Me Human, You Alien: How to Talk to an Extraterrestrial by Jonathan Vos Post
(c) 1996 by Emerald City Publishing an excerpt from a book entitled THE HANDBOOK OF UFO CONTACT, to appear Spring 1997, New York: William Morrow & Co.

Copyright 1996, by Emerald City Publishing. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without permission. May be posted electronically provided that it is transmitted unaltered, in its entirety, and without charge. Return to Table of Contents

What Kind of Language?


We assume that the ET is not a super-linguist who already knows English, or can learn it while you are still getting a grip on the situation. We assume that he does not carry the equivalent of a Universal Translator (a probably impossible gadget) or The Klingon Dictionary: The Official Guide to Klingon Words and Phrases6 by Marc Okrand. No, we must think long and hard about what Language is, and how our experience with human languages might extend to ET languages (Xenolinguistics). Francis P. Dineen, Georgetown University Institute of Languages and Linguistics, says that there are 11 characteristics of language.7 He was thinking of human languages, so we will need to make a few adjustments. He lists: (1) Language is Sound (2) Language is Linear (3) Language is Systematic (4) Language is a System of Systems (5) Language is Meaningful (6) Language is Arbitrary (7) Language is Conventional (8) Language is a System of Contrasts (9) Language is Creative (10) Languages are Unique (11) Languages are Similar

Let's take these one at a time, and reconsider them in the UFO context.

Sound, Light, Viruses, and Neutrinos

Language is Sound. Or is it? Most humans speak and listen to language, using the same fleshy articulatory equipment to produce speech sounds and to hear them. The sounds may appear strange to you, but they may be accurately described in terms of the movements of organs such as vocal cords, tongue, lips, and teeth. But the primacy of speech is not absolute, given the importance of writing, and the use of various sign languages. We have no evidence yet that the ET uses sound, or writing, or sign language, so we must immediately find out what MEDIUM is used for language signals in the ET. Your science team, since they arrived, has been observing the ET with every scientific instrument imaginable. Ask them which medium the ET seems to be emitting the most complex signals in: (a) Light (b) Sound (c) Smell (d) Taste (e) Touch (f) Posture (g) Biomorphic Writing (h) Biological Vectors (i) Direct Nerve Contact (j) Exotic Radiations (k) Telepathy (l) Combinations

Now scroll down to see each of these explained.

(a) Light.

Aliens may be emitting electromagnetic radiation, such as radio waves [see "The Waveries99" for a story of ETs which ARE radio waves], microwaves, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, x-rays, or gamma rays. Deploy any additional sensors needed in each frequency range, record everything, digitize those records into the computer system, and tell the scientists to set up software-controlled gadgets to emit coded radiation in whatever frequency or frequencies the ET is emitting. Examples in science fiction of light-communicating ETs include the novel "VOR8" (which stands for Violet Orange Red), and Steven Spielberg's 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind9. Even on Earth, quite a variety of lifeforms generate light. As one essay72 puts it: "Many insects, fish, crustaceans, squids, fungi, bacteria, and protozoa bioluminesce: They throb with light. The angler fish even hangs a glowing lure from its mouth, which attracts prey. A male firefly flashes its cool, yellow-green semaphores of desire, and the female, too, is randy, she flashes back her consent." The legend of the fall of Troy includes mention that the news of ultimate victory was flashed from Asia Minor to Greece by a sequence of signal fires, a technique that led to the rise of the heliograph (relaying signals by reflecting sunlight by mirrors spaced far apart). Try to determine if the ET is emitting light by natural, biological means, or by the use of some hardware. Use your pocket flashlight and/or camera flash to copy whatever light patterns you can see.

(b) Sound.

