There is a fun list of Universal Truths here at truths.omniseek.com, but these aren’t really what I am referring to. In fact, I probably should have gone with ‘Universally Shared Experiences Within the Human Race’ or something of the sort, but that makes for an unwieldy title. I am also not trying to define the age old question of what a Universal Truth is, so don’t berate me.
My point is this: when attempting to communicate, it is best to use shared common experiences. Whether you are writing, telling jokes, trying to fix a clock, or just saying hello, you need a common place to start from and if you don’t know anything about the person you just met, it needs to be a (duh da da dah!) Universal Truth (or at least a very common experience).
Like miming how to eat in the movies. Everyone eats, right? So it shouldn’t be too hard to get that idea across. Things like bodily functions are pretty much universal and the ideas can be gotten across pretty easily, so there is word for them. Not only that, but there is a word for them in all languages. A word in every language for the Universal Truth.
So here is where I am going with this, and I realize that this is not a correlation or even a causality, but like some myths having a grain of truth to them, I suspect there is a grain of truth here somewhere too. (And if not, it is still the great starting place for ideas for stories!) Some words seem to exist in every language. (Don’t hold me to this, I am not an expert!) Therefore it would seem that a common experience, a Universal Truth, has created the need for the word.
And here is where I find it interesting. According to various online dictionaries: the word ‘ghost’ in Spanish is ‘sustantivo’, German is ‘geist’, Russian is ‘призрак’, according to Google Translations it is ‘شبح’ in Arabic, ‘鬼’ in Chinese, and ‘mzimu’ in Swahili. (I could not find a language that does not have a word for ‘ghost’, but I have to admit the possibility that modern contamination has created one for every language.) What could it mean that every language has a word for this supernatural thing that no one can prove exists? Well, obviously it means humans everywhere have had very similar experiences that needed a name. Something they are all afraid of. A Universal Fear. I think the real secret here though is finding out what that experience is. Good luck with that!
Even more interesting is the conversation I had with Pam Pettit, one of the team at Zombies Eat People and a columnist for their upcoming Brains Magazine. Being a Zombie Expert, Pam was quick to point out that ghosts are not the only universally mentioned supernatural thing. There is also the Undead. Whether you call it a zombie, a vampire, or a ghoul, every culture has some form of undead lore. This is a bit more specific than just a ‘ghost’ which could just be anything that goes bump in the night. This is as specific as a body which was dead,or should be, is now not. Being more specific, it is easier to find answers for. Things such as the Safety Coffin (one with a bell to ring if you wake up in the coffin) give us an idea of how the idea of the undead could come to be.
Anyway, my point is, there are great stories here in the idea of Universal Fears. Any fear anyone can relate to is one everyone will be afraid of. If you know of any more or have any ideas on some, I would love to hear them!
An interesting side note: I came across this great article about the difficulty of translating while trying to find out if any languages did not have a word for ghost: Words Without Borders.