Many languages share a universal semantic structure that is independent of their speakers' culture, environment or how closely the languages are related.

Hyejin Youn and Tanmoy Bhattacharya at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico and their colleagues studied the words for 22 universal concepts — such as 'Sun' and 'water' — across 81 languages, and identified which words had multiple meanings. They linked related words and meanings together to form network maps, and found common patterns in the way that different meanings were connected to each other. For example, words for 'sea' and 'salt' were closer to each other than to words for 'Sun', and this structure was preserved across all the languages.

This method could help to reveal concepts that are universal features of human cognition and language use, the authors say.

Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA (2016)