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

Linear or Nonlinear?

Language is Linear. That means, for humans, that language sounds are produced by a series of movements of the speech organs, one after the other. We can represent human language by using distinct symbols for each individual sound, and by putting them in order from first to last in the same order as the sounds are emitted. The order of the symbols (left-to-right as in English, right-to-left as in Hebrew, or top-to-bottom as in Chinese) doesn't matter, as long as we are consistent. There is no guarantee that this is true for the ET. If the ET has a different perception of the flow of time, that is difficult, but does not produce an absolute barrier to communication.13 What if the ET has a different perception of linguistic space? The alien might produce multiple sequences of sounds (or whatever) simultaneously, in counterpoint. For instance, it might make a series of eight noises in a row, each of which has eight frequencies simultaneously. The message would not be coded as a string or line of symbols, but rather as an eight-by-eight square of symbols, like pieces arranged on a chessboard. Musical composers and conductors may be said to think in two dimensions, which is why a musical score is written with multiple instruments from top to bottom as well as melodies written from left to right. An ET of this type might be speaking in crossword puzzles, rather than in words. So long as we can detect, record, and computerize everything the alien does, we will be able to solve the crossword puzzle or to detect the pattern of linguistic chess pieces. It will be painstakingly slow, but we can proceed. Similarly, the alien linguistic units may be connected to each other not in sequence, or in fixed two-dimensional array, but as a network of connected language atoms that point to, connect to, or refer to each other in a pattern which is different every time. This would be a spoken version of what Theodore Nelson calls hypertext.14 It took Ted Nelson some twenty years to convince the world that Hypertext made sense at all. I know, because I was one of the two computer programmers who first put his idea into practice in the mid-1970s. Now, it is a commonplace on computers through software such as HyperCard on the Macintosh, or more astonishingly, the World Wide Web on the Internet. An ET that could speak Hypertext would be hard for us to keep up with, but the computer provides the essential interface. Eventually, an alien on the World Wide Web would be a kind of inter-society communications the likes of which we could not have imagined a decade ago. Another possibility is that the ET communicates in three dimensions or more at once. The ET might, for example, emit not just a sequence of sounds, but a phased array of sounds in frequency space to produce an acoustic hologram. Some people think that dolphins can send acoustic holograms to each other, which are like three-dimensional diagrams of the perceived or imagined world. We humans do not know how to think in holograms, but we can produce them and analyze them by computer. John Lilly and some dolphins in a tank would again be a useful translation team. Coincidently, one of Ted Nelson's first jobs was a documentary film-maker for John Lilly's dolphin communication labs, and my mother Patricia Frances Vos worked for Haskins laboratories, which analyzed recordings of dolphin speech. As Ted Nelson puts it, inventing a Lewis Carroll-like portmanteau word from "interconnected," "twisted," and "tangled" : "everything is profoundly intertwingled."

Systematic, We Hope

Language is Systematic. That means that, in every human language on Earth, the number of symbols needed, to write speech in that language as a linear sequence, is definite in number. As few as a dozen letters might be needed (as in Hawaiian), or as many as fifty or so. But not every combination of sounds and symbols) is possible in any given language. That is, there are only a finite number of units that have only a limited number of ways to be combined. If this is not so for the ET, we are in trouble. If the ET language has an infinite number of units, we could never learn more than an infinitesimal part of that language. But we cannot conceive of aliens being able to handle that, either. We suspect that this is a universal law of language, applicable throughout the universe. Only infinite beings could use infinite languages. They would be as gods to us. The combination of linearity and systematic restriction on combinations lets us describe and compare languages, both in terms of sounds and grammar. To take an example from Dineen, table and stable are both common words in English, and each can be made into other English words by adding a single sound at the end (suffixing). We can now have tables and stables. But there is no sound that we can put at the start of (prefix to) stable that would make an acceptable English word, nor any sound that can be suffixed to tables or stables to make an acceptable English word. If there are no systematic limits to combining units of ET language, our linguistic experience will be of little use, and we can only hope that our Science Team will be provoked into making an unpredictable breakthrough.

