Imagine that one day, we receive a signal from a distant planet. A message that is clearly not natural, but artificial. A message that indicates the existence of intelligent life beyond Earth. How would we react? How would we communicate? How would we understand their language?
The idea of encountering extraterrestrial life has ignited the imagination of countless filmmakers, giving rise to iconic works like Arrival, Contact, and Star Trek. But how realistic are these scenarios? Could we really learn to speak with aliens, or would we be forever lost in translation?
The answer is not simple, because language is not just a set of sounds or symbols that convey meaning. Language is also a reflection of culture, cognition, and biology. It is shaped by the environment, the history, and the needs of the speakers. Language is influenced by the way we perceive and categorize the world, and by the way our brains and bodies process information.
Therefore, to communicate with aliens, we would need to understand not only their language, but also their culture, their cognition, and their biology. We would need to find out how they evolved, how they live, how they think, and how they express themselves. We would need to discover what they have in common with us, and what makes them different.
This is not an easy task, even for human languages. Linguists have been studying the diversity and complexity of human languages for centuries, and there are still many mysteries and challenges to solve. How did language emerge in our species? How are languages related to each other? How do languages change over time? How do languages affect our thinking and behavior?
These questions become even more difficult when we consider alien languages. We have no idea what kind of languages aliens might have, or if they have language at all.
We have no clue what kind of sounds or symbols they might use, or what kind of grammar or logic they might follow. We have no way of knowing if they have similar concepts or categories as we do, or if they have completely different ways of seeing and understanding reality.
In fact, linguists argue that alien languages might be so different from human languages that we would never be able to learn them or communicate with them.
They claim that human languages share some universal features that are rooted in our biology and cognition, and that alien languages might lack these features or have features that are incompatible with ours.
For example, human languages use discrete units of sound (phonemes) or writing (graphemes) that combine to form words and sentences. But alien languages might use continuous signals that vary in pitch, intensity, or duration, without clear boundaries between units.
Human languages have hierarchical structures that allow us to embed clauses within clauses, creating complex meanings. But alien languages might have linear structures that only allow simple sequences of words or symbols.
We have recursive rules that allow us to generate infinite sentences from a finite set of elements. Extraterrestrial languages might have finite rules that limit the number of possible sentences.
These are just some hypothetical examples of how alien languages might differ from human languages. There might be other differences that we cannot even imagine, because they are beyond our cognitive abilities or our sensory modalities.
For instance, aliens might use colors, smells, gestures, or telepathy to communicate, instead of sounds or writing. Aliens might have different senses or organs than we do, such as echolocation or infrared vision. Aliens might have different modes of thinking than we do, such as parallel processing or quantum computing.
All these factors could make alien languages incomprehensible to us, or vice versa. We might not be able to perceive their signals, or to produce them. We might not be able to parse their structures, or to follow their rules. Humans might not be able to grasp their meanings, or to convey ours.
However, not all linguists are pessimistic about the possibility of communicating with aliens. Some linguists argue that alien languages might have some similarities with human languages that could facilitate mutual understanding.
They suggest that there might be some general principles or constraints that govern all forms of communication in the universe, regardless of the specific features of each language.
Arik Kershenbaum, a behavioural ecologist at the University of Cambridge, UK, believes evolutionary challenges are truly universal, and that the evolutionary forces that shape life on Earth will produce many similar features in extraterrestrial life. If he’s correct, it would mean life – and language – throughout the cosmos may share certain features.
It means that all languages must have a way of distinguishing between different types of information (such as nouns vs verbs), different roles of participants (such as subject vs object), different relations between events (such as cause vs effect), and different levels of certainty (such as fact vs opinion). These distinctions are essential for any communication system that aims to convey meaningful messages about the world.
“My personal opinion is that, at its core, the language would have to be quite similar to ours in the sense that its formal mathematical nature would be similar to human language,” says Ian Roberts, a professor of linguistics who is also at the University of Cambridge. “But at the same time they wouldn’t necessarily have anything like speech.”
Linguists also propose that all languages must have a way of indicating the context and the intention of the speaker (such as time, place, mood, purpose), and a way of signaling the feedback and the understanding of the listener (such as questions, answers, confirmations, corrections). These signals are crucial for any communication system that aims to establish and maintain a dialogue between interlocutors.
These are some possible examples of how alien languages might have some similarities with human languages. There might be other similarities that we can discover, or that we can create, by using our creativity and our curiosity.
We might find some common ground in the topics that interest us, such as science, art, or philosophy or invent some new symbols or gestures that can represent universal concepts, such as numbers, shapes, or emotions.
These are some hopeful examples of how we might be able to communicate with aliens, if we ever meet them. Of course, we cannot be sure if this will ever happen, or if it will be successful.