The ET may be producing subsonics, too low in frequency for humans to hear, as Blue Whales, alligators, and elephants do; or sounds that we can hear; or sounds too high in pitch for our ears, as dolphins, praying mantises, and bats can do. Bats "echolocate" by responding to the echos of the 50,000 clicks per second that they can produce (more than twice the frequency we can hear). The frequency range may be narrow, or it may cover many more octaves than human speech, as with dolphins. Record everything, and get it digitized for the computers. The microphone arrays set up by the science team will reveal this pretty quickly. Have them set up a computerized frequency transponder system to stretch or squeeze the sound into a human-audible range for the Linguistics sub-team to hear. Have your Tech Liaison bring John Lilly, and any dolphins they can bring and keep comfortable. Dolphins might be better at sonic communication than humans, and might be useful ambassador-translators. A special case of sound is music, again invoking Close Encounters of the Third Kind9. As one poet72 observed, "a single chord is a calling card and, at that, a mighty simple chord, based on universally shared mathematics. This is an old idea, going back to the Greeks and the music of the spheres. There has always been a connection between music and mathematics, which is why scientists have often been inordinately fond of music.... Science fiction argues that if music is mathematical, it must be universal. For interstellar space, don't bother with verbal messages; send a fugue. To be safe, send both," and indeed Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were launched in 1977 carrying a digital record of miscellaneous sounds of earth, including music. A popular joke (in NASA and SETI circles) is that the ETs land and demand "send more Chuck Berry!" George Rochberg, a composer, says that "music is a secondary 'language' system whose logic is closely related to the primary alpha logic of the human body. If I'm right, then it follows that the perception of music is simply the process reversed, i.e. we listen with our bodies, with our nervous systems and their primary parallel/serial memory functions." The problem with this theory is that, while every single human society has music, then music in each culture is different. Philosophy Professor and science fiction pioneer Olaf Stapledon agrees68: "Man himself, at the very least, is music, a brave theme that makes music also of its vast accompaniment, it's matrix of storms and stars." Observe if the ET produces patterns of sound with an object -- it might be a musical instrument. If you can, imitate its sound with a harmonica, guitar, violin, or any other instrument that you happen to have on hand and with which you are familiar. But don't expect full emotional communication. As Victor Zuckercandl says in The Sense of Music: "We can translate from any language into any other language; yet the mere idea of translating, say, Chinese music into the Western tonal idiom is obvious nonsense." Music, like primary language, is arbitrary, in the sense of our section on "Arbitrary is as Arbitrary Does." In the novella "The Moon Moth53" the protagonist reads in the Journal of Universal Anthropology the following: "The population of the Titanic littoral is highly individualistic, possibly in response to a bountiful environment which puts no premium upon group activity. The language, expressing this trait, expresses the individual's mood, his emotional attitude towards a given situation. Factual information is regarded as a secondary concomitant. Moreover, the language is sung, characteristically to the accompaniment of a small instrument. As a result, there is great difficulty in ascertaining fact from a native of Fan, or the forbidden city of Zundar. One will be regaled with elegant arias and demonstrations of astonishing virtuousity upon one or another of the numerous musical instruments. The visitor to this fascinating world, unless he cares to be treated with the most consummate contempt, must therefore learn to express himself after the approved local fashion." This includes instruments such as: "stimic: three flute-like tubes equipped with plungers. Thumb and forefinger squeeze a bag to force air across the mouth-pieces; the second, third, and fourth little fingers manipulate the slide. The stimic is an instrument well-adapted to the sentiments of cool withdrawal, or even disapproval. Krodatch: a small square sound-box strung with resined gut. The musician scratches the strings with his fingernail, or strokes them with his fingertips, to produce a variety of quietly formal sounds. The krodatch is also used as an instrument of insult."

(c) Smell.

