5 Eerily Specific Things Every Human Does Exactly the Same
We don't think we're exaggerating when we say that if the entire world stopped focusing on its differences for like five minutes, you'd probably be reading this article from your summerhouse on Mars while preparing for the annual World Peace Day barbecue. So to help facilitate the arrival of the first off-world human colony, let's talk about the stuff that the entire human race has in common, and we don't mean things like eating, sleeping, or farting.
No, we're talking about the weirdly specific traits shared by nearly every society in every corner of the globe, for reasons science doesn't completely understand. For example ...
Every Language Shares One Word
Do an experiment: Go up to a stranger or co-worker who isn't paying attention to you, and say this phrase: "Do you have time to masturbate the giraffe after lunch?" Note the sound they make in reply. That sound will be the same whether you're asking the question in America, or Japan, or Iceland.
If that sound is, "Oooh, yeah," pick a new stranger, and try again.
See, according to modern science, there's a single word shared by pretty much every language on the planet. It's not a big word. Some have questioned if it is even a proper word at all, but it's one you've uttered in the last week. The word in question is "huh?" -- the universal sound of disbelief and/or confusion; it's the single-syllable way to say, "Can you repeat that?"
A Netherlands-based team did a study about this, analyzing recordings of conversations in 10 unrelated languages like Spanish, Chinese, and Icelandic, and found that not only did all of them have a short word that begs clarification, they all sounded alike as well. Even the Russian language had a version that was close to it, despite the fact that their language doesn't have an "h" sound (making their "huh?" sound closer to "ah?," which is still pretty darn close).
A large part of Russian homophobia is just fear of what they can't pronounce.
So why would so many completely unrelated languages settle on the same little interjection any time the listener wants information to be repeated? One of the linguistics researchers responsible for the study, Mark Dingemanse, seems to think it's due to convergent evolution -- the process by which multiple subjects accidentally evolve in similar ways.
Now, the easy objection here would be that "huh" isn't really a word, that it's just a noise we make. And don't we all share similar grunts and screams? After all, Japanese porn sounds just like American porn, once the fucking starts. But "huh" follows all of the other qualifications for word status. It's not used arbitrarily, and it does follow specific grammatical rules, like always appearing at the end of the sentence. It has a specific meaning that's understood by the listener ... no matter where you go.
People Everywhere Associate Sunshowers with Satan and Animal Marriage
If you're ever out with your grandfather on a bright sunshiny day, and suddenly it starts pouring rain, you may hear him say something equally bizarre and politically incorrect: "the devil is beating his wife."
And he's probably wearing the undershirt known as a "devil's vest."
He's not showing signs of dementia -- it's a common, old saying in the American South, and it's one of those total nonsense idioms that doesn't make sense, even if someone explains it to you. But here's the thing: Not only do cultures all over the world have some kind of weird saying about sunshowers, but they all seem to be surreal jokes involving marriage. What the hell?
Versions of the American saying can be found all over Europe as well as in Haiti, where the phrase means the devil beats his wife for putting too much salt in his food. All right, so clearly the saying just traveled with European immigrants. We'll buy that. But go to Asia and Africa, and you'll find a bunch of similar jokes -- only in those parts of the world, it's about animals getting married. So in Arabia, for instance, people might look out the window and say, "Oh, rats are getting married." People who speak Zulu would say, "Monkeys are getting hitched." In Korea, they'd say "tigers," and in South Africa, it'd be "jackals." The most common animal reference concerns the nuptials of foxes, which are signaled by sunshowers in places ranging from Japan and Finland to Turkey and India.
It stops when the sky runs out of fox to give.
Linguistics experts at Harvard University have painstakingly compiled a list of all the devil/animal-marriage sayings for when a sunshower occurs, though for some reason they have left out the beautiful idiom sandwich that France has come up with. Apparently, when caught in a downpour during a sunny day, a French person might turn to you and say that the devil's beating his wife and marrying his daughter (who is also a lemur, probably).
All Cultures Name Star Constellations in Bizarrely Similar Ways
For millennia, humans have looked up and admired the stars in the night sky, and those whose distracting stargazing habits didn't get them eaten by saber-toothed tigers eventually started to give the star groupings special names, based on some shape they resembled. Maybe it's not so strange that people all over the globe all started doing this -- prior to the invention of electricity, it's not like they had a lot of nighttime entertainment options -- but what is strange is how oddly similar they are.
And yet, all we can see here is a worm with explosive diarrhea
In other words, cultures across the globe aren't just grouping stars, they're grouping the same stars. Sure, the names of modern constellations all come from ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece, but these are places that, say, American and Australian natives had never heard of thousands of years ago. But they too grouped those same stars, finding and naming shapes in the sky independently from the European/Middle Eastern civilizations. For example, Australia's Boorong aboriginal group probably were the first to observe the Lyra constellation, only instead of a musical instrument, they looked at it and saw the shape of a wild, chicken-sized bird called the malleefowl.
