Saturday, January 16, 2010


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.


megan-mae said...

Reading this made me think of the typology of a 'newly discovered alien language' my Morphology class had to write.

Writing up a manual would be interesting. It would probably be more fun too when you're old and distinguished, because by then you'll be so sick of 50 years of writing papers about.... well, I don't know what field of linguistics really catches your fancy, so I don't know what to say as an example of something tedious you can do for 50 years.

Students would probably be able to benefit from such a manual. i'm thinking along the lines of assignments that encourage students to think outside the square. Like i had to write that alien language typology. And it conformed to like 2 universals. And, okay, so it was a morhpology class, so that was sort of the main feature of the language we were looking at - but if it was just a general sort of linguistics course, why would you even assume that aliens use language - especially given that humans are the only creatures on Earth that do.

So maybe such a manual wouldn't be used for a practical OMG-there-are-aliens-landing-on-the-moon sort of thing, but I think it could be very useful for educational purposes.

Anonymous said...

Wow, you make a wild guess statement , Imagine the distance between sun and us and the center of universe. How long it takes for light signals to traverse this space... TYhink about the possibility of a earth like atmosphere to create sounds, the existence of vocal or other such organs to create sounds... What is the possibility? Sounds are literally made in response to stimuli like the sounds of the wild and the birds, first it woudl be sanguine to understand the sounds of creatures that are around us before jumping on the bandwagon of startrek clad aliens. May be i am too narrowed pessimist na , i think it might be realistic. Good job by the way of your analysis of possibilities though! But hey we need to travel many light years remember!

Gaffi said...

That's a very well thought out post, and it touches on some ideas I've never heard of before that still sound completely feasible (i.e. electromagnetic transmission).

I really had fun reading this, and would be really excited to see some of this information put to use.

linguistlessons said...

Glad you enjoyed it Gaffi -- FYI I'm also going to be posting once in a while on language-related issues over at the Clarion Foundation blog; I'm thinking of using this topic as my first article there, so if you're interested you should be able to read a bit more next week.

a. said...

Just scanning this post, I think that you would be interested to know that attempts to create a xenolinguistics manual have been made. The earliest was made in the 1870's, the language created was called Volapuk. It was based on symbolic logic. Very similar, in the 1960's Mathematicians from the University of Utrecht developed a hypothetical language, LINCOS (an abbreviated blend of Lingua Cosmica), which is also built out of a symbolic logic foundation. Although the scientist who founded LINCOS died with most of his work unfinished, it has been taken up recently by a larger group of scientist hoping to refine these ideas further. You can find them by searching for SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence). I think they are based in Berkeley. MIT's journal, Leonardo, also publishes some interesting articles on using music to communicate with alien races, among other ET communication theories. In any case, the truth is out there. Right? Join forces.