Human Attribute Concepts: Relative Ubiquity Across Twelve Mutually Isolated Languages

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Abstract

It has been unclear which human-attribute concepts are most universal across languages. To identify common-denominator concepts, we used dictionaries for 12 mutually isolated languages—Maasai, Supyire Senoufo, Khoekhoe, Afar, Mara Chin, Hmong, Wik-Mungkan, Enga, Fijian, Inuktitut, Hopi, and Kuna—representing diverse cultural characteristics and language families, from multiple continents. A composite list of every person-descriptive term in each lexicon was closely examined to determine the content (in terms of English translation) most ubiquitous across languages. Study 1 identified 28 single-word concepts used to describe persons in all 12 languages, as well as 41 additional terms found in 11 of 12. Results indicated that attribute concepts related to morality and competence appear to be as cross-culturally ubiquitous as basic-emotion concepts. Formulations of universal-attribute concepts from Osgood and Wierzbicka were well-supported. Study 2 compared lexically based personality models on the relative ubiquity of key associated terms, finding that 1- and 2-dimensional models draw on markedly more ubiquitous terms than do 5- or 6-factor models. We suggest that ubiquitous attributes reflect common cultural as well as common biological processes.

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