Smell is the most ancient and the most emotionally evocative sense you have. When you sniff an odor, molecules of the scent are absorbed by in the mucous membrane of the fatty, moist, yellow tissue in your nasal cavity, behind the bridge of your nose, and stimulating microscopic cilia on special olfactory nerve cells which are replaced every month or so. The nerve cells send messages to your brain. In fact, the "olfactory bulb" in the brains of fishes is the evolutionary ancestor of your entire cerebrum -- the thinking part of your brain. You have, according to the popular "stereochemical" theory of J. E. Amoore (first suggested by the poet Lucretius in about 60 B.C.!), seven basic smell-receptors (shaped and sensitive molecules) on those nerve-cilia, and therefore everything you smell is a combination of seven basic smells. They are: pepperminty, floral, ethereal (alcohol, or pears), musky, camphoraceous (moth balls), pungent (vinegar) and putrid (rotten eggs). Something smells pepperminty to you if it has wedge-shaped molecules that fit into a V-shaped receptor site on your nerve cilia, and floral if it has a molecule shaped like a disk with a straight handle, which fits into a bowl-and-groove-shaped receptor site. Putrid molecules are negatively charged, and couple to positively charged receptors; while pungent molecules have a positive charge that links to a negatively charged receptor. In all likelihood, the ET will have a completely different set of basic smells. Your receptors are locks, designed to fit particular key molecules. The ET will have different locks and different keys. Still, it might be informative to present a series of smells, which are basic to you, to the ET, and to smell if it replies with any smells that you can recognize. On the down side, you might be poisoning the ET. A specially important type of smell communication is that of "pheromones" -- from the Greek words pherein (to carry), and horman (to excite). Precise scent molecules trigger some creatures to ovulate, to courtship behavior, to taking a dominant or submissive role, to mark territory, to identify family, to designate egg-laying places, or to make a trail back to home. Pheromones are important to insects and to mammals. Martha McClintock demonstrated that a group of women living together synchronize their menstrual cycles because of some pheromone in their sweat. One way of telling if the ET has evolved as a smell-priority creature is where its smell receptors are located. If the ET, for instance, is snake-like, with a head close to the ground, it is more likely to smell odors that cling to the ground. If the ET has feathery antennae, like moths or butterflies, it may have the super-sensitive pheromone receptors on these antennae. If the ET has four or six legs, and a head dropping close to the ground, then it may be somewhat like a bloodhound or truffle-hunting pig. But this is only a hint, not a certainty. After all, how can tell whether or not the ET is smelling with its feet? Well, maybe if it wears no shoes.... The chemistry and biochemistry experts on the Science Team have been running samples of exhaled and secreted gas and liquid from the ET through Mass Spectrometers and other analysis devices. They are coding that data for the computer system, and will now tell you if the molecular output from the ET is varying quickly over time. If the ET is like terrestrial insects in its use of pheromones and other chemicals as a medium of communication, we need to track the changes in smell, and be able to make stinky signals in return. Have the chemical synthesis sub-team make stocks of every chemical that the ET produces, and set up a smell-o-vision gadget that will puff software-controlled coded smells at the the ET. Call in the top perfume designers and "noses" from London, New York, Tokyo, and Paris, just to be sure.

(d) Taste.

Follow the instructions for Smell, except based on samples from the surface of whatever part of the ET seems involved, such as mouth (as in people), antennae (as in insects), or carapace (as in lobsters). Pay attention to your master chef, but don't feed anything to the ET yet, for fear of poisoning. Our word taste comes from the Middle English tasten (to sample, touch, examine), which in turn derives from the Latin taxare (to sharply touch). Taste is important to mamals, who evolve a love for the flavor of their mother's milk; and later to tell good food from bad. Observe carefully to see if, how, when, and in what context the ETs eat, drink, and touch objects to the organs of eating and/or drinking. Observe whether they eat what appears to meat, or plant matter -- taste has different significance for hunting carnivores than for grazing herbivores. You have roughly 10,000 tastebuds on your tongue, as first noted by Gerg Meissner and Rudolf Wagner in the last century, with specific areas of your tongue devoted to the four basic tastes -- sweet (tip), bitter (back), sour, and salty. Your taste of food and drink is really a combination of taste and smell. The ETs may be cannibals, by the way, in the sense of eating each other, but unlike shlocky sci-fi movies, they will not want to eat humans. We are guaranteed to be extremely poisonous to them, if they have anything like an immune system responsive to foreign proteins. For a dissenting view, however, see Anything You Can Do.69

(e) Touch.

