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

Delany's "Babel-17"

"Babel-17" by Samuel R. Delany [New York: Ace, 1968] is another novel which you and your Science Team must read and discuss. This complex study of alien language is strongly based on Delany's careful study of Semiotic and linguistic theory. He makes persuasive the possibility, for instance, that similar beings can agree on the idea of pronouns, but get absolutely backwards the relative meanings of "You" and "I." Samuel Delany is one of the world's science fiction authors most involved in linguistics, semantics, and semiotics (the science of signs and symbols). It's no surprise that his novel Babel-17 [New York: Ace, 1968] is a fount of interesting speculation on languages and extraterrestrials. Earth has been under alien occupation for two decades under the Invasion. The leader of the political opposition is a poet, Rydra Wong. Because of her multilingual brilliance, she is asked to help the military crack the alien code "Babel-17." • 'Babel-17,' she said. 'I haven't solved it yet, General Forester.... But I've gotten further than you people at Military have been able to.... First of all, General,' she was saying, 'Babel-17 isn't a code.' His mind skidded back to the subject and arrived teetering. 'Not a code? But I though Cryptography had at least established--' He stopped, because he wasn't sure what Cryptography had established.... The Invasion: Babel-17 might be the one key to ending this twenty-year scourge. 'You mean we've been trying to decipher a lot of nonsense?' 'It's not a code,' she repeated. 'It's a language.' [pp.8-9] • "...there are two types of code. In the first, letters, or symbols that stand for letters, are shuffled and juggled according to a pattern. In the second, letters, words, or groups of words are replaced by other letters, symbols, or words. A code can be one type or the other, or a combination. But they have this in common: once you find the key, you just plug it in and out come logical sentences. A language, however, has its own internal logic, its own grammar, its own way of putting thoughts together with words that span various spectra of meaning. There is no key you can plug in to unlock the exact meaning. At best, you can get a close approximation.' 'Do you mean that Babel-17 decodes into some other language?' 'Not at all. That's the first thing I checked. We can take a probability scan on various elements and see if they are congruent with other language patterns, even if these elements are in the wrong order. No. Babel-17 is a language itself which we do not understand.' [p.10] • 'What you're trying to tell me is that because it isn't a code, but rather an alien language, we might as well give it up.' 'I'm afraid that's not what I'm saying at all. Unknown languages have been deciphered without translations. Linear B and Hittite, for example..." [p.10] • 'I'm not from earth,' she [Rydra Wong] said. 'My father was a Communications engineer at Stellarcenter X-11-B just beyond Uranus. My mother was a translator for the Court of Outer Worlds. Until I was seven I was the spoiled brat of the Stellarcenter. There weren't many children. We moved rockside to Uranus-XXVII in '52. By the time I was twelve, I knew seven Earth languages and could make myself understood in five extra-terrestrial tongues. I pick up languages like most people pick up the lyrics to popular songs... I came out of the whole business with total verbal recall.... But I also had perfect pitch.... By then I was nineteen and had a reputation as the little girl who could track anything. I guess it was knowing something about language that did it, being more facile at recognizing patterns--like distinguishing grammatical order from random rearrangement by feel, which is what I did with Babel-17.' [pp.12-13] • "Three years later my first book came out... For anything after that, read the poems. It's all there.' "And on the worlds of five galaxies, now, people delve your imagery and meaning for the answers to the riddles of greatness, love, and isolation.... By the time Keats was your age, he was dead.' [p.14] • "There's the whole problem of phonemic and allophonic distinctions. Your people didn't even realize it was a language, so it didn't occur to them--' Now he interrupted her. 'What sort of distinctions?' 