Language has existed on Earth for about one million years beginning with Homo erectus, says linguist Daniel Everett (see video below), which begs the question: do sentient beings with language exist elsewhere in the Cosmos? In December, 2020 ex-CIA Director John Brennan said it was “presumptuous and arrogant” to believe there are no other forms of life than the ones on Earth, referring to the videos released by the Pentagon of US Navy sightings of UFOs.
“I think, some of the phenomena we’re going to be seeing continues to be unexplained and might, in fact, be some type of phenomenon that is the result of something that we don’t yet understand and that could involve some type of activity that some might say constitutes a different form of life,” Brannan said on the podcast “Conversations with Tyler.”
Which raises the profound question: if we ever have contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, will we be able to communicate with them? Will they use a language we could comprehend?
The Big Question
According to linguist Noam Chomsky, “the Martian language might not be so different from human language after all.” And, “if a Martian visited Earth, it would think we all speak dialects of the same language, because all terrestrial languages share a common underlying structure” — he must mean “universal grammar.” Others also believe that since the laws of the universe are supposedly the same everywhere, the language alien civilizations use might be fundamentally similar. Stephen Krashen, on the other hand, wrote “It is possible that alien language will be completely different from human languages.”
However if an alien probe landed on Earth and spoke a language that violated universal grammar, we simply would not be able to learn that language the way that we learn a human language like English or Chinese, says Chomsky.
Language is the transfer of information by symbols”
Proponents of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) estimate that we will encounter alien intelligence within the next several decades. Even if you hold a more conservative estimate – say, that the chance of encountering alien intelligence in the next 50 years is 5 percent – the stakes for our species are high. Knowing that we are not alone in the universe would be a profound realization, and contact with an alien civilization could produce amazing technological innovations and cultural insights.
So, we should ask: how might aliens think? And perhaps most important, how will they communicate.
“The most sophisticated civilizations will be postbiological, forms of artificial intelligence (AI)”, says philosopher Susan Schneider at the Institute for Advanced Studies. Further, alien civilizations will tend to be forms of superintelligence: intelligence that is able to exceed the best human-level intelligence in every field – social skills, general wisdom, scientific creativity.
Beyond encountering an AI species, can we expect to learn an alien language? The first hurdle would be its medium. Humans communicate in a 85-255 Hz frequency range of sound and in the 430-770 THz frequency range of light. This is unlikely to be true of aliens, who will have evolved differently. Nevertheless, the problem is largely a technical one. Speeded up whale songs that are otherwise inaudible to humans, for instance, show that it is relatively easy to map “alien” stimuli into forms that humans can perceive.
Sentient aliens might not need a language”
Sentient aliens might not need a language. It’s entirely possible that an alien civilization could develop with solely non-linguistic communication or a proto-language.
The Last Word
“The fundamental basis of all communication is not phonetics nor grammar but signs.” linguist Daniel Everett wrote in an email to The Daily Galaxy. “The simplest signs are images (icons), physical links (indexes), and abstract, conventional signs (symbols), he explains. “Since this system of signs, called semiotics, is closely connected to logic (a branch of it), there is no communication possible without semiotics, including all mathematics. All animals use indexes and icons. Any newly encountered species of at least human intelligence will not only use indexes and icons but also symbols. The former two will be much easier to figure out. The latter will take more work, but given access to the users of this system, an earthly field researcher should be able to figure them out and establish communication. This follows from the work of American philosopher, mathematician, astronomer and logician, Charles Sanders Peirce and his Universal Grammar. Since his Universal Grammar is based on logic and signs, it is truly universal, working for any species, terrestrial or otherwise.”
“If, by ‘intelligence’ we mean something like our own – an ability to reflect on ourselves as purposeful actors in a world full of other actors like ourselves (what is sometimes referred to as a “theory of mind”) – then I think it likely that other forms of intelligent communication, elsewhere in the Universe, will share very general properties with our own,” wrote evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel at the University of Reading.in an email to The Daily Galaxy. “They will have a grammar and syntax, they will most likely be digital, as opposed to analogue in the way units of information are transmitted or perceived, and they will very likely structure the world around them into dimensions of space and time,” he explained. “Indeed, it could be said that even DNA itself has these properties in common with human language. This is not to say that we on Earth will recognize these other forms of communication, much less understand them – we are even still learning how to understand DNA – but the commonalities will likely exist at some deep level.”
“While I’m a great supporter of our SETI efforts, and have indeed dedicated most of my working hours to various SETI-related questions, I’m not very big on the communication issue,” astronomer and philosopher Milan at the Astronomical Observatory of Belgrade and the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, wrote in an email to The Daily Galaxy when asked for his thoughts about the possibility that universal structures in the physical, biological and social worlds would be enough to anchor human and alien languages in a common semantic framework. “On the contrary,” he explains, “I find both (1) that the probability of discovering a SETI target satisfying all conditions for communication in the vernacular sense (or in the Star Trek sense, either!) is very small, and (2) that the Wittgensteinian philosophical argument against inter-species communication, which in a sense goes back to Kant and his antinomies, is quite strong and very little engaged in the SETI literature so far. I understand that is not really what you would prefer to hear, but that’s my frank take. I’ll be happy to be proved wrong.”
Image credit top of page: Paramount Pictures movie “Arrival”