Think about it. Two groups of people have looked at this and said, "I bet that it makes an annoying sound."
But even weirder, folks from different parts of the world would look up at constellations and unknowingly agree on what they were seeing. Take the Orion constellation, named after a giant from Greek mythology, or as the Syrians knew it, "Al Jabbar," literally meaning "the giant." Then there's the ever-popular Big Dipper, which even to people all across Asia looked so much like something that belongs in the kitchen, they gave it names like "the Ladle" (Malaysia) or "Northern Saucepan" (Japan and Korea).
The lesson here: never do astronomy on an empty stomach.
It goes even further than that, though. The Big Dipper, as part of the Ursa Major constellation, has long been associated with the image of bears among such diverse people as ancient Greeks and various North American tribes, and no one can explain why. But whatever it was that made them look at the same stars and see majestic bears, they sure did not have that in Arabia, where some stories described the Big Dipper as a coffin followed by three mourners.
We All Gesture the Same Way
Say you saw a man inserting his penis into a toaster and needed to tell someone about it. Most English-speaking people would utter the phrase, "That man is inserting his penis into a toaster! I'm never shopping at Walmart again!" Other languages would have expressed that differently, though, at least in terms of grammar. For instance, in Turkish, the word "insert" would go at the end of the sentence because Turkish is a subject-object-verb language, while in German, there's probably a special word to describe man-on-toaster sexual assault.
In other words, in different languages, it's not just the words that get replaced; the entire ideas are arranged differently, which makes sense, if these languages were developed at different times and places by people who never met each other. However, recent research has shown that when we rely solely upon gestures and pantomime, we basically speak the same, universal language.
Psychologists at the University of Chicago tested 40 native speakers of English, Mandarin, Turkish, and Spanish, asking them to describe a scene they saw in a video using only their hands. Now, of the four languages, only Turkish is a pure subject-object-verb language, but when the test subjects were asked to communicate a sentence like "the woman twists the knob," all of them used the gesture for twisting (the verb) at the end. This went completely against the grammatical rules of their native tongues, which of course wasn't present when they were describing the scene using words.
Subjects who gestured with their own knobs were expelled from the study.
The results of the experiment seem to show that when you strip away the rules and regulations of language, the human brain, no matter your nationality or ethnic background, diverts to a default state that perceives reality as subject (first) then action (last). Or in other words: The human brain is totally like Yoda thinks.
Evolution plays a strange game.
We're All Crazy About Dragons
For a creature that has never existed, dragons sure do turn up a lot in ancient texts.
Almost every major civilization has had a love affair with a scaly, fake mythological creature, which is a) adorable, and b) intriguing as hell, in view of the fact that countries as diverse as Australia, Greece, Scotland, Italy, and Korea have independently told stories about these reptilian beasts.
For example, here's a Germanic dragon:
God, we hope he's just going for a high-five there ...
Now you know exactly one thing about Wales.
Don't forget to bury the teeth next to the petunias!
It doesn't technically breathe fire, but it invented the wasabi challenge.
You just need to take one look at them to realize that it's not like these guys spread on their own from a single source like an ancient word-of-mouth version of a cult movie. It seems that a lot of these tales and beliefs happened independently of each other, and there are many theories as to how it happened.
For instance, in Australia and Africa, huge monitor lizards and crocodiles are probably the source of the dragon myth, while the Asian dragon origin can probably be traced back to whale and dinosaur fossils. If you didn't have Wikipedia handy back then and just happened upon a whale bone that wasn't in the ocean, your mind could have naturally produced quite a tale to explain what the fuck you just found out in a field somewhere.
And then you would imagine that they could fly because the human brain is AWESOME!
Another, more deep-seated explanation of the belief in giant, magical lizards throughout history and geography can be attributed to our innate fear of deadly predators. Back when we were just a bunch of primates swinging happily on tree branches, predators constituted roughly 80 percent of all living things under those branches. But as we got bigger and smarter and gun-inventing-er, not even lions seemed to tickle the fear center of our brain.
So to keep us vigilant and on our toes, the brain extrapolated from the animals and fossils around it, and came up with stories of huge, scaly beasts that could fly and breathe fire. That still seems ... strangely specific, doesn't it? But then again, every culture has zombies and werewolves, too, so maybe we were constantly thinking up different monsters, and over time we decided to all keep the same few really awesome ones.
Justin is building a horror novel that is free as the air you breathe. It's over on JukePop here. Vote to keep it going. He would also like to thank Brittney Herz-Glenn for her expertise on wordish things. Thanks to Christopher Kidonakis for the research on this, read more from him here.
For more things we should steal from other cultures, check out 9 Foreign Words the English Language Desperately Needs. And then check out 33 Useful Words the English Language Needs to Add.