'You know the way some Orientals confuse the sounds of R and L when they speak a Western language? That's because R and L in many Eastern languages are allophones, that is, considered the same sound, written and even heard the same--just like th at the beginning of they and at the beginning of ‘theater.' 'What's the difference about the sounds of theater and they?' 'Say them again and listen. One's voiced and one's unvoiced. They're as distinct as V and F; only they're allophones in English and you're used to hearing them as if they were the same phoneme.' [pp.16-17] • 'Most textbooks say language is a mechanism for expressing thought, Mocky. But language is thought. Thought is information given form. The form is language. The form of this language is ... amazing..... when you learn another tongue, you learn the way another people see the world, the universe.... and as I see into this language, I begin to see ... too much.' [p.26] • The retranscribed material passed on the sorting screen. By the computer console lay the four pages of definitions she had amassed and a cuaderno full of grammatical speculations. Chewing on her lower lip, she ran through the frequency tabulations of depressed diphthongs. On the wall she had tacked three charts labelled: Possible Phonemic Structure... Possible Phonetic Structure... Semiotic, Semantic, and Syntactic Ambiguities... The last contained the problems to be solved. The questions, formulated and answered, were transferred as certainties of the first two. [p.62] • 'Let's say the word for circle is: O. This language has a melody system to illustrate comparatives. We'll represent this by the diacritical marks: V - ^, respectively smallest, ordinary, and biggest. So what would O mean?' 'Smallest possible circle?' said Calli. 'That's a single point.' Rydra nodded. 'Now, when referring to a circle on a sphere, suppose the word for just an ordinary circle is O followed by either of two symbols, one of which means not touching anything else, the other of which means crossing -- || or X. What would OX mean?' 'Great circles that intersect,' said Ron. 'And because all great circles intersect, in this language the word for great circle is always OX. It carries the information right in the word. Just like busstop or foxhole carry information in English that la gare or le terrier-- comparable words in French-- lack.' [p.70] • Abstract thoughts in a blue room: Nominative, genitive, elative, accusative one, accusative two, ablative, partitive, illative, instructive, absessive, adessive, inessive, essive, allative, translative, comitative. Sixteen cases of the Finnish noun. Odd, some languages get by with only singular and plural. The American Indian languages even failed to distinguish number. Except Sioux, in which there was a plural only for animate objects. The blue room was round and warm and smooth. No way to say warm in French. There was only hot and tepid. If there's no word for it, how do you think about it? And if there isn't the proper form, you don't have the how even if you have the words. Imagine, in Spanish having to assign a sex to every object: dog, table, tree, canopener. Imagine, in Hungarian, not being able to assign a sex to anything: he, she, it all the same word. Thou art my friend, but you are my king; thus the distinctions of Elizabeth the First's English. But with some oriental languages, which all but dispense with gender and number, you are my friend, you are my parent, and YOU are my priest, and YOU are my king, and YOU are my servant, and YOU are my servant whom I'm going to fire tomorrow if YOU don't watch it, and YOU are my king whose policies I totally disagree with and have sawdust in YOUR head instead of brains, YOUR highness, and YOU may be my friend, but I'm still gonna smack YOU up side the head if YOU ever say that to me again; and who the hell are you, anyway...? [p.111] • She didn't "look at the room." She "something at the something." The first something was a tiny vocable that implied an immediate, but passive, perception that could be aural or olfactory as well as visual. The second something was three equally tiny phonemes that blended at different musical pitches; one an indicator that fixed the size of the chamber at roughly twenty-five feet long and cubical, the second identifying the color and probable substance of the walls--some blue metal--while the third was at once a place holder for particles that should denote the room's function when she discovered it, and a sort of grammatical tag by which she could refer to the