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First Contact: How Could We Possibly Talk With Aliens?

Ever since we as a species have become aware of other stars and planets beyond our own we have let our imaginations run wild with what might lie out there or if we really are alone in the universe upon this spinning rock we call Earth. Are there other creatures or beings inhabiting other stars, and if so we will we ever see them or even talk to them? These are the dreams of our kind, the questions that still loom large across the landscape of our psyche. Is there someone else out there? Further adding to our questions is if there was some other race out there, and we did actually manage to make contact with them across the sea of stars, what would they be like? Would we be able to talk to these alien visitors and, perhaps more importantly, what would we say? The conundrum of how we would communicate with extraterrestrials has in recent years been seriously considered, and despite all of the very smart people working on it we are mostly still left in the dark and unprepared for what talking with an alien might actually be like.

If aliens were to come down and greet us, say, tomorrow, we would likely immediately be faced with numerous challenges even beyond language, such as culture, customs, ways of thinking, and even possibly a different concept and perception of reality itself. We might not even recognize them as any type of life as we know it. But if we were to assume that we could just start talking, there would be several potential obstacles right off the bat, not the least of which is that our bodies would likely be completely different, and this could have a lot of possible repercussions.

For one, since language is a representation of our thoughts, which are largely based in how we perceive and interact with the world, human languages reflect the concepts of our senses of sight, smell, touch, and other cues from our world through our physical form, our shared evolution and physical actions and reactions such as laughter or crying. What then happens if an alien race has no eyes or ears or mouth, or experiences the world in a totally different way? What if they do not have the same physical relationship with their world as we do with our own? What if they don’t laugh or cry, or emote as we do or have the same senses? They may have no understanding at all of what our concepts of perception are in the first place, as well as a totally different way of experiencing and thinking about time and reality, and so this would reverberate throughout their whole way of thinking and communication, and indeed their very being. This was all rather well-explored in the film Arrival, in which a team of linguists is tasked with deciphering the mysterious language of a decidedly non-humanoid species with a very different language and view of time and space, and within the understanding of which hangs the balance of our survival.

Even within human languages here on Earth we can see to some extent how the effects of our sensory abilities, our upbringing, and our perceptions of the world around us can change methods and means of communication. For instance, deaf people use sign language as a means to communicate when the sense of hearing is robbed from them. However, although human languages do all sound very unique and even alien at times, and there are sign languages and whatnot, they are still based on our shared perception of the universe through the same common biology, morphology, anatomy, and physiology, and therefore they follow rules that we can all fathom and which give us at least a chance of reproducing them. With aliens, all bets would be off.

Another important hurdle with differences in physical form would be how we produce and detect sounds, and thereby language, in the first place. For humans we use a vocal tract and our ears, and there is a very finite, set range of frequencies through which we are able to detect the sounds we utter. With aliens they would be working with a whole different set of organs, frequencies, and physiology for speech, that is if they even “spoke” as we know it at all. Their utterances would possibly be made through strange organs for which we have no close approximation or even understanding of, would probably be made at frequencies, vibrations, or cadences that we would not be able to detect or recognize as language, and would be made through a different atmosphere to make it all even worse.

These would be completely unearthly, non-human sounds, we may not be able to physically discern the distinctions they make, and considering that many animals on our very own planet are thought to be able to speak in language and yet we are completely in the dark as to what they are saying, this would likely be even more pronounced in something from out beyond the stars. Perhaps impossibly, indecipherably so. Simply put, if we cannot physically detect their sounds and cannot reproduce them, then vocal communication is virtually impossible.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that we can get past these obstacles, and that we can hear and be heard by each other in a meaningful way. The problems would still not end there. The very rules of our language and the way they are laid out are all intrinsically linked to our biology and mindset as well. An alien language might not have any of the parts of language that we take for granted, such as verbs, adjectives, and nouns, would possibly not view things such as cause and effect or the passage of time the same as us, and would potentially follow certain internal rules, logic, and structures so different from ours that we are unable to even mutually comprehend them. We as humans have shared cognition, and common linguistic structures, basic psychologies, and features, but aliens cannot be counted upon to do so. Jessica Coon, a professor of linguistics at McGill University in Montreal who was consulted on the film about extraterrestrial communication, Arrival, said of this:

What linguists have discovered about human languages is that even though they can sound very different from one another and their grammars do show a lot of variation…languages tend to fall into certain patterns. Most of the world’s languages fall into one of those patterns or the other. The variation isn’t completely unconstrained. Humans seem to be hardwired for this capacity to learn language. Because it is part of our genetics and part of being human, it’s very unlikely that other creatures would have the same kinds of constraints or show the same kinds of similarities that human languages do. We would just have to hope that we would still be able to recognize patterns and match it up with we’re seeing.

The notable American linguist and cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky has also offered his thoughts on the inherit linguistic problems with trying to talk with extraterrestrial beings with which we have no shared cognitive understanding of how language works. He has said:

If a Martian landed from outer space 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 Swahili. We’re designed by nature for English, Chinese, and every other possible human language. But we’re not designed to learn perfectly usable languages that violate universal grammar.

