Today’s Top Space Headline: “Communicating With Aliens” –Clues from Earth’s 7,000 Languages (WATCH Video)

 

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“We can’t use ourselves as a starting point,” said Sheri Wells-Jensen, an associate professor of linguists at Bowling Green State University. “We are an endpoint at looking at things. We are the product of evolution. We’re like pond scum.”


Studying alien languages might seem like a silly, science fiction fantasy reports today's Inverse. But at the rate we’ve discovered more habitable Earth-like worlds, we are bound to encounter an alien species pretty soon. Wells-Jensen is one of a tiny group of people who has actively thought about how an alien species will communicate with humans. The only thing she knows for sure is that there’s no way to know how they’ll communicate.

 

“It’s profoundly humancentric to think they’ll talk like us and look like us,” Wells-Jensen told Inverse. The fact that most sci-fi revolves around aliens who speak through voice boxes like us, are bipedal, and even have vaguely anthropomorphic faces limits our imagination as to how extraterrestrial beings will speak when they get here. In reality, more likely than not, their bodies won’t operate or look a single thing like ours. And that means their communication mechanism will be wildly different from ours.

“We’re only beginning to understand that the way we think and communicate and what we build is determined by the way our bodies are shaped and our sensory apparatus,” Wells-Jensen said. For example, if we didn’t perceive sound waves, then our use of sound as a communication device would not exist. Consider the way deaf people communicate so expressively with their hands and faces, and are unable to lasso their voices into the pitch and tone the way hearing humans do when they talk.

Before we can begin to hypothesize about any extraterrestrial language, we must examine our basis for understanding what language is. We should examine what we know—and, even more important, what we presume—about language.One approach linguistics has taken is to look deeply into the structure of a single language with the goal of capturing its essence in a series of descriptive principles; this approach assumes that each Earth language has within it a "universal" set of rules that characterize all potential human languages.

Another approach would be to study the 7,000 or so known Earth languages to identify what all of them have in common and distill the set of descriptive principles from there. Unfortunately, both approaches are quite human-centric, and even with a dataset of 7,000 languages to work with, we still have effectively only one data point. Still, defining this single data point is useful because we can't think outside the box until we have identified the box.

With this in mind, what we could do is examine those 7,000 languages to establish what is rare among them or what they all lack: That is, what presuppositions do they all make? What things are unsaid, or even unsayable, because these things are too obvious, too obscure, or somehow foreign to human cognition? We cannot know which of our assumptions about language might be natural outgrowths of intelligence and therefore truly universal, and which result from specifically human factors; the best we can do at this point is lay out the possibilities.

 

 

In the Denis Villeneuve space-opera Arrival, 12 pods from outer space land at various locations on Earth, each operated by a strange species of alien. The American government enlists a linguist — Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams — to try to figure out what these extraterrestrials want, but it’s not going to be easy.

The first, and most significant, hurdle is language. How is someone who’s learned only Earth-based languages supposed to communicate with a group of beings that gurgle out croaks and write in what look like inky floating coffee stains?

Anatomy and physiology do more than dictate how we speak; it’s our way of understanding the world, which is vital to how early humans developed the language, and how we comprehend the world around us. “What if you had a race of aliens that couldn’t see? In what ways would that change the way they built their civilization and how they understand their world?” Wells-Jensen proposed. “We have some data to suggest that the way we are physically built might influence the way our language is structured. It’s because we walk erect, our top appendages are free, and we have to use our hands to do things.”

Language, after all, is a verbal reflection of how we understand our world through our bodies: We crawl, we stagger, we cry, we laugh. We look to see the stars, taste our morning coffee, smell the garbage on the streets, rub our hands in nervousness. Which makes the heptopods that Louise Banks deals with in Arrival an especially hard one to understand, given that they experience the world with seven fingers, no obvious eyes or ears, and a language based purely on sound reverberations.

There’s also the fact that even if we did come to a point where we could speak the same language as an extraterrestrial species, we wouldn’t have the language to express certain concepts. “You see this with those lists of things in English that we don’t have a word for,” Wells-Jensen points out. And it could happen the other way around too — extraterrestrials might have phrases for concepts that they don’t have words for, which means we’ll have a rough time getting their worldview as well.

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