Hi again, everybody!
A short blog this time, presenting ‘theoretical’ aspects of claims regarding languages reported as used in the context of alleged contact with extraterrestrial entities.
Last time I discussed this issue as it applies to reports of (relatively) humanoid aliens. If the alien users of the alleged extraterrestrial languages were instead markedly NON-humanoid – and this might be considered more plausible, given their wholly exotic planetary and evolutionary origin – the languages themselves would very probably be even more dramatically different from known human languages. They would be such as would fit the alien physiology, psychology, home planetary environment etc.; partly for that reason, they would be very likely to infringe some of the main typological patterns which prevail across the range of human languages and indeed some human-language universals. They would also, in all probability, display some unfamiliar phonetics, including sounds not found in any human language or indeed sounds which were unpronounceable for humans.
One of the basic distinguishing features of human language (not found in the communication systems of any other known species) is its ‘double articulation’ into a) individually meaningless phonemes and b) meaningful morphemes/words made up of sequences of these phonemes. This is what enables language to express very many word-meanings with such a limited inventory of individual sounds. Another general linguistic universal is the existence and indeed the dominance of syntax (syntactic structure), by means of which words and morphemes are organised into phrases, clauses and sentences; while human languages vary typologically in respect of syntax, it is hardly possible to imagine a human language WITHOUT syntax. It is plausible for features as basic as these to be absent only in cases where UTTERLY non-humanoid beings are described.
In such extreme cases, non-human languages might not be similar to human languages even in more general/superficial terms. For instance, they might not be uttered with remotely similar speech organs, if the alien users’ overall physiology were as different as might be expected. Even if such beings used the auditory-acoustic channel of communication, as with human speech, they might have vastly different vocal apparatus, auditory acuity and frequency range, etc.
In fact, the vocal apparatuses and acuities/hearing ranges of some physically possible types of alien would allow (for example) the avoidance of double articulation, by permitting a language to have thousands of distinguishable phonemes and hence thousands of single-phoneme morphemes without thereby displaying excessive amounts of homophony and ambiguity. But without linguistic expertise the invention of such an utterly alien system, would be EXTREMELY difficult; indeed, the possibility of such a system would scarcely occur to most non-linguists. As things are, however, there are (perhaps predictably) currently NO quasi-factual reports of languages of this kind which manifest the required degrees of expertise and plausibility (as opposed to openly invented cases in fiction).
If any such truly alien languages really do exist, these enormous differences which will probably obtain between alien and human systems will surely hinder the analysis of these languages, especially if little specific information about the users of these systems is available (for example, if a system is presented only as performed by human contactees, possibly with ensuing modifications of its more markedly alien features). But linguists might expect to make some progress as more was learned, even if contactees had themselves learned the systems by currently inexplicable means (see above).
Most unfortunately, the linguistic expertise in much of the literature in this area is, as noted, scanty. Little work on the issue has been done in ufological circles, although it HAS been a more salient focus of attention in SETI (Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence) circles, often in the context of informed speculation regarding alien intelligence and psychology. Even here, however, the discussion, though interesting, is often seriously lacking in specifically linguistic expertise. For instance, it is often assumed (as it is in much science-fiction) that core notions in science and especially logic and mathematics – believed to be very generally shared – will permit rapid movement towards overall decipherment/mutual understanding. However, given the diversity of structures and concepts even among human languages and cultures at comparable technological levels, this may be over-optimistic, at least in some respects. The grammatical and semantic systems even of human languages, if these are unrelated, can certainly differ very dramatically.
I turn here to the actual content of the reports of alien language use. Many of these involve communication allegedly emanating from extraterrestrials by means of ‘telepathy’ (without specific linguistic forms) or some form of mind transference, sometimes involving advanced technology. Telepathy is a ‘convenient’ feature of the scenario if the material is in fact being fraudulently invented, because it negates the necessity of inventing the many specific details of a language (see later on another strategy of this kind, involving ‘holistic’ translations). On the other hand, it is not agreed among researchers that telepathy ever occurs, either amongst members of one species or between species, or if it is possible in principle; the advantage gained by fraudsters who adduce telepathy is thus doubtful.
More next time on more ‘orthodox’ communication systems attributed to aliens!
To the best of my knowledge, the first person to suggest that science and math are a Rosetta Stone between the languages of electrified civilizations was H. Beam Piper in his story “Omnilingual” (-Astounding Science Fiction-, February 1957 and now Project Gutenberg). Things numbered in sequence give you the numerals. The numerals let you recognize things like the periodic table of elements and mathematical operators (because whatever the physical arrangement and unit of measure, a period table which is useful for chemistry has to include about a hundred sets of numbers whose ratios make the same pattern as our own). Those give you some key words and the ability to attack children’s math textbooks. And so on, upwards, On the other hand, his Martians were humanoid air-breathers with a similar technology to the human archaeologists who found them, and its possible that aliens from a different environment or a vastly superior technology would not have the same information handy. He and L Sprague de Camp were the most famous Golden Age writers interested in linguistics.
Thanks a lot for this! Yes, I was aware of Piper’s story; I was actually thinking of that work most of all in writing my own comment. And yes, Sprague de Camp was indeed interested in linguistics too, as indeed are/were others; but the best-informed sf writer of this kind is Suzette H Elgin, a professional linguist as well as a fiction author (see her Mother Tongue, etc). In the neighbouring world of fantasy, Tolkien of course stands out. A now dated but still interesting book-length treatment of these and other such issues is Walter E. Meyers, Aliens and Linguists: Language Study and Science Fiction (Athens, GA, 1980). Further references (including to online material) on request. Thanks again! Mark
Besides Tolkien, there’s a well-known roleplaying game designer and author (his work on roleplaying games dates from the 70s, and is so early it’s nearly as old as Dungeons & Dragons) named M.A.R. Barker, who, like Tolkien, created a set of related languages for his fictional world, but unlike Tolkien, he based them not on European languages, but on South Asian and Mesoamerican languages (his areas of study). His world is called Tékumel, and the main language he designed is called Tsolyáni. His work has had a very small but dedicated fanbase for decades. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T%E9kumel#Languages
To the best of my knowledge, the first person to suggest that science and math are a Rosetta Stone between the languages of electrified civilizations was H. Beam Piper in his story “Omnilingual” (-Astounding Science Fiction-, February 1957 and now Project Gutenberg). Things numbered in sequence give you the numerals. The numerals let you recognize things like the periodic table of elements and mathematical operators (because whatever the physical arrangement and unit of measure, a period table which is useful for chemistry has to include about a hundred sets of numbers whose ratios make the same pattern as our own). Those give you some key words and the ability to attack children’s math textbooks. And so on, upwards, On the other hand, his Martians were humanoid air-breathers with a similar technology to the human archaeologists who found them, and its possible that aliens from a different environment or a vastly superior technology would not have the same information handy. He and L Sprague de Camp were the most famous Silver Age writers interested in linguistics.
You’re in luck! I found you a sample of non-human language!