The formidable challenge this would present can already be seen even among human languages here on our own planet, where there are sometimes things in another language that we have no word for, or a lack of a word for something we take for granted. A tropical people might have no word for “snow,” for instance, or any concept of what that could possibly be. Some remote, isolated languages are so alien to others that they do not even have words, concepts or phrases for things most speakers of other languages would likely take for granted. For instance, the Pirahã people of the Brazilian Amazon have no words for counting things. It is either “one” or “more than one,” that’s it. They also have no clear words for certain directions such as “left” or “right,” and this is a daunting challenge to understanding them, even though they are human. Imagine a completely non-human entity with even more outlandish rules of language and grammatical idiosyncrasies and you can see how meaningful exchanges could be a problem. Jesse Snedeker, a Harvard psychologist who studies the development of language in children, has said of this:

We know that every child can learn every possible human language. Every child has to have some sort of internal capacity that allows them to learn language. We have to ask ourselves, ‘Would we have the capacity to learn alien language, and would they have the capacity to learn ours?’ And different people would give you very different answers to that question. On the other hand, there’s the argument that any species that achieves a high level of technology would necessarily understand certain concepts, so that ought to provide a basis for at least a limited degree of communication.

This is where we begin to see that all hope is not necessarily lost, and one thing seen as the key to actually being able to start towards communication with aliens is to find some commonality to use as a starting point. A good way to do this would be to have some sort of key, something like the Rosetta Stone, which helped us to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. This has been an idea tossed around in science fiction before, such as the use of the tones in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or the use of prime numbers in Carl Sagan’s book Contact. If we could have some common frame of reference and somewhere to start, then there is the chance we could work towards further meaningful communication.

One of the best ways of doing this has been seen in recent years as being to use mathematics or scientific information such as physics as a sort of “universal language” and starting point. After all, as the laws of physics and reality are the same throughout the universe, then it stands to reason that any advanced society would have a grasp of these things in a similar way, regardless of how we ultimately think about them or express them in language. No matter what our physiological differences or deviations in ways of looking at the world and universe, physics are the same everywhere, and so would be a commonality we could use.

Carl DeVito, an emeritus faculty member in the mathematics department at the University of Arizona in Tucson, believes that although this exchange of scientific information is perhaps the key to communication with aliens, it nevertheless still faces some challenges. First is the idea that it is still reliant on understanding the aliens’ systems of measurement, as well as relying on the supposition that they can count and do arithmetic as we do, that they recognize the same elements of the periodic table, that they have adequately studied the different states of matter, and that they know enough chemistry as we know it to carry out chemical calculations in the same way we do. He also points out that even though the physics would be the same, these extraterrestrials might calculate their rules of motion and mechanics based on their own unique geometry. DeVito has said of this:

The mathematics of motion is differential calculus. Can we assume that an alien race shares this with us? Differential and integral calculus are so fundamental in so many areas of science that it is hard to imagine a science without them. But this is, perhaps, a human bias. We, of course, can’t know, but we must be aware that the physics of an alien race, even in a fundamental area like mechanics, might differ in subtle but important ways from our own.

Using mathematics and physics is nevertheless still seen as a potential way of breaking through our communication barrier, to the point that it is used by those organizations seeking to reach out and make contact, such as SETI. However, even if we can express simple messages to each other with math, there are still the intricacies of culture and thinking that would shape how messages and ideas are expressed and interpreted. Doug Vakoch, the president of Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence, METI, and respected researcher of xenolinguistics, has said of this conundrum thus:

If they can build spacecraft to come to come to Earth, they have to have an understanding of good engineering, physics, science, math. But doing the nitty-gritty work of going back and forth and making guesses at what an alien says, trying to interpret swirls and determining a sentence or concept? It’s hard. Conveying matters. You need flexibility of language with its infinite combinations. Our art and culture — that’s all from language, that’s not from just raw numbers.

In addition to the promise of using math, there is also the hopeful fact that it is possible that the alien’s psyches and physicality are not as different from our own as we may think after all. For instance, on our own planet we can see vastly different organisms that have nevertheless developed strikingly similar ways of dealing with the environment and world around them, such as evolving eyes, ears, legs, wings and similar organs evolving separately across species independently, or sometimes the same structures multiple times, all in the process called “convergent evolution.”

Perhaps in other areas of the universe extraterrestrials have evolved similarly enough to ourselves, especially an intelligent tool-using one that would have developed communication and technology in the first place, or one that evolved in similar conditions to us, that our mental architectures and languages are not necessarily mutually incompatible or unintelligible. This theory postulates that there are possibly enough universal elements to how we think and evolve to certain environmental challenges that this would be enough solid ground for us to delve into a basic framework from which further communication would be possible. Making this even more promising still is that with all of the broadcasts we have spewed out into the stars the aliens would potentially have a good enough sampling of our languages and communications to make talking between us easier without having even met us yet, a possibility of which Coon has said:

If you have enough information and enough of the context and the history, I think there’s hope that even without a lot of interaction you could be able to make at least significant progress in understanding the grammar of a language—again depending on how likely we are to be able to understand alien life at all. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if creatures who could make giant spaceships that just show up on Earth could easily figure out our languages from the many broadcasts we put into outer space, and that we might be able to do the same thing with sufficient resources and sufficient information.

One thing that is worth considering is that even if we overcome all of these considerable challenges and are able to communicate, look at us here on Earth. With our different cultures, ways of thinking, values, and linguistic nuances, even communication between us humans can be confusing and difficult, with misunderstandings and gaffes commonplace. How can we hope to resolve these issues with an alien civilization from another star? In the end, we just don’t know. Since we have never made contact with aliens, at least as far as we know, there is no precedent for it, and we cannot possibly know what to expect when such a day comes to pass. It is impossible to know what form these beings will take, how they will think, or how they will communicate. Will it come easy or will we forever remain closed behind mutual doors of incomprehensibility? The answers remain complex, it is all left entirely to speculation and the imagination, and we will only know when we finally make that first contact we have always dreamed of.