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Alien language is a generic term used to describe a language originating from an alien species. The study of such a language has been termed Xenolinguistics, though alternative terminology such as Exolinguistics has found its way into use through the medium of science-fiction.

The first use of the term "xenolinguistics" in science fiction occurred in 1986, in the novel "TRIAD" by Sheila Finch.

The nature and form of such languages remains purely speculative because projects in the field of the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI), have until now not yet detected signatures of intelligent life in the Galaxy or beyond. The SETI effort is coordinated by the International Astronautical Academy (IAA), more in particular by the Permanent Study Group SETI (PSGS) of the Academy. However, the possibility of future contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life makes the question of the structure(s) and form(s) of alien languages a credible topic for scientific and philosophical discussion. Under the term Astrolinguistics an academic debate has taken shape on the nature of bodies of knowledge, 'common grounds' in a semantic sense, shared between alien and human languages for interstellar communication.

In addition to creating academic debate, the potential nature of an alien languages has also been tackled by science fiction writers, with some creating fictional languages for their characters to use, and others circumventing the problem by writing in translation devices or by creating a universal language that all involved species can speak. In a few cases the problem of communication with aliens has played a large part in a science fiction plot.



The question of what form an alien language might take, and as to whether humans would recognize it as a language if they encountered it, has been tackled from several fronts, and forms part of linguistics and language studies at some universities. [1]

Life on Earth employs a variety of non-verbal methods of communication, and these might provide clues to alien language. Amongst humans alone, these include many visual signals such as sign language, body language, facial expression and writing (including pictures), and it is possible that some extraterrestrial species may have no spoken language. Amongst other creatures, there are other which use more exotic forms of communication - cuttlefish and chameleons which can alter their body colour in complex ways as a method of communication [1], and honey bees and ants which use pheromones to communicate complex messages to a hive colony.

In relation to the question of languages Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that "if a lion could speak, we would not be able to understand him." On the other hand, many referentialist and verificationist accounts of language would make this gap seem more bridgeable. Willard Van Orman Quine also advanced the thesis of the indeterminacy of translation, according to which any hypothesis of translation could be defended only by appeal to context, by determining what other sentences a native would utter. If aliens have evolved under pressure of natural selection they will have the same drive to survive, reproduce, help relatives to reproduce that we have. Perhaps this can help form a basis for communication.

Astrolinguistics is the science concerned with the development and application of cosmic languages for interstellar communication between intelligent species in the universe. Included are discussions on the matter of what 'common ground', a body of knowledge assumed to be universal, can be chosen and what representations to use. Research in this area is usually carried out in a linguistic setting because the semantics of the 'common ground' need to be explained in some way, e.g. by examples formulated in some language. The first generation language of this kind developed for this purpose was Lincos, described in a monograph, see "Lincos (language)", written by the prominent Dutch mathematician Dr. Hans Freudenthal († 1990) of Utrecht university in The Netherlands, see "Hans Freudenthal". A body of basic mathematics was chosen as 'common ground'. The setup chosen for that book, published in 1960, is described in the interesting article Were it Perfect, Would it Work Better? Survey of a Language for Cosmic Intercourse, [2]. Since then a new, second generation Lingua Cosmica has been developed by the Dutch-Swedish astronomer and mathematician Dr. Alexander Ollongren of Leiden University, also in The Netherlands. The new Lincos, designed as a system for communication, is based on two premises. To begin with: messages meant for contact with extra-terrestrial intelligent societies should essentially be multi-level - they could for example consist in part of a (large) text in some natural language supplemented with annotations at a deeper level. The second premise is: annotations including deductions and inductions are formalized in logic. In this manner the logic contents of messages formulated in new Lincos, are embedded in an abstract descriptional framework. The framework, the logical universe of discourse, contains an environment as well, comparable with a set of declarations in computer programming, see "Data structure". As common ground logic is chosen. By taking the approach outlined the conceptual problem of designing a language for communication between mutually alien intelligent species in the Universe is given a new perspective. The orientation of the novel Lingua Cosmica (defined in an as yet unpublished monograph dedicated to the memory of Dr. Freudenthal) is multi-disciplinary, concerned as it is with applied logic and universal aspects of linguistics (at the core of astrolinguistics in the sense used here). But also conceptual issues in the field of possible message exchange (communication) between intelligent species or information processing artifacts in the Galaxy are relevant. The modality of the logic employed is constructive, see "Mathematical logic" and the descriptions at[3]. In this way the linguistic system proposed is supplied with a solid foundation. Lincos, under further development, has a signature distinct from those of natural languages. Its expressive power is considerable, at the expense of the length of expressions (logic terms). Some further details are in Astrolinguistics, a Guide for Calling E T [4].

Science fiction

The first alien language in a work of science fiction may have been Percy Greg's Martian language in his 1880 novel Across the Zodiac[5]. As the science fiction genre developed, so did the use of alien languages. Sometimes these are explicitly detailed, as in Greg's work, at other times they are implicit.

Some science fiction works operate on the premise that alien languages can be easily learned if one has a competent understanding of the nature of languages in general. For example, the protagonist of C. S. Lewis's novel Out of the Silent Planet is able to use his training in historical linguistics to decipher the language spoken on Mars. Others work on the premise that languages with similarities can be partially understood by different species and thus can be used to form the basis of understanding, such as in Philip K. Dick's Martian Time Slip where speakers of a Martian dialect that resembles an indigenous Australian dialect are able to speak pidgin English. Ursula K. Le Guin's short story, "'The Author of the Acacia Seeds' and Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics" (anthologized in 1984's The Compass Rose) imagines a scholastic study of literature and language as experienced in different taxonomic classifications (plant and animal kingdoms) on Earth.