whole experience with only one symbol for as long as she needed. All four sounds took less time on her tongue and in her mind than the one clumsy diphthong in 'room.' Babel-17; she had felt it before with other languages, the opening, the widening, the mind forced to sudden growth. But this, this was like the sudden focusing of a lens blurry for years... She looked down at the--not 'webbing', but rather a three particle vowel differential, each particle of which defined one stress of the three-way tie, so that the weakest points in the mesh were identified when the total sound of the differential reached its lowest point. By breaking the threads at these points, she realized, the whole web would unravel. Had she flailed at it, and not named it in this new language, it would have been more than secure enough to hold her. [pp.112-113] • She wondered what would happen if she translated her perceptions of people's movement and muscle tics into Babel-17. It was not only a language, she understood now, but a flexible matrix of analytical possibilities where the same 'word' defined the stresses in a webbing of medical bandage, or a defensive grid of spaceships. What would it do with the tensions and yearnings in a human face? Perhaps the flicker of eyelids and fingers would become mathematics, without meaning..." [pp.140-141] • She'd been thinking in Babel-17 and choosing her English words with it. [p.144] • 'Maybe I can explain something to you this way: with all nine species of galaxy-hopping life forms, each as widespread as our own, each as technically intelligent, with as complicated an economy, seven of them are engaged in the same war we are, still we hardly ever run into them; and they run into us or each other about as frequently.... Wonder why?' 'Because compatibility factors for communication are incredibly low, Take the Ciribians, who have enough knowledge to sail their triple-yoked [sic] poached eggs from star to star: they have no word for 'house', 'home', or 'dwelling'. 'We must protect our families and our homes.' When we were preparing the treaty between the Ciribians and ourselves at the Court of the Outer Worlds, I remember that sentence took forty-five minutes to say in Ciribian. Their whole culture is based on heat and changes in temperature. We're just lucky that they know what a 'family' is, because they're the only ones besides humans who have them. But for 'house' you have to end up describing '... an enclosure that creates a temperature discrepancy with the outside environment of so many degrees, capable of keeping comfortable a creature with a uniform body temperature of ninety-eight-point-six, the same enclosure being able to lower the temperature during the months of the warm season and being able to raise it during the cold season, providing a location where organic sustenance can be refrigerated in order to be preserved, or warmed well above the boiling point of water to pamper the taste mechanism of the indigenous inhabitants who, through customs that go back through millions of hot and cold seasons, have habitually sought out this temperature changing device...' and so forth and so on. At the end you've given them some idea of what a 'home' is and why it is worth protecting. Give them a schematic of the air-conditioning and central heating system and things begin to get through. Now: there's a huge solar-energy conversion plant that supplies all the electrical energy for the Court.... One Ciribian can slither through that plant and then go describe it to another Ciribian who never saw it before so that the second can build an exact duplicate, even to the color the walls are painted.... in nine words. Nine very small words, too.' [pp.153-154] • 'Babel-17 is more or less like Onoff, Algol, Fortran.... They're ancient, twentieth century languages--artificial languages that were used to program computers, designed especially for machines.' [pp.197-198] • 'They [paradoxes] only exist in English and a few other analytically clumsy languages. Paradoxes break down into the linguistic manifestations of the language in which they're expressed. Babel-17 ... [is] the most analytically exact language imaginable. But that's because everything is flexible, and ideas come in huge numbers of congruent sets, governed by the same words..." [pp.209-210] • The last sentence of the novel is: "And even without Babel-17, you should know by now, I can talk my way out of anything."

