Thursday, August 24, 2006

Communicating with Aliens

One problem we have to deal with when our characters travel to other worlds or meet people from other cultures or species is language. J. R. R. Tolkien created his Elvish tongues first, then constructed a geography and history to contain them, and finally wrote the stories that became THE HOBBIT and LORD OF THE RINGS. His friend C. S. Lewis, in the Narnia series, has everyone speaking the same language, as far as I can tell, probably because his avowed model for the Narnia stories was the fairy tale, and nobody ever has trouble with foreign languages in traditional fairy tales. However, in Lewis' OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, the hero, Dr. Ransom, is a university professor specializing in language, making him highly qualified to learn the Martian tongue, which he does believably and gradually. Many STAR TREK fans speak and read Klingon, just as a large subset of Tolkien fans has mastered the Elvish languages. In Jacqueline Lichtenberg and Jean Lorrah's Sime~Gen series (see Simelan includes specialized words for facets of Sime biology and psychology that have no parallel among either Gens or Ancients (us).

What happens when characters with mutually unintelligible languages meet? Inability to communicate can generate drama in itself. Tanith Lee's short story "Fleur de Feu" tells of a naive maiden abducted by a winged vampire of a conspicuously inhuman species. If he even has a language at all, he can't speak hers. They live together until death in a mountain cave, unable to communicate verbally. It would be difficult to sustain the reader's interest in such a relationship for an entire novel, though. To me, lively dialogue is often the best part of a novel.

Some time travel authors ignore the problem of mutual comprehension. Anytime much earlier than Shakespeare's period, English would be very hard for a visitor from our era to understand. Before the Norman Conquest, English was effectively a different language, as foreign to us (today) as German. And what if the character lands in a foreign country? Unless the heroine handily happens to have studied the language of that place/time, she shouldn't be able to understand the local speech. I get annoyed if a time travel novel doesn't address this issue, even if only by postulating linguistic magic included in the spell that causes the time jump. Even in more recent centuries, differences in dialect (between, say, the 1700s and the present) could produce entertaining misunderstandings that many authors don't exploit enough.

Older SF sometimes ignores language barriers. For instance, when Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter appears on Barsoom (Mars), he apparently understands and speaks the language (uniform all over the planet and across species) through the same unexplained magic that transported him there. On the other hand, in Burroughs' TARZAN OF THE APES, the young hero grows up speaking the ape tongue, a rudimentary language of which Burroughs gives us quite a few words. Tarzan teaches himself to read English from the alphabet books and primers he finds in his dead parents' cabin. (Tarzan is obviously a linguistic genius, given the dozen or more languages he learns to speak fluently over the course of the series, a far cry from the inarticulate "me Tarzan, you Jane" ape man of the classic movies.) Burroughs makes a blatant error in the note Tarzan leaves for the stranded explorers who land in his territory near the end of the book. He signs his name, Tarzan, in the Roman alphabet, but at that time he has no way of knowing what sounds the letters represent. Is his self-taught literacy believable? Well, he does have experience with language, since his adopted ape "kin" possess one. And when his father died, he may have been as old as a year, so he could have picked up some understanding of English that stuck around in his unconscious mind. Ayla in CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR is in a similar position, a Cro-Magnon (i.e., anatomically modern human) child adopted by Neanderthals. The author postulates that Neanderthal communication, in contrast to Ayla's parents' tongue, depends heavily on sign language.

In some SF, the human and extraterrestrial characters unrealistically progress from "this Earth, me human" and mathematical symbols to fluent conversation in a few hours or days. More plausibly, the ET might arrive already knowing English, having been monitoring our TV broadcasts for decades (Heaven help us – another potential source of very funny cross-cultural misapprehensions). Or there's always the familiar universal translator, which tends to make professional linguists' stomachs hurt. In STAR TREK we have to accept some of the technology, such as the universal translator, warp drive, and the transporter, as the high-tech equivalent of magic, a necessary simplification to further the story. A portable electronic device programmed to translate between previously known languages is more plausible; the U.S. military is already developing one. So far, from what I've read, it handles only a finite list of standard sentences.

What about aliens without the proper organs to produce human speech? Venusian dragons in one of Robert Heinlein's novels wear "voders," into which they key sentences that the machine translates into English via synthesized speech. Terran visitors to distant planets might have to use a similar device if the inhabitants communicate, for example, by colored lights.

And then there's telepathy. If the characters don't share a language, could they communicate mind-to-mind? That depends on whether you conceive telepathy as simply silent "talking" or you believe in a pure "essence" of thought that each participant mentally translates into his/her own language. The real fun starts, whether with telepathy or a universal translator, when one person tries to convey a concept that simply has no equivalent in the recipient's culture.

Suzette Haden Elgin (, professional linguist and science fiction writer, author of the "Native Tongue" series, produces a bimonthly newsletter on Linguistics and SF. In the Native Tongue novels, she created a language called Laadan, for which a complete grammar and dictionary are available. There's a cool website on alien languages at It covers linguistic cliches in SF, how an alien language might differ from ours, the universal translator problem, and many related topics. You can find a complete free e-book on this subject at "Me Human, You Alien" (, with references to many fictional examples.


  1. Check out Connie Willis' "Doomsday Book" for a brilliant use of language, where a near future scholar takes a time trip to early medieval England. Despite being a scholar of old forms of English, it still takes her a while to "grok" the language.

    (Nice word, grok)

    I myself have wondered about any human's ability to understand an alien species. They are bound to have evolved differently and are unlikely to bear any resemblance to humans. In fact, the whole issue of alien romances is probably moot. It would be like trying to procreate with a tapeworm, except we probably have more genetic similarity with the tapeworm.

    Dolphins have similar brain to body mass proportions to humans, or so I've been told. Despite that, and despite our ability to teach dolphins tricks, we haven't been able to actually hold a dialogue with them. I'm not sure if that's because they really aren't that intelligent, they haven't evolved a language area in their brains, or if they're just too alien.

    So when aliens wander into a science fiction story and a conversation ensues, or a romance develops, I usually suspend disbelief and go with it. Universal language is almost just a blip on the screen at that point. And I enjoy these stories very much, in case anyone was wondering.

  2. Yes, I love Connie Willis' time travel novels, both DOOMSDAY BOOK and the much more lighthearted TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG. She's writing another one in the same series, centered upon the London Blitz (just touched upon in TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG), and I'm eagerly awaiting announcement of its publication date. She had a story published years ago about a vampire helping to search for survivors in bombed buildings during the Blitz, so I know she can write very realistically about that period. Willis handles the language implant device quite believably in DOOMSDAY BOOK.