I Never Metasystem I Didn't Like

Language is a System of Systems, or a Metasystem. The table and stable example above is usually explained in terms of two kinds of linguistic reasoning. We would say that phonologically (in terms of sound system) there is no such word as jtable or ztable. We would say that grammatically there is no way to suffix a sound after the -s at the end of tables. That is, there is a system of sounds (phonology) and a system of grammar. Both systems are in force all the time, and both systems restrict the combinations and the order within combinations. There are also systems of style (stylistics) and meaning (semantics) which limit combinations and sequences. If the ET language is not this kind of Metasystem, or system of systems, each with its units and rules of combination of units, then our current scientific method of analyzing a language into each system, one at a time, is doomed to failure. Again, though, this is the kind of fruitful failure that could spur our Science Team to a great leap forward. But that would scarcely happen overnight.

What is the Meaning of Meaning?

Language is Meaningful. The reason that you are in charge of studying the ET language is that we assume that the language is connected to almost every aspect of the ET's life and culture. On Earth, there is a stable relationship between the group of sounds spoken by people of one language and the civilized environment in which the speakers of that language live. We assume that the same is true of the ET. A child becomes a functioning part of his or her community primarily by acquiring language. The leaders of each society become leaders and exert their leadership primarily through their ability to communicate with their constituency through language. Let's look at each of these two sentences more carefully. A baby is not an adult, not only because the baby is small, weak, and unable to care for itself. The baby cannot fully understand what we say to it, nor to tell us precisely what it wants. True, a mother may be able to recognize her baby's cry from that of another baby. True, the baby can recognize Mommy and Daddy, and very quickly learn to respond to a few special voices and words. But it takes a couple of years of almost constant linguistic experimentation and play before the baby becomes a toddler able to speak and understand sentences. The baby also acquires its parents' language in the context of interacting with toys, foods, parents, furniture, and the patterns of daily home life. Three times in history experiments were performed to see if children raised in an environment with no language would speak a common proto-language or create a language of their own. First, Psammetichos, King of Egypt had this tried; then Frederick II, King of Sicily, in roughly 200 A.D.; and finally King James IV of Scotland, approximately 1500 A.D. (using deaf-mute nurses, cooks, and servants in a remote castle). These experiments would be considered unethical today, of course. Unfortunately, as the people of those times did not exercise what we would call controlled scientific methods, the results were uncertain. How then can we communicate with an ET, since neither of us are babies acquiring language for the first time? Babies have linguistic plasticity: an extraordinary ability to almost effortlessly learn any language or combination of languages spoken consistently in its environment. This seems to be due to a neural plasticity in which the baby's brain has an unusual ability to create, compare, and extend language patterns. Once the brain becomes less plastic, as we grow up, it becomes harder and harder for us to learn languages. The obvious solution is to have a human baby grow up while interacting with the ET, or an ET baby grow up in a human environment. It is in this way that we intuitively accept Tarzan15 learning the language of apes while still a baby, or Michael Valentine Smith16 learning Martian by growing up on Mars. There would be legal problems in allowing a baby to grow up around our ET, but perhaps there will be no faster way to truly acquire its language. Secondly, we said that linguistic power yields leadership. If our ET is a leader, perhaps we can count on it having special linguistic plasticity or discipline. But if it is just an ordinary crew member or passenger, it would indeed want to ask us humbly to "take me to your leader."

Arbitrary is as Arbitrary Does

Language is Arbitrary. The reason that speech alone does not suffice for people to communicate if they speak different languages seems obvious. There is no particular connection between the sounds used in each language and the message being expressed in those languages. That is precisely why there are many languages on Earth -- 5,445 different languages by one recent count. If there were a one-to-one relationship between things and the words for those things, there could fundamentally be only one language, with one-to-one conversion rules to account for different sounds for the same basic words. There are a few words that do relate directly to what they represent, such as murmur, buzz, hiss, bang, whisper, hum, chirp, screech, slither, plop, babble, thump -- but these imitations of the sounds of their referents (onomatopoeia) is a very small part of human languages, which in any case render the imitations differently. For instance, the English "cock-a-doodle-doo" imitation of a rooster crowing is expressed as "cocorico" in French and "chicchirichi" in Italian. We should not expect the ET language to be very different in this concern.