Vance's "Languages of Pao" and the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Another essential idea is fictionally explored in "The Language of Pao" by Jack Vance [The Language of Pao, Jack Vance, Satellite Science Fiction, December 1957]. A rich and influential future human society designs new languages to order, on the basis that the limits of a culture's thought are set by its language. In Linguistics, this is known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis ["Language, Thought, and Reality, Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf", ed. John B. Carroll, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1956]. It is hard or impossible to think ideas that cannot be put into the words and grammar that you possess.

Lem's "Solaris"

"Solaris" by Polish author Stanislaw Lem [Solaris, Stanislaw Lem, 1961; translation London: Faber, 1970] was made into an outstanding film [Solaris, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, xxxx, yyyy] which some critics praised and others found impossible to understand. An entire ocean planet seems to be a single alien lifeform, with intelligence and power so far beyond the human level that our scientists are absolutely incapable of comprehending it. "We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact," says the scientist character Snow. Eventually, after a century of study is reviewed, the character Giese concludes "no semantic system is as yet available to illustrate the behavior of the ocean."

Sagan's "Contact"

Contact by Carl Sagan [Contact, Carl Sagan, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985; grown out of a film treatment by Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan, assisted by Gentry Lee & Lynda Obst] was a remarkable first novel by the well-known scientist and author. It tells of signals being received from near the star Vega, consisting initially of "the first few hundred prime numbers in order," consistent with our "Rosetta Stone" theory of mathematics in common. The aliens also send a copy of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games TV broadcast, and an enormous encrypted "Message" which turns out to be blueprints and assembly instructions for a space-warp spaceship to carry a five-human crew to the center of the galaxy, so that superior aliens can gather our "feelings, memories, instincts, learned behaviors, insights, madness, dreams, love" for a sort of "Office of the Galactic Census."

Pohl's JEM

Frederik Pohl, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, wrote expertly about communication with ETs in his novel JEM ["JEM", Frederik Pohl, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978; New York Baen, 1994]. The novel is about a 21st century cold war and its interrelationship with three intelligent species on the same planet (crab-like Krinpit on the ground, hydrogen-filled Balloonists in the air, and Burrowers underground (sensitive to smell, vibration, and touch). The ET focus of the book is indicated by its first scene being set at the "Tenth General Assembly of the World Conference on Exobiology." The character Danny Dalehouse is the author of "Preliminary Studies toward a First Contact with Subtechnological Sentients." Humans launch tachyon probes to the planets of many nearby stars, often finding life, but never finding intelligence until they send probes to a low-gravity dense-atmosphere planet, later called "Jem" of the dwarf star N-OA Bes-Bes Geminorum 8426, called Kung Tu-Tze (Confucius): • "This time the sounds [from probe microphones] were louder and clearer, with far more definition.... But what sounds! Sometimes the resembled a chorus of bagpipes, sometimes a gang of teenage boys in a crepitation contest. Dalehouse had graphed the frequencies -- from well below human hearing range to higher than a bat's squeak -- and identified at least twenty phonemes. These were no birdcalls; this was language, he was certain." [pp.40-41] • "The Krinpit have no eyes. They have photosensitive receptors on their carapaces, but there is no lens, no retina, no mosaic