In some cases authors avoid linguistic questions by introducing devices into their stories which seamlessly translate between languages to the point that the concept of different languages can largely be excluded from a franchise. Notable examples include Douglas Adams's babel fish, the TARDIS from Doctor Who, the translator microbes in Farscape and the universal translator from Star Trek. In other cases, the question of language is dealt with through the introduction of a universal language via which most, if not all, of the franchise's species are able to communicate. In the Star Wars universe, for example, this language is known as Basic and is spoken by the majority of the films' cast, with a few notable exceptions.

Some fictionalized alien species take advantage of their unique physiology for communication purposes, an example being the Ithorians of the Star Wars universe, who use their twin mouths, located on either side of their neck, to speak in stereo.

In some franchises this universal language is an intermediary language; one that different species can easily translate to and from their own languages, thus allowing simple communication between races. Examples of this approach include Interlac from the Legion of Super-Heroes, and later Babylon 5.

In the Uplift Universe, the numerous sapient species use at least twelve "Galactic" languages; each version is used in communication between species that can articulate it, and that find it useful in expressing their concepts.

Not all of these universal/intermediate languages take the form of spoken/written languages as it is recognized in the real world. In the film and book Close Encounters of the Third Kind scientists use a language based on musical tones while in the film and book Contact, aliens send the instructions to build a machine to reach them through Mathematics, which the main character calls "the only universal language". Similarly, in Stargate SG1 the protagonists encounter a galactic meeting place where different races communicate with one another using a language based on atomic structures which is "written" in three dimensions rather than the normal two.

A number of long running franchises have taken the concept of an alien language beyond that of a scripting device and have developed languages of their own. Examples of which included the Klingon Language of the Star Trek universe (a fully-developed constructed language created by Marc Okrand), the Zentradi language from the Macross Japanese science fiction anime series and the DC Comics Kryptonese (for which there exists an alphabet and language glossary).

The existence of alien languages and the ease/difficulty of translation is used as a plot device or script element in a number of franchises, sometimes seriously, and sometimes for comedic value. In the film Mars Attacks! the language spoken by the Martians appears to consist only of the words "ack!" and "rack!" spoken at different pitches and volume. The film's universal translator consistently translates these as being offers of friendship despite the fact that the aliens' actions are anything but friendly. Also in Dragon Ball Z, Bulma normally speaks in her language (i.e. Japanese) and thus involuntarily activates some functions of an alien starship which are identified by the computer as Namekkian orders.

C.J.Cherryh's Chanur series of books heavily relies on linguistic and psychological problems of communication between various alien races. Some examples include usage of obscure languages and cultural references to conceal information from others, imperfections of computer translation, use of pidgin and linguistic barriers, psychological concepts which do not have matches in other races' languages, and a race so alien that it cannot be understood at all without a translation by another race which itself can be barely understood due to manifold meanings in each message. In the Foreigner universe, Ms. Cherryh explores the interface between humans and atevi, whose language relies on numerical values, causing the main character, Bren Cameron to constantly calculate as he speaks the atevi language, Ragi. Conversely, in the Simpsons the fact that English is mutually understood by the show's human and alien characters is noted as being "an astonishing coincidence".

Some stories, however, have alien beings speak near-unpronounceable tongues. H.P. Lovecraft in one correspondence mentioned that the name Cthulhu was a feeble attempt at human transliteration of the creature's original name. Clark Ashton Smith, in one tale, has the sorcerer Eibon struggle to articulate the name of an alien, Hziulquoigmnzhah.

Yet other science fiction stories imagine communication through telepathy. There is for example the Vulcan mind meld in Star Trek. How an alien brain can communicate with a human brain is not discussed. In the science fiction novel Ender's Game, the "Buggers" are an alien species in which the queen can telepathically communicate with every member of her species, and no humans except Ender.

Sheila Finch published a collection of short stories about first contact and alien communication, The Guild of Xenolinguists, (Golden Gryphon Press) in 2007.

See also

External links


  1. ^ Course notes by assistant professor Sheri Wells-Jensen, Bowling Green State University
  2. ^ Stampa, at link
  3. ^
  4. ^ available via the external link
  5. ^ Ekman, F: "The Martial Language of Percy Greg", Invented Languages Summer 2008, p. 11. Richard K. Harrison, 2008

Further reading

  • McConnell, B.S., 2001. Beyond Contact: A Guide to SETI and Communicating with Alien Civilizations ISBN 0-596-00037-5
  • Meyers, W.E., 1980. Aliens and Linguistics: Language Study and Science Fiction ISBN 0-8203-0487-5

Study guide

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiversity

Thesis: All processes or formalisms that resemble arithmetic are identical to arithmetic,
or else unthinkably complicated and arbitrary.
This is why we can communicate perfectly about numbers. [1]

Xenolinguistics is the scientific study of languages of non-human intelligences. Publications in this field tend to be speculative as few people have made the claim to have understood an alien language, at least not reliably.


  1. Regis, Edward (1987). Extraterrestrials: Science and Alien Intelligence. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521348528.
Cohen, Jack, Ian Stewart (2002). Evolving the Alien: The Science of Extraterrestrial Life. Ebury Press. ISBN 0091879272.

See also

External links


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