How Linguists Would Talk to E.T.

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.

Comments

  1. In other words, given that we can’t imagine how they communicate, how would we imagine communicating with them?

    Not a great question.

  2. George Grady says:

    There always seems to be the unspoken assumption in these sorts of thought experiments that we humans will be the ones who have to do all the heavy lifting to figure out how to communicate with the aliens. What science fiction stories are there where inability to communicate starts off as a serious problem, but it’s the aliens who eventually manage to resolve it?

  3. David Marjanović says:

    What science fiction stories are there where inability to communicate starts off as a serious problem, but it’s the aliens who eventually manage to resolve it?

    There’s the backstory of Star Wars, where it’s implied that the Vulcans already have universal translators or who knows what when they reveal themselves to Zefram Cochrane and his friends.

  4. I see the original story and the first movie use the definite article in the title, but this film does not. Does anyone feel a difference between article and no article?

  5. “Arrival” sounds like a normal Hollywood movie title; “The Arrival” sounds to me like an art film, probably from Eastern Europe.

  6. 1-David: Err, I think you meant “Star Trek”.

    2-In answer to George Grady’s question: Arthur C. Clarke wrote a number of short stories where extra-terrestrials contact Earth after having learned English via radio/television broadcasts.

  7. David Marjanović says:

    *facepalm*
    I did, thanks.

  8. Arthur C. Clarke wrote a number of short stories where extra-terrestrials contact Earth after having learned English via radio/television broadcasts.

    That’s also part of the plot of Sagan’s novel Contact, made into a film with Jodie Foster. In the film, the first message the ETs send is a list of primes up to 101. It is discovered that the carrier is a television signal, containing Hitler’s opening address at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. The ETs (somewhere in Vega, apparently) were just repeating the last broadcast from earth that they picked up, to show that they were listening. Essentially an “uh-huh”, but it made the military nervous.

  9. ‘The Arrival’ is a 1996 movie made by David Twohy and starring Charlie Sheem. It’s not based on the same story, I find. Perhaps ‘Arrival’ avoids comparison. But why do we say Advent rather than The Advent?
    I feel that lack of the definite article in English emphasizes singularity, as apposed to the Romance Languages, which use articles where English does not, a contrasting characteristic.

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