The ET may communicate through vibrations, squeezes, scratchings, or other tactile modalities. We are most sensitive to touch on certain hairless areas of skin: fingertips, palm, foot sole, tongue, nipple, and sexual organs. Many mammals are most sensitive with whiskers near the mouth. Look for what body parts the ET uses to delicately touch objects in its surrounding environment. These are probably among the more touch-sensitive places on its body. There may be social barriers to touch in specific places or in particular contexts. You don't want to accidently be guilty of extraterrestrial sexual harassment! The legal phrase, noli me tangere, means "don't interfere", but literally means "don't touch me." Your sense of touch comes from tiny encapsulated nerves called Meissner's corpuscles, buried between the top layer of skin (epidermis) and the second layer (dermis). You have almost 10,000 such touch nerves on each square inch of fingertip. You also have deep pressure-touch sensors, called Pacinian corpuscles, near joints, and in mammary glands and genitals, that signal to your brain what is pressing on your body, how your organs are shifting position, and what position your limbs, fingers, and toes are in (proprioception). These Pacinian corpuscles are also sensitive to vibration. In addition, you have Merkel's disks (which sense and signal about steady, constant pressure below the surface of your skin) and Ruffini endings, deep beneath skin, which respond to presure, and special nerves for sensing temperature, and the sensitivity to touch at the base (follicle) of your hairs. Maybe, but not surely, the ET has touch sensors of similar kinds. Observe carefully if the ET has hairs, Vibrissae (stiff cat-like whiskers), snouts, bristles, cerci (vibration-sensors on the bellies of cockroaches), antennae, tongues, bills, fingers, tentacles, or other parts likely to be touch-related. Look for how the ETs (if there are more than one) touch each other. Try to note which touches look like caressing, kissing, biting, sucking, scratching, patting, nudging, massaging, kneading, fumbling, wiping, tickling, fondling, grooming, brushing, stroking, prodding, banging, hugging, or licking. You may be way off base, but photograph, sketch, video, or note in writing whatever you can about such behaviors. If the ET reaches out to touch you, be very careful not to jerk away or to over-react. Try to touch it back in the same way. Gather some musicians (who can make precise motions with fingers or tongues), safecrackers (with ultrasensitive fingertips), chiropractors (good at bendings, twistings, pullings, and squeezing), doctors, chiropodists, manicurists, barbers, and masseuses. And have the Science Team set up tactile-transponders for computer input-ouput, that can translate touch into software and the reverse.

(f) Posture.

