Driving home from the LSA conference in Baltimore last weekend, I got to thinking about xenolinguistics, i.e., the study of alien languages. Obviously this isn't something we've encountered in reality, but it's often taken up in science fiction books and movies (most recently the movie Avatar). But of course in fiction the languages are always exactly like ours, and in many cases they even are ours, just slightly modified (e.g., Star Wars, The Dark Tower series). I think it would be endlessly fascinating to write a detailed treatise on what to actually do when confronted by an alien being, though I doubt any professional journal would be interested in the results. And the steps involved would not simply be "learn the language".
First you'd have to discover if they even had a language. This might not be as simple as it sounds, because they might communicate in a way that humans could not perceive (telepathy, chemical signals, EM emission with wavelengths below 380nm or above 760nm), or their communication might not immediately be recognizable as such. We make a lot of assumptions about universality, and many of these assumptions are not necessarily founded even for human languages, much less valid for Language in the abstract. Even in the simple case of a lifeform emitting some type of sound, you'd have to figure out whether or not it was communication, and then whether or not it was language. Noise emission could be unintentional, as humans radiate heat, or it could be an response to the environment or the lifeform's internal state. And if it does have a repeating pattern of some sort, the question would still remain as to whether or not it was limited to a finite series of fixed calls, as in monkeys and dogs, or whether it was an infinitely variable system of communication, as in human language.
Once language has been established, there's still the question of perceiving and reproducing the sounds in that language. An alien lifeform would doubtless have an acoustic production tract significantly different from humans, and thus it's not a given that humans would be even physically able to distinguish the sounds it produced, much less reproduce them. Certainly there would be ways around this. If the language is spoken in the 40k-80k Hz range, you could simply pitch shift a recording down to the human hearing range. More difficult might be a case in which the language was spoken in a very narrow range, say 300-350 Hz, with 10 or 15 tonal distinctions within that range. And there's no reason to think that the facts on phonology, syntax, or semantics would be anything like human language. Even if we admit all the tenets of Universal Grammar (which I find charitable), even a diehard UGer can't expect alien languages to be the same, since they'd have evolved a different Language Acquisition Device that could have different grammar rules in it, rules that might make no sense from a human language standpoint, or even from a human cognition standpoint.
I think it would be an interesting endeavor to write out a manual for the intrepid explorer encountering an alien lifeform for the first time, instructing him (or her) how to proceed in determing the presence of a language, and if it exists, documented and learning that language. But it doesn't seem like an endeavor that would appear very impressive to hiring committees or tenure review boards. Maybe I'll take it up in another fifty years or so, when I'm old and distinguished and I don't have to care what anyone thinks of me.
Jerome Stueart interview (pt. 3)
10 months ago