Alien languages might not be that different from ours

ETs may share a kind of 'universal grammar' with us, say leading linguists like Noam Chomsky.

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Eric Mack
4 min read

It could be a Star Trek or Star Wars universe after all. One where a diverse set of intelligent extraterrestrial species from across the galaxies all easily communicate despite some pretty dramatic biological differences. 

Some of the world's leading linguists argue that human languages are connected by a shared "universal grammar." And now some, including perhaps the most well-known linguist, say they're optimistic that connection could extend to extraterrestrial languages too.


Noam Chomsky in 2015

Argentina Ministry of Culture

"To put it whimsically, the Martian language might not be so different from human language after all," explained Noam Chomsky and Jeffrey Watumull in a presentation at the International Space Development Conference (ISDC) in Los Angeles on Saturday.

Chomsky is a noted author on both linguistics and global politics and is often referred to as the "father of modern linguistics" who pioneered the notion of a universal grammar. 

"Chomsky has often said that if a Martian visited Earth, it would think we all speak dialects of the same language, because all terrestrial languages share a common underlying structure," said Douglas Vakoch, president of METI (short for Messaging Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), which organized a daylong Language in the Cosmos workshop at ISDC. "But if aliens have language, would it be similar to ours? That's the big question."   

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Linguists Bridget Samuels from the University of Southern California and Jeffrey Punske from Southern Illinois University also argued in a separate presentation at the workshop that some universal factors underlying language might be able to bridge big gaps in alien biology and environment.

"The whole universe is subject to the same laws of physics. For example, there are not that many ways a signal can be transmitted, particularly over large distances," they explained to me in an email. "Also, we can expect that extraterrestrial languages ... have a vocabulary consisting of building blocks of meaning that can be combined to create more complex meanings."

The notion here is that there are aspects of the universe that are, well, universal. While hypothetical aliens may have evolved very differently from us on very different worlds, all species -- and by extension all languages -- must spring forth from essentially the same elemental soup. 

"While the possibility of human contact with extraterrestrials seems remote, and the possibility of communicating successfully with them seems even more remote, the laws of physics, information theory, logic, and mathematics could provide some common ground to start from," said Samuels and Punske.

METI is trying to work out which type of message could be most understandable to extraterrestrials. The notion that a universal grammar connecting human languages could also underlie alien dialects changes things.

"That's a radical shift for SETI scientists, who have scoffed at the idea of creating interstellar messages inspired by natural languages," said Vakoch. 

In the past, messages sent into space have typically been encoded in principles of math and science rather than language. More recently, we've sent music:

Still, the notion of universal grammar applying to the whole universe is not accepted by everyone interested in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Also at the workshop, Professor Emeritus Gonzalo Munevar from Lawrence Technological University presented his argument that there's more reason for pessimism when it comes to communicating with ET. He argues there are plenty of examples on Earth of different species evolving different brains that work in very different ways.

Luna moths can see ultraviolet light, some snakes can see heat and certain fish perceive electric fields, just for starters. 

"An intelligent creature whose main sensory modality is electric rather than visual would have patterns of thought completely foreign to us," he explained, adding there's "no reason to expect similar scientific languages or math" to emerge on distant exoplanets.

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Whether or not there's any hope that aliens could ever understand the messages we send into space, Vakoch and METI aren't about to stop trying. Beyond the obvious language barrier, Vakoch says another challenge is the time required to send and receive messages across interstellar space. A two-way conversation between Earth and the nearest planet beyond our solar system, Proxima Centauri, would require eight years just for us to send out a "hello" and receive a response.

Unfortunately, the latest research suggests Proxima Centauri sends sterilizing flares in the direction of its lone Earth-like planet. METI has already targeted a message to another nearby world, but a response wouldn't arrive until 2042 at the earliest.

"The greatest shift of mindset that we need to succeed in a two-way conversation with ET is to think in multigenerational terms," Vakoch said. "The scientists who start an experiment in active SETI today will probably not be around when any responses get back to Earth."

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