The ET may communicate by wiggling its limbs or other body parts in a visual language. Your Science Team has been watching, recording, and computerizing its motions. Enhance that analysis with a top American Sign Language expert, Marcel Marceau or other available master Mime, modern dancers89, dance instructors, choreographers, semaphore signallers, and Labanotation folks who can translate choreography into computer notation and vice versa. Tell Robin Williams that you've got a sequel to "Mork and Mindy" in production, and fly him here. There are conventionalized symbolic gestures to convey narration and emotion in the dances of Indonesia, Indo-China, Korea, China, and Japan. "It would seem as if kinesthesia, or the sensing of muscular movement, although arising before language, should be made more highly conscious by linguistic use of imaginary space and metaphorical images of motion," says Whorf45 (p.155). "Kinesthesia is marked in two facets of European culture: art and sport. European sculpture ... is strongly kinesthetic, conveying great sense of the body's motions; European painting likewise. The dance in our culture expresses delight in motion rather than symbolism or ceremonial, and our music is greatly influenced by our dance forms. Our sports are strongly imbued with the element of the 'poetry of motion.' Hopi [Native American] races and games seem to emphasize rather the virtues of endurance and sustained intensity. Hopi dancing is highly symbolic and is performed with great intensity and earnestness, but has not much movement or swing." Watch carefully for signs that the ET sometimes moves in dancelike or gamelike ways, but expect that the differences in the nature of those motions may be greater than the differences between European and Hopi dance. Weston La Barre70 gives a referenced list of human gestural or allelo-languages, including: "the sign languages of Australian aborigines; the silent gestural language of European monks, designed to avoid interrupting the meditations of others, an allegedly international language of travelling medieval monks, reliably dated from, at the latest, the fourth century A.D. onward; the hand-language of deaf-mutes and those who would communicate with them; the gestural argots or kinesic trade-jargons of truck drivers, Hindu merchants, Persians, gypsies, carnival folk, burglars, street urchins, tobacco auctioneers, and others; the elaborate gestural language of the Hindu natya dance-dramas; the ritual handposes or mudras of Buddhist and Hindu priests in bali; the drum languages of West Africa and Central Africa, the Jivaros, Melanesians, Polynesians, and Javanese; the 'whistling language' of the Canary Islanders and some West Africans; the special camphor-gathering language of the Jakun, and the allusive communications of Patani fisherman and many hunting peoples...." In modern American and international life, think of railroad semaphores, naval flags, and the universal code of weather maps, military salutes, and thumbs up or down. As scientist/science fiction author Gregory Benford warns, rules of thumb might be different for beings with different thumbs. R. L. Birdwistell76 (pp.158-9) lists the basic assumptions of kinesics (the systmatic study of the communicational aspects of body motion) as measured in interpersonal contexts, in a way that we believe might also apply to Extraterrestrials: (1) Like other events in nature, no body movement or expression is without meaning in the context in which it appears. (2) Like other aspects of human behavior, body posture, movement, and facial expression are patterned, and thus, subject to systematic analysis. (3) While recognizing the possible limitations imposed by particular biological substrata, unless otherwise demonstrated, the systematic body motion of the members of a community is considered a function of the social system to which the group belongs. (4) Visible body activity like audible acoustic activity systematically influences to behavior of other members of any particular group. (5) Until otherwise demonstrated such behavior will be considered to have an investigable communicational function. (6) The meanings derived therefrom are functions both of the behavior and of the operations by which it is investigated. (7) The particular biological system and the special life experience of any individual will contribute idiosyncratic elements to his kinesic system, but the individual or symptomatic quality of these elements can only be assessed following the analysis of the larger system of which his is part.

(g) Biomorphic writing.

The ET may have evolved (or been modified for) direct production of writings of some sort. For example, in the story "Help, I am Dr. Morris Goldpepper"10, aliens have specially shaped teeth for chewing sequences of symbols onto sticks that they pass back and forth for visual inspection and re-chewing. The ET may write on paper with self-made ink (like squid ink), or carve marks onto stone with diamond claws. Give it copies of any bits of material found on or near its person on from its vehicle. Look for variations of the "writing" methods devised by early human cultures: the knotted ropes and notched sticks of ancient China, South American indians, and West African and Australian natives. The quipu (knots) used by Incas in old Peru, included yellow ropes to symbolize gold, white ropes for silver, red ropes for soldiers, green ropes for grain, a single knot for 10, two knots for 20, a double knot for 100, and so on. The messages conveyed by these knotted cords evolved to such complexity that quipucamayocuna (offical keepers of the knot) were apointed to interpret them. It is possible that extraterrestrials have evolved some such non-pictoral non-written pseudo-writing, and may even have evolved special variations of their ancestral manipulatory organs to produce them rapidly and efficiently.

(h) Biological vectors.

The ET may use other living things as the medium of communication. For instance, it may produce and analyze coded DNA (or its equivalent), encapsulated in linguistic viruses. In such case, add to the Science Team Dr. Leroy Hood, formerly from Caltech, now at the University of washington in a chair endowed by Microsoft's Bill Gates, to build a computerized genetics-to-computer-to-genetics translator. And put the Centers for Disease Control on alert.

(i) Direct nerve contact.

