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Dr Stephen Howe

Basic universals of human language; language change; human evolution; language and diversity
Dr Stephen Howe

Visiting Fellow at Wolfson College

Associate professor (Fukuoka University, Japan)

Basic universals of human language

Origin and meaning of ‘yes’ and ‘no’, and jearse and dow in Eastern English

Research Interests

I have two research projects whilst in Cambridge:

(1)    Basic universals of human language: Comparison of the languages of Sub-Saharan Africa and Pre-Columbian Americas with English

It is a great puzzle that although we instinctively 'know' what language is, it is surprisingly difficult to nail down concrete, incontrovertible universals. Some researchers (Evans and Levinson 2009) claim that linguistic diversity is largely unconstrained by strong language universals, and Greenberg's seminal (1966) study found few if any absolute universals.

However, if we hear people chatting in an unfamiliar tongue, although we cannot understand what they are saying, we sense they are using a human language like ours in a way we do not with the whistles of dolphins, dances of bees or vocalisation of chimpanzees. It is astonishing that human languages can appear outwardly so different in their phonology/sign, grammar and vocabulary, yet any human child can learn any human language without instruction. Why, then, cannot linguistics identify clear universals when informally we can easily recognise the commonality of language and learning language is child’s play?

My research background is in language variation and change. After I completed my PhD, I met Joseph Greenberg at Stanford University, as I was interested in research on universals and his work on pronouns. Greenberg wrote that 'we would prefer to have as few universals as possible … to deduce them from as small a number of general principles as possible’' My research goal is thus to attempt to put forward basic universals that can account for both the universality of human language and its diversity.

(2)    Origin and meaning of 'yes' and 'no', and jearse and dow in Eastern English

In the East of England (including Cambridgeshire) a significant number of speakers have emphatic forms of 'yes' and 'no': jearse and dow. Neither form is recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary; however, I have surveyed them in a large swathe of Eastern England from the Colne to the Humber. They are also used in Northeast America: colonists from the East of England likely brought them to New England in the seventeenth century. I plan to continue my research on Eastern English while at Cambridge.

I will also examine 'yes' and 'no' more generally. None of the standard works on grammaticalisation has entries for 'yes' and 'no': Grammaticalization (Hopper and Traugott 1993), World Lexicon of Grammaticalization (Heine and Kuteva 2002) or Oxford Handbook of Grammaticalization (Narrog and Heine 2011). What, then, are the origins of 'yes' and 'no' particles in language? I will suggest a number of development processes. In addition, we have vocalised 'yes' and 'no' (uh huh, uh-uh in English) and gesture (nodding and shaking our heads in English); this trimodality — language, vocalisation and gesture — of 'yes' and 'no' is quite exceptional, making them a potentially significant area of research in understanding human communication and its origins.


  • Dialectology
  • English
  • Language change
  • Human evolution
  • Historical linguistics


Key Publications

Howe, Stephen (1996, reprinted 2013) The Personal Pronouns in the Germanic Languages, Berlin and New York: De Gruyter (= Studia Linguistica Germanica 43).

Howe, Stephen (2012) 'A re-examination of Greenberg's universals' Fukuoka University Review of Literature and Humanities, vol. XLIV, no. I, pp. 209–253.

I will publish a study on jearse and dow in 2018, in a volume edited by Laura Wright of the Faculty of English.