Michael Quinion runs the fantastic website, World Wide Words, you can read his full bio here. In his new book, Gallimaufry: A Hodgepodge of Our Vanishing Vocabulary, he looks at the words disappearing from our language and opens a window into lives in days in gone by. (In case you were wondering Gallimaufry means 1. a dish made up of leftovers, 2. a miscellaneous jumble or medley). In the article below Quinion looks at how Science Fiction authors cross the language barrier between their human protagonists and aliens. How would you talk to an alien if you met one?
“Take me to your leader!” When the antenna’d alien in pulp fiction hops down from his flying saucer and accosts an Earthman, nobody is too much surprised that he’s able to speak English. It’s just a convention.
In real life, so to speak, the alien and the human would be facing much intensive co-operative work to get a basic understanding of each other’s methods of communication, language and culture. Ask any field linguist who has encountered a previously unknown tribe just how difficult this can be, even when both parties are human. SF writers struggle with this problem every time they write a first-contact story.
However, few SF writers are linguists, matched only in lack of expertise by their readers. The solutions can seem to owe as much to the black arts as to science (but then, as Arthur C Clarke said, “any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic”). One solution, common enough to be a convention of the genre, like hyperspace, is the universal translator. The Star Trek series found it an invaluable time-saver, though a version of it appeared first in Murray Leinster‘s story First Contact of 1945.
Even if it translates the words, it may not get the message across. Naomi Mitchison suggested in Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962) that trying to communicate with a five-armed starfish would show the extent to which our bilateral symmetry constrains us to a binary view of the world — true versus false, right versus wrong, black versus white. In The Mote in God’s Eye (1974), Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle imagine three-armed aliens, who argue not just “on the one hand” and “on the other hand”, but also “on the gripping hand”, a trilateral logic. C J Cherryh‘s Hunter of Worlds (1977) presents the language of the Iduve, in which there’s “no clear distinction between noun and verb, between solid and action”, so that translation cannot be literal if it is to be meaningful. Jean-Luc Picard comes across something similar in Star Trek: The Next Generation when he encounters a race that speaks only in metaphor.
How much worse it is when the aliens aren’t around to help. Languages are locked boxes, with no way in unless you can find the key. Philologists needed the Rosetta Stone to understand ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs but to find the equivalent on an alien world would be highly improbable. H Beam Piper suggested a way out of the deadlock in his 1958 story Omnilingual: a team studying an extinct civilisation on Mars finds a drawing of the periodic table and realises that the Rosetta Stone for an advanced society is not linguistic but the laws of physics and chemistry. In Carl Sagan‘s Contact (1985) a message comes in from space and Earth’s linguistic community sets about deciphering it; the task ought to be impossible but somehow they succeed.
Douglas Adams neatly satirised the universal translator with the Babel fish of his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe novels (1979 on), in which the fish sets up a telepathic link between minds. Telepathy is another solution to the language problem, one that goes back to the Mars stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs and beyond, though this assumes that human and alien brains are sufficiently similar to allow it. H G Wells pointed out one limitation in Men Like Gods (1923): the members of a party transported to the distant future find that telepathic speech is heard differently by each person according to their existing knowledge and language skills. Another method, once fashionable, is a hypnotic trance; the hero of Bulwer-Lytton‘s novel The Coming Race (1871) is taught the language of the subterranean master race in this way. The method was updated in the 1940s by hypnopedia, learning while asleep or under hypnosis.
Another possibility may be summarised in the old colonial maxim of making the natives learn English. This may be easier in an SF story because the aliens are often assumed to be more intelligent, or at least more advanced, than humans. Sometimes no other solution is possible, as Vernor Vinge‘s child protagonist learns in A Deepness in the Sky (1999) when trying to converse with gestalt packs of dog-like creatures who natively communicate using ultrasound but who can utter English words.
Next time you meet an alien from outer space, be prepared for some hard work.
[Michael Quinion's most recent book, Gallimaufry, has just become available from Oxford in the US. He runs the World Wide Words website and e-magazine (http://www.worldwidewords.org), which recently topped the poll in the L-Soft LISTSERV Choice Awards 2008-09. His next book, which presents updated versions of 200 questions and answers from the site, is to be published in July.]