of sensitive cells to analyze an image and translate it into information. But if the scene was dark, it was also noisy. Every one of the Krinpit was constantly booming its name -- well, not its 'name' in the sense that the name of Franklin Roosevelt's wife was named Eleanor. The name was not an arbitrary convention. It was the sound each Krinpit made. It was sound that guided them, that palped the world around them and returned information to their quite agile and competent brains. The sonar pulses they sent forth to read the echoes were their 'names.' Each was different, and every one always being produced while its owner lived. Their main auditory apparatus was the drum-tight undersurface of the belly. It possessed a vent like a dolphin's that could produce a remarkable range of vowel sounds. The 'knees' of the double-boned legs could punctuate them with tympanous 'consonants.' They walked in music wherever they went. The exact sounds they made were controllable; in fact, they had an elaborate and sophisticated language. The sounds which became their recognition signals were perhaps the easiest for them, but they could produce almost any other sound in the frequency range of their hearing. In this their voices were quite like humans'." [p.48] • "What came out of the tape player was a little like an impossibly huge cricket's chirp and quite a lot like a Chinese New Year festival in which Australian aborigines were playing their native instruments. 'What the hell is that?' Danny demanded. 'That,' she said smugly, 'is also language'." [p.61] • "Certainly there's progress [with Balloonist sound analysis], Dalehouse. There's a definite grammar.... 'Preliminary Studies toward a First Contact with Subtechnological Sentients' seemed very far away! Dalehouse counted up the score. It was not impressive. They had made no contact at all with the crablike things called Kripit or with the burrowers. The gasbags had been hanging around quite a lot ... but they did not come close enough for the kind of contact Danny Dalehouse wanted." [p.111] • After Dalehouse flies in a hydrogen balloon to talk with the Balloonists: "Voyage by voyage, hour by hour, some sort of communication began to build up. You never knew what part of your training was going to be useful. Those long sessions of [mathematical linguist Noam] Chomsky and transactional grammar, the critiques of [ethnologists] Lorenz and Dart, the semesters on territoriality and mating rites -- none of them seemed very helpful in the skies of Klong. But he blessed every hour of sailplaning and every evening with his local barbershop quartet. The language of the gasbags was music. Not even Mandarin made such demands on pitch and tonality as did their songs. Even before he knew any words, he found himself chiming in on their chorus, and they responded to it with, if not exactly welcome, at least curiosity." [p.119] • Krinpit Sharn-igon complains "'Poison Ghosts [humans] killed my he-wife and did not eat him.' A flickering sound of disgust ... mixed with sympathy and anger." [pp.157-158] As we have said, aliens may be cannibals, but we would poison them. Nonetheless, as in Anything You Can Do69, ETs might be scandalized by human's refusal to perform ritual cannibalism. • Human translators have their left and right brain hemispheres surgically disconnected to improve translation ability. "The creature was no longer a specimen to Ana. She was a friend. Into the cognitive half of Ana's brain the songs of the balloonist had poured. In the first day she had learned to understand a few simple phrases, in a week to communicate abstract thought; now she was almost fluent.... She sang to Ana of the sweetness of warm pollen in a damp cloud, of the hot, stinging sadness of egg-spraying, of the communal joy of the flock in chorus." [pp.178-179] • "The Krinpit had a clear sense of time, but the vocabulary of terms to mark its units did not map well from one language based on a diurnal cycle [Earth] to another which had evolved on a planet without easy temporal reference points [nonrotating Jem]." [p.204]

