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Please join us on 3/4 for a Developmental Science HOA with Dr.Laura Wagner, Associate Professor of Psychology at The…

Please join us on 3/4 for a Developmental Science HOA with Dr.Laura Wagner, Associate Professor of Psychology at The Ohio State University and director of the Developmental Language and Cognition Lab. Dr. Wagner studies how children acquire language, and in particular, how they learn about meaning. Her research has looks at various dimensions of meaning, including children’s understanding of temporal and event semantics (especially the linguistic category of aspect), and their understanding of social indexical meanings coded in dialect and register. She conducts her studies at her lab on OSU’s campus, and also at the Columbus Center of Science and Industry (COSI). We will enable the Q & A app prior to the HOA so feel free to posts your questions on the event post or by using the app. RSVP “yes” to add this event to your calendar.

Relevant Links:

Faculty page: 

Lab page: 

Buckeye Language Network: 

Relevant Readings:

Wagner, L., Clopper, C. G., & Pate, J. (2014).  Children’s perception of dialect variation. Journal of Child Language, 41, 1062 – 1084.

Clopper, C., Rohrbeck, K. L. & Wagner, L. (2013). Perception of talker age by young adults with High-Functioning Autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43, 134 – 146. 

Wagner, L. (2010). Acquisition of Semantics. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 1 (4), 519 – 526. 


Join the Conversation


  1. Good question, Akinola Emmanuel! Can you think of any words, Laura Wagner (see below)?

    I wonder if there’s a word that’s present in all/most languages. I’ve read that that word might be “okay”. IF that’s true, I wonder how it happened.


  2. Hi Akinola,

    You’re thinking of words that actually are pronounced the same in many languages, right? 

    As far as I know there are two ways it can happen. For words like “okay” the answer is probably language contact.  We borrow words from other languages all the time and when a language has high economic and military prestige (like English does) lots of words filter around the globe.   Borrowings like that go in all different directions and useful words get passed around easily.

    There is one other very very small class of words that also have the same pronunciation in many unrelated languages: for example, the childlike word for “mother” in most languages has a similar sound structure — it is often characterized by lots of ah’s and mmms .  The classic explanation for this is that these are sounds that babies are very likely to make, and parents around the globe  seem to leap on them and want them to be meaningful.  The desire to want your child to say “mother” early appears to be extremely common, and so that’s the meaning parents ascribe to their baby’s babbling. 


  3. Laura Wagner Thanks for replying! I was actually asking if there is a word that exists and means the same thing in all, or at least many, languages. Many languages have different words for the same thing, but I’m wondering if there is a nearly universally recognized word. 


  4. Hi Akinola,

    I’m not sure I know what you mean.  The key thing is that words have two sides to them — a FORM (how you say it) and a MEANING (what it refers to).   So some meanings are extremely common — so far as I know, every society that has cats has a word for that meaning but the forms are very different. So the meaning of CAT can be linked to the form “cat” (English), “gato” (Spanish) or “neko” (Japanese).  Those different forms all mean the same thing.

    But it sounds like you’re asking if there is a word FORM that has the same MEANING across most languages.  And my answer to that is the same one I gave you below — there are some words that have been borrowed by many languages, and “Okay” might well be one of them.  My understanding is that “Google” is probably also one of them.  And there are a very tiny number of words that parents seem to shape in their babies based on common babbling patters, although in that case, there tends to be variation (in English we have “mama” but in Armenian the say “marik”).

    These cases are the closest I know of to a FORM that is used for the same MEANING across languages. 

    If you’re looking for lists of words that are frequently borrowed into other languages, you can google it pretty easily (okay?).


  5. Laura Wagner ah, ok. I was asking because I was wondering if, as languages developed in different parts of the world, there was something “ancestral” that remained in all these languages. So not necessarily something borrowed and adopted by many languages, but rather something that was there in the beginning of the development of languages so that even though languages evolved into what we know today, they all held onto a few words from the “early days”. This way if I went to different African, South American, European countries I can say a word like “huh” and everyone would know what I mean, because they’ve always had that word, not because it spread all over the world and was eventually adopted into their language.


  6. Yeah — sorry!  It turns out that there really aren’t any proto-words that work all over the world.  Even some things we think of as being super natural (like nodding for Yes and shaking your head for No) turn out to vary with language!

    The only thing that is at all like that is the melodies that are used in infant directed speech.  It does appear that we all use the same melodies to sooth babies (low quiet tones) and to tell them to stop doing things (short sharp noises).  But then again, those melodies will also work with you dog — they seem to be part of what it means to be a mammal.


  7. Laura Wagner seriously, nodding and shaking your head are not universal?! I am really surprised about that.

    That is really fascinating information about soothing babies. Thank you for the info!!!


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