Conventions: Pay at the Door

Language is Conventional. Although we have just established that there is no predictable relationship between the expressions we use to represent things and those things themselves, we may not deduce that language is totally unpredictable. When we consider a single item of language in isolation, it is certainly arbitrary. But no piece of language really exists in isolation; it is (as we have seen) part of a system of systems. This means that there are regular and accurately specifiable relationships between different units of the same language. When humans speak to each other, the formation and use of language units is so regular that it almost seems to be that there is an agreement between the speakers. This virtual agreement is what we mean by language being conventional. The idea that language is conventional goes back at least to Democritus, Aristotle, and the Epicureans. The agreement is not explicit; it is an implicit agreement of facts and actions. Speakers in the same linguistic community use very similar expressions to designate the same things, and use the same set of conventions to deal with similar situations. This is what creates linguistic systems and keeps them stable. Because language is conventional in this way, we can be reasonably certain that an accurate analysis of the speech of one person will apply to the speaking habits of another person from the same community. We believe that the same applies to extraterrestrials. Therefore, as you lead the Science Team in learning to understand the ET's language, you can rest assured that this will make it very much more easy to communicate with the second ET from the same outer-space community. There is a small but non-zero possibility that the ET language is not stable and conventional in this way. If so, we are in serious trouble. As Robert Sheckley has suggested in "Shall We Have a Little Talk17," ETs with a sufficiently fast-changing language, and ability to adapt to the continous change in language systems, will be beyond our ability to communicate with them for more than a short and increasingly frustrating period: "I have learned an exceptional number of exceptions. Indeed, an impartial observer might think that this language is composed of nothing but exceptions. But that is damned well impossible, unthinkable, and unacceptable. A language is by God and by definition systematic, which means it's gotta follow some kind of rules. Otherwise, nobody can't understand nobody. That's the way it works and that's the way it's gotta be...." In Sheckley's profound yet funny story, the brilliant human linguist has struggled to learn a language, falls in love with an alien, and then is horrified as the language changes overnight into what he first suspects is a joke on him, then realizes is: "... a true language. This language was made up at present of the single sound 'mun.' This sound could carry an extensive repertoire of meanings through variations in pitch and pattern, changes in stress and quantity, alteration of rhythm and repetition, and through accompanying gestures and facial expressions. A language consisting of infinite variations on a single word!.... He could learn this language, of course. But by the time he learned it, what would it have changed into? .... All languages change. But on Earth and the few dozen worlds she had contacted, the languages changed with relative slowness. On Na, the rate of change was faster. Quite a bit faster.... It changed endlessly and incessantly, in accordance with unknown rules and invisible principles. It changed its form as an avalanche changes its shape. Compared with it, English was like a glacier.... An observer could never hope to fix or isolate even one term out of the dynamic shifting network of terms that composed the Na language. For the observer's action would be gross enough to disrupt and alter the system, causing it to change unpredictably.... By the fact of its change, the language was rendered impervious to codification and control.. Through indeterminacy, the Na tongue resisted all attempts to conquer it."

By Way of Contrast

Language is a System of Contrasts. The main reason why a single speaker's language habits are valid for others of his or her community is that language can be considered a system of differences. How those differences are manifest is not very significant. For example, parrots cannot produce exactly the same sounds as humans do, because they do not have human vocal cords or nasal sinuses or tongues. Yet parrots can produce sounds that differ from each other in a way analogous to human, and so we understand their imitations of our speech as if it were human speech. We don't care if the ET makes human-like sounds by vibrating a membrane, rubbing its legs together like a cricket, or directly stimulating air molecules. If it can make sound, we can analyze its language as if (within limits) it were spoken sound, as in the "Sound, Light, Viruses, and Neutrinos" section, part (a).