Moffitt's "Jupiter Theft"

In Donald Moffitt's fine novel "The Jupiter Theft" [The Jupiter Theft, Donald Moffitt, New York: Del Rey, 1977 we have a closer examination of the notion that ET language may be musical in nature. An interstellar spacecraft, the Cygnus Object, weighs as much as the planet Jupiter until it burns fuel while braking and shrinks in six months to the mass of Earth. Human spacecraft travel to meet the UFO, and find themselves essentially at war. The slender six-legged Cygnans capture Tod Jameson, and first contact begins: • "Jameson squinted at the nearest alien. It squinted back at him with its three stalked eyes.... There was something primitive about the tapering, arrowhead-shaped skull. The jaws split it down the middle in a permanent reptilian smile. There were no teeth. The inside of the mouth, when it opened, was an unpleasant-looking rasp. The Cygnan put its mouth around its food, whatever it was, and filed it down. There was a tubular, needle- spined tongue way back in the gullet.... He was in biologist's paradise.... The nerve cord probably runs through the center of the body -- not dorsally, like us vertebrates, or ventrally, like terrestrial insects.... Because Cygnans aren't bilaterally symmetrical. They're built on a radial plan, like hydras or starfish...." [p.139] • "They were naked except for tubular harnesses festooned with soft oval pouches. Their hides were clothing enough, a mottled pattern of golds and rusts that reminded him of something between a diamondback rattlesnake and a reticulated giraffe.... They seemed to have nothing resembling external sexual organs." [p.157] • "These sacks and bales and queer pyramid-shaped boxes were stenciled with odd cursive symbols that, instead of following one another in straight lines like human script, wandered in random peaks and valleys up and down. There was a sound like a maniac trying to play Bartok on the harmonica, and Jameson realized it had been made by one of the Cygnans. The other Cygnan answered with an incredibly rapid fragment of twelve- tone solfege. Jameson came to full attention. There had been chords in all that quick passage-work, transitory but unmistakable, as if the Cygnan possessed multiple larynxes." [pp.161-162] • "Some of them were standing erect on their hind legs, tails hanging straight down. Some were on four legs, their torsos upright so that they were shaped like little low-slung centaurs. They were jabbering at one another in a cacophony of quarter-tone scales and queer atonal chords, sounding like an orchestra of bagpipes warming up. 'Air," he mouthed. 'Dammit, don't you understand? I've only got a couple of minutes worth of air left.' Raising his gloved hands to his helmet, he made raking-in gestures with spread fingers. He let them see his open mouth sucking in air. No discernible reaction came from his audience. Even on Earth, body language was different between Arabs and Japanese, Scandinavians and Mediterraneans. Maybe his pantomimes couldn't work with creatures that had six limbs, radial symmetry, brains in their torsos, and, for all he knew, no lungs.... It was doubtful that they even understood his anguished cry as speech. Their own communication, Jameson guessed, depended on the pitch of speech components rather than anything resembling consonants and vowels -- and those fragments of reedy tone were too quick and transitory for even his gifted ear to follow." [pp.169-170] • "He tried to talk, but they ignored him, talking instead among themselves with all sorts of chirps and whistles and concertina hummings. Once or twice, when his ear was fast enough to catch a fragment, he tried humming it back to them in perfect pitch, but the effort seemed to make no impression." [p.173] • "Jameson never had to stop to think about a musical tone. They were as palpable to him as material objects, each with its own identity. These had been an F and a B flat in the piccolo range. No, not quite a B flat. It was almost an augmented fourth, about a quarter-tone off. He whistled it back to them. He couldn't manage both tones simultaneously the way the Cygnans did, of course, but he did the best he could, first arpeggiating it, then alternating it in a rapid tremolo. The large Cygnan lowered its prod. It fluted a rapid scale at him. Jameson did an imitation. There weren't too many notes for him to remember. It fell into a whole-tone pattern, like impressionistic music, with a cluster of those peculiar quarter tones at the center. The Cygnan corrected him. He'd been off a fraction of a tone at the end. It didn't finish at the octave. It was a fraction sharp there, like a bagpipe scale. He repeated the sequence fairly creditably. The two Cygnans held a brief, reedy conference. Jameson couldn't follow. It was too rapid and complicated, with all sorts of embellishments. He stood tensely waiting. The large Cygnan turned to him again and made a sharp attention-getting sound. Then it touched itself on the mouth and the tip of its petalled tail and sounded the tetrachord again. It waited. Jameson hesitated. The tetrachord had been easy. It was a handy, one-phoneme identification. Like, Jameson thought, a human saying 'I.' But this was more complicated. The second Cygnan repeated it for him until he got it straight. It started with an A-major triad, only a vibrations [sic] off concert pitch. Harmonics, Jameson thought, must be universal wherever there were vibrating strings -- or vibrating membranes. The third was slightly flatted, like a blues note. The two top notes then exploded into a parallel glissando, up a fifth, while the A held. Then back to the original bluesy chord. He gave it a try. He had to substitute an arpeggiated chord for the triad, then make do with just the top note of the double glissando. It sounded like a crazy bird imitation, but the Cygnans seemed to accept it. Like, Jameson thought wryly, tolerating someone with a speech defect. But when he tried transposing the little sequence to a different key, he met the Cygnan equivalent of blank stare -- a splaying out of the three eyestalks. Evidently the sounds had no meaning when the pitch was altered. It reminded Jameson of his early mistakes in learning Chinese -- the syllables whose meaning changed drastically when you used the wrong one of the four tones. 'Chair' became 'soap.' 'Sell' became 'buy.' Except in Chinese the tones were relative, and if you got a few of them wrong, your intent could usually be deduced from the syllables themselves and the context. In Cygnanese, apparently, tones were specific phonemes. Only those rare freaks like Jameson, who happened to be blessed with absolute pitch, could ever hope to communicate with Cygnans, even in the most rudimentary fashion. To Cygnans, most humans would be dumb as animals." [pp.178-180] • Jameson ends up modifying a Moog synthesizer (electronic musical instrument). "When he was finished, not even Johann Sebastian Bach could have played recognizable human music on the Moog. It was a Cygnan speech synthesizer now..." [p.188]