How to talk to an Alien

This weekend saw the release of science fiction blockbuster Arrival, which gives translation a rare moment in the spotlight. In the film, Amy Adams plays a linguist who is tasked by the US government to communicate with recently arrived alien ships that have arrived on Earth. The problem, of course, is that as global tensions mount, the characters have a limited time to decipher a language that doesn’t resemble any on Earth.

The film, which has been praised by critics, raises and interesting question: how would you talk to an alien?

What would an alien language (not) have?

Perhaps the best place to start is considering what is essential for a language, and what an alien might leave out of theirs. Thomas Wier, Assistant Professor at the Free University of Tbilisi, suggests that a language only really needs two things: a symbolic system that can be recombined to represent meaning, and some method of conveying those symbols.

Alien languages might not necessarily be audible or based on an alphabetical or logographic visual element. It could be the transmission of light or chemicals. If the language was somehow hardcoded into the alien DNA or genetic analogue (assuming their biology includes a concept similar to genetics), the language would not be learned through culture, and therefore far less adaptable to situations like meeting another species. This line of thought is admittedly close to the edge of what might be considered language but is interesting to consider nonetheless.

‘Alien’ Languages on Earth

In looking to the skies for ‘alien’ languages, one could miss some very strange ones found right here on Earth. These shed some light on problems you might encounter when trying to understand a being from an alien culture, provided their languages aren’t in the form of chemical emissions!

A language that is often cited as one of the ‘strangest’ on Earth is Chalcatongo Mixtec, an indigenous language of Mexico. Rather unhelpfully, this variant of the Mixtec language group contains no method with which the speaker or writer can indicate a question. For example “The chicken is eating.” and “Is the chicken eating?” are rendered identical in this language, it’s up to the audience to judge whether or not the phrase is a question based on context and intuition.

But if you thought not being able to recognise questions was tricky, how about not being able to distinguish between subjects and objects, singular and plural, or even differences in time? If so, avoid the Malay dialect spoken in Riau province of Indonesia. To go back to the eating chicken example, Ayam makan (literally “chicken eat”) can mean, in context, anything from “the chicken is eating”, to “I ate some chicken”, “the chicken that is eating” and “when we were eating chicken”!

“Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” – Impossible in Riau Malay and Chicatongo Mixtec

One reason proposed for Riau Malay’s incredibly simple grammar is that it was used as a lingua franca between different peoples in the region, and its use between speakers with a limited understanding has simplified it. Maybe if the aliens arrive and stay for a while, an eventual human-alien creole would be just as simple.

It would be remiss to discuss ‘alien’ languages without mentioning Klingon, the language of the warlike alien race from the fictional television and film franchise Star Trek. Initially the ‘language’ was devised by an actor and producer on the first film, but later developed into a fully-fledged language by linguist Mark Okrand at the request of Paramount Pictures. Joking aside, Klingon is one of the most complete constructed languages in existence, certainly of those created for fictional purposes. Okrand designed the language to be as dissimilar to existing languages, in particular the language of the human characters: English. The intentional dissimilarity hasn’t stopped die-hard fans from writing Operas in Klingon, and translating works including the Epic of Gilgamesh, Tao Te Ching, Much ado about Nothing, and Hamlet!

Deciphering Alien language

Theorising about problems with syntax and grammar assumes that the language humans would encounter is at least somewhat decipherable. In Arrival, the humans struggle to analyse the aliens’ circular logograms, but, once again, we don’t need to look to the stars for these kinds of problems. There are also a significant number of as yet undeciphered writing systems on Earth. These are usually ancient archaeological finds, where the limited content hinders any interpretation.

More recent examples include the medieval Voynich Manuscript. The book is full of strange illustrations and pages of text in strange, almost-Latin script. The Manuscript has resisted many efforts made to decipher it by both linguists and code-breakers. This has led many to label it a hoax, with no meaning, but the sheer volume of content and apparent hints at internal logic to the writing have caused others to defend the manuscript against such accusations.

Simply being unable to decipher communication from an extra-terrestrial source is the most likely problem that would be encountered in an ‘Arrival’ situation.

Talking to aliens

So, if communication through written language and deciphering an alien one could prove impossible, could a new language be created for the specific purpose of talking to aliens?

One of the most proactive efforts to communicate with aliens is Lincos, a language created by mathematician Dr Hans Freudenthal in 1960. Lincos was designed to be understood by any intelligent life, regardless of their concept of syntax or language. Lincos takes as a starting point the assumption that any being capable of transmitting or receiving radio transmissions must have some understanding of logic. The language therefore is based around the transmission of information in pulses, as explained through numbers, mathematical concepts such as addition, subtraction, equal to, greater than, etc., and time. Can you tell it was created by a mathematician?

The issue with Lincos is it requires a significant ‘dictionary’ to be sent at the start of the transmission to introduce the language, concepts and logic before any message can be transmitted. This means the recipient needs to be extremely patient and logic-orientated to decipher meaning from it.

If you want to see the attractive people of Hollywood go through the same confusion we’ve faced in this article, ‘Arrival’ is in cinemas now.