You're So Creative!

Language is Creative. As a system of contrasts, as discussed above, language is a pattern which is maintained in common to an indefinite number of speaking acts that refer to completely different referents. This pattern explains why we can, at any time, speak a sentence that no human being has ever spoken before, and immediately understand a sentence that we've never heard before. By using our imaginations to manipulate the phonological, grammatical, lexical, and semantic systems of our language, we can act as fiction writers or poets in extending human awareness of possible connections between things in a creative way. In a sense, poets create a whole new world through language. This is so important that we will conclude our chapter with an examination of the importance of poetry to extraterrestrial communications. First Contact with extraterrestrials will be very important in getting ourselves out of our parochial limitations of understanding. As Whorf45 (p.154) suggests: "Science ... following these well-worn cultural grooves, gives back to culture an ever-growing store of applications, habits, and values, with which culture again directs science. But what lies outside this spiral? Science is beginning to find that there is something in the Cosmos that is not in accord with the concepts we have formed in mounting the spiral. It is trying to frame a NEW LANGUAGE by which to adjust itself to a wider universe."

Unique in All the Universe

Languages are Unique. Because languages are arbitrary, systematic networks of contrasts (as we have shown above), each human language deserves to be considered as unique, one of a kind in all the universe. Even among the 5,445 or so languages on Earth, each has something that no other has. It may be a sound never used meaningfully (as a phoneme) as part of a word by other people, or a unique number of parts of speech, or a special way of combining those parts. Part of the challenge of learning a foreign language is to discover and master such individual patterns. All human beings descend from the same ancestors. Current research on the mitochondrial DNA suggests that all living humans descend from a particular woman who lived roughly 200,000 years ago in Africa. Other research on the X chromosome suggests that we are all descended from a particular man who lived perhaps 280,000 years ago, but almost surely no more than 800,000 years ago. It will be awkward to explain if "Adam" and "Eve" lived tens of thousands of years apart. Just as we have common biological descent, our languages all evolved (we think) from the same original language. So as different and unique as each language is, they are all cousins in the same family. Our ET does not have an ancestor in common with us. The ET language, similarly, did not descend from a prehistoric Earth language. The challenge for your team is that there are things, we don't know in advance which things, common to all Earth languages which might not apply to the ET. We must start out assuming that it's language is "more unique" than any we have ever encountered before.


Languages are Similar. As we have found, historically related languages such as the Romance languages have many features in common. All human languages, more broadly speaking, have features in common. All humans encounter and experience the physical world through the same senses (even if one or more is missing in an individual through birth, disease, or accident) and all of us experience in essentially the same way. In the early 18th century Leibnitz first suggested that all human languages derive not from an historical origin, but from a common proto-speech. The 20th century Italian linguist Trombetti argued that the Tower of Babel story is figuratively true, in that all human languages have a common origin. As James Beattie74 said over two centuries ago, in 1788: "Languages, therefore, resemble men in this respect, that, though each has peculiarities, whereby it is distinguished from every other, yet all have certain qualities in common. The peculiarities of individual tongues are explained in their respective grammars and dictionaries. Those things, that all languages have in common, or that are necessary to every language, are treated of in a science, which some have called Universal or Philosophical grammar." The differences in linguistic systems reflect the "social organization of speech." Arbitrary selection of significant features of experience makes it hard to learn an unrelated language. It is easier for an English speaker to learn French or German than to learn Iroquois or Bantu. Because of the pervasive similarities between all human languages, it is possible to learn new languages at all. Since the ET may have a radically different social organization, a radically different set of senses, and a radically different way of experiencing the physical world, we must resign ourselves to the ET language having far fewer similarities to human languages than do any human languages to each other. This leads us to ponder a key question: what are bedrock, fundamental, inherent similarities between our view of the world and the ET view of the world, by which we can find SOME similarity, however slim, between its language and ours? We will look closely at this question, and then explore the answers in terms of the linguistic analysis that we must use to exploit those answers.