Thursday, July 01, 2021

Talking with Aliens

When extraterrestrials visit our planet, or vice versa, will we be able to communicate with them? This article discusses the issue of learning alien languages:

If We Ever Came Across Aliens...?

Many linguists and psychologists maintain that the human brain is hardwired with a universal grammar. All human languages we know are built from variations on a few basic structures. Would intelligent beings who evolved on other worlds share the same innate grammatical structures we've developed? If not, an unbridgeable chasm might exist between the two species. The other theoretical framework, the cognitive view of language, places more emphasis on meaning—concepts and semantics—than on sentence structure. In that case, we might expect any sapient creatures to share certain "building blocks" of meaning. The difference between these two theories brings to mind the two main SF approaches to telepathy. In one view, mental conversation works like silent talking. The people communicating telepathically have to understand a common language. So there's no possibility of immersing oneself in another's mind and learning things he or she doesn't want to reveal. In the other approach, whole concepts are transferred from one brain to the other, and the receiver "translates" the transmitted thought into terms he, she, it, or they comprehend.

The article mentions the possibility that inhabitants of other planets might communicate in sound ranges inaudible to us. However, we might find more radical differences. Suppose the aliens' language consisted of flashing lights, bands of color, carefully modulated odors, or hand (or tentacle or pseudopod) signals? They might not recognize our mouth noises as attempts at communication. In CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR, an incident in the early life of orphaned Cro-Magnon child Ayla illustrates problems that might occur even between two human subspecies. The Neanderthal shaman, trying to teach Ayla the Clan's language, worries because she's so slow to catch on. Maybe she's mentally impaired? Meanwhile, Ayla wonders why he keeps waving his hands around, distracting her from hearing his words. The breakthrough occurs when she realizes hand signals constitute the core of the Clan's language, with oral speech in a secondary role.

The classic story "A Martian Odyssey," by Stanley G. Weinbaum, features a friendly alien whose language doesn't contain words with any fixed meaning. Every sentence is unique. While I can't quite visualize how that would work in practice, it's a fascinating idea. In one of the most thought-provoking episodes of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, Captain Picard deals with a species who converse in metaphorical allusions to cultural myths and legends. (As I've heard someone mention—probably Jean Lorrah—this mode of discourse can't be their only language; at the least, there must be a children's dialect for communicating with offspring too young to know the metaphors. Also, in my opinion they have to possess a straightforward denotative dialect for scientific and technical use.) In Robert Heinlein's BETWEEN PLANETS, the highly intelligent dragons of Venus wear electronic devices that translate their mode of communication into grammatical sentences in a Terran language. (In the case of the dragon who becomes a friend of the hero, it's English, of course.) I have faith that no matter how aliens converse, we'll figure out ways to bridge the linguistic gaps.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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