Ever since the first radio transmission was sent, planet Earth has been talking to the stars, at the speed of light. What would happen if we got a reply? Could we even perceive it, let alone translate it? What if we got visitors? While talking to aliens might be something we never have to do, we can’t help but wonder how translating an alien language would work.
Not Like in the Movies
In most movies, aliens are snarling, gooey creatures that have somehow developed space travel – but not language or culture. In some movies, aliens inexplicably speak English. In a handful of movies, a new language is devised to make the experience more realistic – but the values of alien culture tend to reflect those of humanity.
If you’ve seen the movie Arrival, you’ll be familiar with a different concept of trying to talk face to face with aliens. It’s a great movie that offers a fascinating perspective on language and communication.
The language in the movie is, in all aspects, alien; the level of detail achieved and the skilful craft of the alien language deserves an awful lot of praise. Even so, the existence of a language like the one depicted in Arrival depends on whether fundamental laws of nature can be broken – and as far as we can possibly know, that’s not very likely.
In film and literature, all of the conditions are perfect for the progression of a story – in reality, things would probably be way less convenient.
We’re more likely to encounter a language like the ones on our own planet than a time-warping one. Even though our own languages are all different, they all follow a set of rules and fall into certain camps – making translation and linguistic study more straightforward. Alien languages would give absolutely no clues like this – and may, like in Arrival, have no obvious text to work on.
An alien language could be a form of sign language, or could even be chemical and scent-based. It might be an audible language, but one more akin to music than speech. It might require touch, or the direct communication of electronic information. What if we can’t detect the medium of communication? Could we ever hope to translate a single message?
We have no idea what an alien language will look or sound (or smell) like. But if a civilisation had become so advanced that it could cross the void of space, there’s almost no way it could have blossomed without effective communication – without language.
Only with language can there be culture and history, science and spaceships.
Culture, Common Ground and Shared Knowledge
If aliens were to land on our planet tomorrow, one thing would be for sure: they are far more advanced than humans. In that situation, it’s likely that they’d already be acutely aware of our cultures and languages. They could reveal themselves having found a way to communicate with us, mostly taking the burden off humanity’s collective shoulders.
That scenario probably wouldn’t end well for humans; invariably, whether through aggression or otherwise, history is written by the more technologically advanced civilisation. It’s a scenario less likely than finding extraterrestrial life in the first place. A civilisation that advanced would consider us as we consider ants: mindless colony builders, incapable of comprehending a higher intelligence. The intelligence gap would make communication impossible. We wouldn’t even know if they were talking to us right now – or if they’d enslaved us.
If we mutually stumble across each other through an operation like SETI, then our worlds could be on level playing fields – at least technologically, and maybe even intellectually. Culturally, we’re likely to be very, very different. Everyday acts in one culture could seem barbaric to the other. A virtue in one culture could be shameful in the other. Each culture would be the definition of the word “alien”.
So finding common ground could be hard – but not impossible. Instinctively, we’ll look for shared knowledge and try to interpret each other from there. Perhaps a fundamental, universal law like gravity or mathematics would be the first place to start, but where to go from there? It would have to be a collaborative effort between both humankind and our new alien pen pals – assuming they’d be friendly.
Perhaps, like on Earth, they’ll have many languages, and one of those languages would lend itself better to translation into one of our many human languages.
A Rosetta Stone for Alien Language?
If we discovered an alien transmission, could we pick it apart like ancient human languages, using cues from knowledge we already have? Or would we need some kind of intergalactic Rosetta Stone?
If they’d discovered one of our Voyager space probes, they might have found enough information to begin talking to us: our location, our vocalisations, greetings in many languages, mathematics and even depictions of our biology. Voyager could be a kind of cosmic Rosetta Stone – a bridge between cultures and worlds, maybe even time itself. Aliens might one day pick this human offering apart, to learn about us. Maybe if humans are still around – they’ll want to get in touch.
Talking to Humans: Where to Start
We might be waiting a long time for that interstellar phone call. If, in the meantime, you’re looking for translating services on this planet – contact Kwintessential. Just call (UK +44) 01460 279900 or send your message to us at [email protected].