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First Contact

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.]

Recent Comments

  1. Marshall T. Vandegrift

    Minor correction: the example mentioned from Vernor Vinge’s work does not occur in A Deepness in the Sky, but in his 1992 A Fire Upon the Deep.

  2. yellowdingo

    Considering A/0=/A (where /A is a numberset unrelated to our own universe except at superposition) I would suggest you could only percieve an Alien if you straddled the superpositional boundary between our mathematical Universe and theirs. The problem being that you would instantly be us and them simultaneously.

  3. Fedman Kassad

    I would suggest a peek at Peter Watts’ Blindsight as well, for linguistic/communications problems arising from our presumtions on what “intelligent” and “self-conscious” means.

  4. Mrs Stevie Hobbs (Aged 79)

    Michael Quinion is an amazing man. I read World Wide Words every Saturday and have learnt so much, and enjoyed much of the “sic” section which is a collection of hilarious mistakes which have often become public. I don’t know how he fits everything he does in while still producing this weekly article. I have a couple of his books which are excellent reading and look forward one day to purchasing Gallimaufry.

  5. Gordon Paterson

    Anyone wishing to get started on alien communication can start learning to speak Dolphin.

    You will need to aquire the ability to hear and generate ultra-high frequency sounds. Even then, as a surface-bound terrestrial you will find their ideas shaped by their unbounded three-dimensional lifestyle in ways you will find totally incomprehensible.

    Good luck, you’re gonna need it!

  6. Santa

    Douglas Adams also said that

    … the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”

  7. Chris Welch

    For learning to speak dolphin, I highly recommend “Startide Rising,” book 2 of David Brin’s “The Uplift Trilogy.” He somewhat gets around the problem, but also shows how these different thought patterns can be quite useful, e.g., as a space pilot.

    There’s also the classic Far Side cartoon wherein the dolphins speak Spanish and the linguists studying them have no idea what these sounds mean….

  8. ron terry

    an article in ‘astounding science fiction’, october 1955, titled ‘how to learn martian’, by charles f. hockett, addresses some of the problems associated with communicating with aliens.

  9. Mike G in Corvallis

    And then there was Fredric Brown’s classic short story “Politeness,” in which the Venusians were telepathic; this allowed them to respond to greetings and questions in any Earth language — but every Venusian replied only with an insult and broke off further attempts at communication. Then an intensely frustrated anthropologist yelled out “Go **** yourself!” one day to a Venusian that had been rude to him. It turned out that there was only one greeting that the hermaphroditic Venusians did not consider deeply insulting …

    Considering that aliens almost certainly would not have lips, tongues, larynxes, vocal cords, and tracheas similar to ours, I have to wonder how likely it is that they would communicate via anything that we would recognize as speech. We could talk at them all day and they could ripple their cilia back at us, and both sides would be clueless. Our brains have evolved sophisticated faculties for extracting phonemes from audio noise; speaker-independent computer-based speech recognition is not an easy thing to implement. It might be that two aliens of a single species and culture might ripple their cilia to express a single concept in patterns that wouldn’t appear at all similar to a human, because we wouldn’t understand which features of the patterns were meaningful and which were irrelevant.

  10. David Cairns

    I really want aliens to exist so that the problem of communicating with them, and thereby avoiding our probable destruction by them, can be tackled head on by the world’s most eminent linguistic experts.


  11. Claire

    Another example is Hellspark by Janet Kagan. She writes about a species on a newly discovered planet that turns out to communicate by ruffling their feathers in complex patterns, instead of speaking (similar to Mike G’s scenario). She also has a created language that is made up of all possible sounds from all known languages – so people brought up speaking it can learn to speak any language without an accent.

  12. Claire

    Considering how hard it is to understand the communications of other species on this planet, it’s daunting to imagine communicating with alien species. I just discovered and highly recommend a video of the scientist Bonnie Bassler explaining her research into how bacteria “talk” using chemical signals – at http://www.ted.com/talks/bonnie_bassler_on_how_bacteria_communicate.html

  13. Fernando Rodriguez

    A common trope is that the aliens have a translation box (usually in their chest or hanging around their necks), they utter sounds or make light patterns and the box speaks English. I don’t think all of these are examples of the “universal translator”.

    A TV series, Farscape, got around the problem with “translator microbes”, when the human protagonist arrives with the aliens maintenance bots immediately detect he is not “infected” and injects him with the microbes. All alien races are supposed to speak their native language, all understand each other.

    C.J. Cherryh also had an interesting take on the role of translation on the “Foreigner” series of books, after humans are stranded in an alien planet their ambassador to the aliens is a linguistics expert, and all human-alien communications are through them.

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