The ETs may directly join their nervous systems together and speak brain-to-brain. If so, get the top neurologists and microneuroanatomists to modify their squid axon voltage clamps into devices for reading and writing the electrochemical impulses of the ET nerves. Start the Science Team working on a neural interface to fit in between the ET nerves and a human volunteer's nerves. Note that our nerves use a particular pulse-frequency code, sodium/potassium ion transport scheme, and neurotransmitter menu likely to be quite different from the ET's nervous infrastructure. That's why the neural interface is a must-have. We may not have such a technology yet, but might evolve one in the future. This is suggested by the short story "Crisis98" by Edward Grendon in 1951: By 1980 the balance had shifted. The progress of the physical sciences had by no means stopped, but had slowed considerably. The social sciences, on the other hand, had moved ahead with unexpected speed. The integration between academic and therapeutic psychology had been the first step; the rest followed quickly.When the final rapprochement between psychoanalysis and neurology was made, there existed, for the first time, a comprehensive theory of behavior, not only of human beings and animals but of other--so far theoretical--nervous systems as well. Just as the mathematicians were able to postulate geometries that existed in no known Universe when they were first devised, the psychologists were now able to postulate non-Terran behavior systems.

(j) Exotic radiations.

Outside the electromagnetic spectrum of (a), there are other forms of radiation which may be used by beings or civilizations. These include ions, electrons, neutrons, mesons, neutrinos, and gravity waves. Unless the ET is the size of a moon, it is unlikely to produce significant gravity waves, and unless it has a fission or fusion reactor in its belly, it is unlikely to emit neutrons, mesons, or neutrinos. Still, it never hurts to have the Science Team look for such emissions, and be prepared to produce similar ones, perhaps piped in through magnet-guided vacuum pipe from the nearest atom smasher. Neutrinos or gravity waves may, on the other hand, be the way to detect the ET civilization in the first place, but that discussion belongs in another chapter.

(k) Telepathy.

While there is no clear evidence that people can ever "read" each others' minds, we are socially familiar with the notion of telepathy, and many cultures have such a notion. There are South American natives who believe that the drug Yage allows people to read minds in religious ceremonies, and J.B. Rhine and others at Duke University have performed experiments which tantalized some scientists for decades. It may be that telepathy would give such a Darwinian advantage to any creature that evolves it that the very lack of such creatures on Earth means that telepathy is impossible. But we can't be sure. After all, in one of the few science fiction novels written by a Nobel Prize winner, William Golding's The Inheritors11, telepathic Neanderthals are displaced by non-telepathic Homo Sapiens who, without the mental advantage of telepathy, are forced to develop language and technology. The suggestion here is that telepathy is actually an evolutionary DISadvantage. If the ET is telepathic, there are several possibilities. Maybe we can "hear" its thoughts, and it can't hear ours. This gives our Science Team an advantage to exploit. Maybe it can "hear" our thoughts, but cannot project messages back into our minds. If so, it has the responsibility to let us know, which puts us back to square one. Maybe we can sense its emotions, or it can sense ours. This is of limited value, since we may not have the same emotions, and even human emotional communications (i.e. music) produce at best ambiguous results. Kurt Vonnegut12 (p.198) has fictional author Kilgore Trout write "Earth was the only place in the known universe where language was used.... Everybody else used mental telepathy.... They [when humans taught them language] could get so much more done with language.... Mental telepathy, with everyone constantly telling everybody everything, produced a sort of generalized indifference to all information. But language, with its slow, narrow meanings, made it possible to think of one thing at a time -- to start thinking in terms of projects." If clear signals can go from ET to human and back by telepathy, we need a very disciplined human thinker to communicate. I suggest an expert in meditation, with a sense of humor and a delight in technology, such as the Dalai Lama. Whatever you do, keep everyone else out of telepathy range, or else the ET may tap into unspoken violence, prejudice, or the chaotic human unconsciousness.

(l) Combinations.

The ET may use two or more of the above modalities in combination. The "waggle dance" of the honeybee combines direction (with respect to the position of the sun), touch, and smell. As an example of (c) and (f), Kurt Vonnegut12 has written about aliens who communicate by farting and tapdancing, who are all beaten to death by irritated rednecks.