Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 15

Hi again, everybody! ‘Hall Of Shame’ continues.


Some interesting work on communication with putative extraterrestrial aliens has emerged from the more general body of work on SETI (Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence); this material arises in the context of informed speculation regarding alien intelligence and psychology. (See for example Stuart Holroyd, Alien Intelligence (New York, 1979) and sections in many other books on this theme; more recent references include; Terry Colvin, items at; Anassa Rhenisch,; Stephen Battersby, ‘We’re Over Here’, New Scientist (23/1/10), pp. 28-31; ‘Meet the Neighbours’, New Scientist (23/1/10), pp. 31-33; Anthony Judge,; Steve Connor, ‘Even if we found aliens, how would we communicate?’, The Independent (online), 25 January 2010, available at; etc.) Even here, however, the discussion, though interesting, is often seriously lacking in specifically linguistic expertise. For instance, it is often assumed that core notions in science and especially logic and mathematics – believed to be very generally shared – will permit rapid movement towards overall decipherment of texts and mutual understanding in conversational contexts.

For an example of this notion in a science-fiction context, see H. Beam Piper, ‘Omnilingual’, Astounding Science Fiction, February 1957. Piper knew that the periodic table is of universal validity and assumed that it would be perceived and presented in a similar manner by almost any intelligent species. For comment on such cases, see for example Walter E. Meyers, Aliens and Linguists: Language Study and Science Fiction (Athens, GA, 1980), pp. 42-3; also online sources such as
http://tenser. typepad. com/tenser_said_the_tensor/2004/02/omnilingual_by_. html.) 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.

Among those active in this area, John Elliott in particular has worked in computational linguistics and is familiar with relevant principles such as ‘Zipf’s Law’, which expresses the relative frequencies of words based on their lengths (see George K. Zipf, The Psycho-History of Language: An Introduction to Dynamic Philology (Cambridge, MA, 1935)). However, even Elliott’s program may still appear over-optimistic and inadequately informed by the literature on linguistic typology and other ‘non-computational’ aspects of the discipline. Indeed, he appears to believe, for example, that phonological information alone can reveal grammatical patterns, which is hardly possible. It does have to be said that some computational linguists know too little core linguistics and/or have come to idiosyncratic ideas about same. This sometimes has to be set against the undoubted benefits of their unusual perspective on the subject.

For Elliott, see for example John Elliott, ‘A Semantic ‘Engine’ for Universal Translation’, Journal of the International Academy of Astronautics, Acta Astronautica, 68 (2010), pp. 435-40, Elliott’s profile at, and other works by Elliott.

More next time!


For my new book Strange Linguistics, see:

Copies are available through me at the author’s 50% discount, for EU 26.40 including postage to anywhere outside Germany. Please let me know if you’d like one, suggest means of payment (Paypal is possible) and provide your preferred postal address.

3 Responses to Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 15

  1. Graham says:

    To give Piper his due, he may have been the first SF writer to even consider the possibility of using the periodic table in that way.

    Such a pity Richard Hoagland ripped off some of Pipers ideas (Earth was settled by Humans from Mars, etc.) to build his ‘Face on Mars’ mythos.

    • marknewbrook says:

      Thanks a lot, Graham. Sorry, yes, I agree; Piper’s story is in fact impressive, especially for its day, and he did indeed deserve better than Hoagland using his stuff! Mark

  2. AJo says:

    Dear Dr Newbrook,

    I’d like to take advantage of your offer of the book “Strange Linguistics”. Since I was not able to discover an e-mail address for you, I’d like to request that you contact me on this mail address and then I’ll supply the relevant information, if you feel comfortable about letting me take advantage of your author discount.


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