months, seasons, years, past, present, future, body parts, inner states (emotions, sensations, thoughts)... giving, lending, affecting things and people, numbers (at the very least "one," "two," and "more than two"), proper names, possession.

I'll never forget the excitement that gripped me as I read that passage. Gossip, lies, jokes, insults, metaphors, and emotions: these are not will 'o the wisp fancies that we share on a some do, some don't basis; no, they are universal facts of human life! People everywhere gossip and lie; people everywhere sense both inner and outer reality; people everywhere use tools and can count at least to two. The list goes on:

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.

As I read, I kept giving each item an enthusiastic yes or at least a hmmed promise to turn the idea over in my mind. Yes, we all know the difference between father and mother; yes, we all see paired opposites like man and woman everywhere in life, including that ever-troubling pair, good and evil. The bit about logical relations got a hmm because I'm no expert in the field, but I could feel my mind opening as I considered that the big ideas named by little words like "not" and "and" are known and used by humans everywhere.

On went the list:

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...private inner life, normal versus abnormal mental states. Empathy. Sexual attraction. Powerful sexual jealousy.

—and on went my yeses. Sight and insight, yes! Smiles and tears, yes! Normal and nuts, yes! Brown lists the traits in natural groupings. Here's a family chunk:

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....Children copying their elders. Distinguishing of close kin from distant kin, and favoring of close kin.

—and a political chunk:

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.

Yet the list is also charmingly random. Brown seems to think that human traits have no known hierarchy: who can say which should come first, sex or social relations? Following him, we jump all over the map of human behavior:

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...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.

Brown doesn't put writing on his list— not every culture turns vocal sounds into visual symbols—but for any writer Brown's list comes as a gift worthy of lifelong gratitude. Why? Because we writers can use these universal traits as unshakeable bricks in building any piece of writing from three lines of haiku to three volumes of history.

Since the traits are universal, Brown's list gives every writer grounds to think, "I share these traits, blend them in my own unique way. Nothing human is alien to me, guilty on all counts!"

Brown's list also gives every writer reason to think,  "My readers share these traits with me. They too, I can assert, have 'great interest in the topic of sex,' care about 'status and prestige,' show some  'discreetness in elimination of body wastes.'"

Third, Brown's list gives every writer reason to think, "My characters share these traits with me and my readers. I've got grounds to describe them as feeling a 'sense of right and wrong,' as enjoying 'hospitality,' and indulging their "fondness for sweets.'"

Anthony Trollope builds his novels on this "we're all human" writer-reader-character bond, and refers to it often:

It is no doubt very wrong to long after a naughty thing. But nevertheless we all do so....When we confess that we are all sinners, we confess that we all long after naughty things.
—Framley Parsonage

Our archdeacon was worldly—who among us is not so?
—Barchester Towers

Other writers may be less explicit than Trollope, but I can think of no fine writer from Homer to Cervantes to Shakespeare to Balzac to Dickens to Dreiser who does not build on universal human traits as on a foundation sturdy enough to stand for centuries. Conversely, work by writers who deny sharing these traits, who cut themselves off from the rest of humanity, will not live for long. Characters who never joke or gossip, who don't get jealous or angry or sad, soon enough give up the ghost.

Our only chance at immortality is to admit our mortality. You, me, and Huckleberry Finn, we're all Universal People.


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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Monday November 5th 2012, 2:00 AM
Comment by: everaldo L. (rio de janeiro Brazil)
Excellent. This is perhaps the best I have read in quite a while. It is fascinating to perceive that people can be so close despite all kinds of differences in languages. They are all humans with an inner undefinable capacity to live in society and feel very much like other humans despite all kinds of language differences, all sorts of ways of living. This essay should be kept and ought to be read and reread. It compels us to read more on this fascinating world of language.
Monday November 5th 2012, 6:20 AM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
I really enjoyed this article because it proves what most of us know in our hearts--we're all connected! And not by one small thin thread, but by all of our most basic traits. For me, it also proves that there is a God who created human beings with a yearning to express ourselves uniquely. And, once again, Mr. Lydon has mentioned one of my favorite writers, Anthony Trollope, who was blessed with the ability to write long books that can hold the interest of readers without the need to curse or be obscenely graphic in his portrayal of the human condition and the human spirit. Trollope knew how to express the depth of human emotion and experience using good vocabulary, honest observation, and genuine interest. I think often of Mr. Trollope when I'm urged by family and friends to write a short novel, so that it will be read by a new generation of people who don't like to use too much time making their way through a book. And I think of what they're missing in the pages of Trollope's wonderful view of those characteristics which are shared universally and know that we've lost a connection to understanding.

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