Greg Uyeno has a CBS News story on the unusual (for mainstream media) topic of communication with aliens, which is of interest to someone like me who grew up immersed in sf and interested in language. The hook is the forthcoming sf movie Arrival (which I am eager to see), based on an excellent story by Ted Chiang (which is a pleonasm, because all his stories are excellent), and after a long excursus on Daniel Everett and his work with the Pirahã, it concludes with this passage:
But even if people are able to discern the patterns in the language, the way the message is sent could be a challenge. Humans communicate mainly through sight, sound and touch, but aliens might not. “It’s hard to imagine a language working on taste, but who knows?” Everett said.
If extraterrestrials have starkly different perceptual or expressive systems than those of humans, technology could help bridge the gap between human perception and alien output, linguists said. For example, if aliens spoke at frequencies that people can’t hear, humans could instead interpret digital recordings as visual waveforms.
Snedeker said she asks her students a question on exams to test their understanding of the shared structure and evolutionary basis of human language: “If we discover a new kind of creature on Mars that seems to have a symbolic system of great complexity, who should we send, and how likely are they to succeed?”
“There’s no right answer to the question,” Snedeker said.
I wish I thought the question might be answered in my lifetime.