Universal Rosetta Stone or Babel Fish Required

So you want to translate an alien language. You think it might be a language. Sure looked pretty when the alien thing was undulating around in a circle. Is it communication or does the alien just have an itchy cloaca? Hard to guess intention and motivation when faced with the complete unknown.  Either through face-to-face or over long range EM communication we would be deaf and dumb to a true extraterrestrial communication. Aliens will not speak any known Earth language, that is a foregone conclusion. So are billions of years of collective experience and understanding mean exactly nothing. Actually, our biases and expectations are the problems. Anthropomorphizing extraterrestrial life is the quickest way to get to wrong conclusions.

Exolinguistics, Xenolinguistics, and Astrolinguistics are the study of the hypothetical language of alien species. The nature and form of such languages remain purely speculative because so far no search for extraterrestrial intelligence projects have detected signs of intelligent life beyond Earth. The possibility of future contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life has made the question of the structure and form of potential alien language a topic of scientific and hypothetical discussion.

Let’s be brutally honest about this, it’s a complete guessing game.

To make things, even more, occulted aliens don’t necessarily even speak at all. If they do it will probably have a rather different set of sounds that suits their physique like ours fit us. If there are a decent number of alien species we should expect every possible general configuration to exist.

There could be a planet with several sentient species with separate languages, the same language, one of them having several languages or both of them being divided into different linguistic groups. Other aliens may live alone on their planets like us and speak several languages like we do, or their languages may have emerged by now or never split in the first place. Perhaps some alien species have colonised other planets, where maybe different groups of aliens with their own languages colonised different planets or parts of planets like humans have with the continents or perhaps the aliens don’t communicate with aliens from other planets that much anymore and their languages have developed independently, kind of like the way things happened when groups of Polynesians settled on separate remote islands.

You may not be able to perceive what they consider communication. It could be a language that requires a sense we lack.  Exotic smells (ones our olfactory sense has no receptors for), electric field induction, visual hints (like skin colouration changes, even small for us ones), heat/infrared. air/surface vibration below or beyond human perception range.  That assumes a similar ecosystem, size and rate of activity similar to ours. Might as well start somewhere.

Perhaps it’s happening all the time and we are completely unaware of it. Suppose we say that language is a way of communicating thoughts to another person and that there are alien persons who communicate their ideas to other aliens in the community. If they can’t send and receive thoughts, that is, telepathy, then they need to use a signal that is easy for them and can be varied to mean different things.

Let’s peek at two aliens deciding if they should go out for pizza or get it delivered. They are doing something that changes to fit what they mean to say, taking turns as they talk. It could be sound, light, pattern or tendril position or something else. We see they are curling and waving their tentacles and feel the ground vibrate. But, we don’t know if this is related to kinesiology or if they just want extra cheese and anchovies. Even if one of the creatures pointed with a gluey tendril right at an anchovy what does that mean? Does it want an anchovy? Does it detest anchovies? Do the anchovies remind it of its inlaws? It could literally mean anything.  The creatures intentions are the epitome of unknowable unknowns.

Our perception of reality is very fitted to how we live and where. Even on earth, you have animal senses that give them a different vision of the world and so communication channel. And even we dismiss a lot of information that our senses are capable of giving so we can focus in what proved to be essential in our evolution (a good example is thearn/webcam-pulse-detector that is able to “see” our pulse with just a low-res webcam, seeing changes in color that we don’t perceive, what if something, as not visible for us as that, is used as a communication channel?)

Different ways to live, different ecosystems, different ways to be “life” may come with different ways to communicate. And we might not recognize that as a viable communication channel until we see it in practice.

If you are asking about the language capacity of an advanced extraterrestrial civilization, then and only then we can make some fundamental and necessary assumptions. To achieve an advanced civilization they must have developed a method of communicating and recording detailed and minute information. To do that they can use two methods, sound, and sign language. Chemical language similar to what certain insects use would not be varied enough. The electrical signal, as in certain fish and dolphins might be varied enough but we have no example of any organism using this system for a language. It is used as a method of perception and defence in every animal we are aware of. So it’s unlikely an alien species would develop this method of communication over sound or sign language.

If based upon sound or sign their language will have some sort of logical grammatical structure but it may be much much different than any of our human languages. The reason for that is simple. The language will depend upon the type of specialization that species is capable of. It may be whistles, clicks or sounds similar to certain mammals or man. The important element is that we can be confident it will support the kind of logical grammatical structure that is capable of being recorded in writing, whether that is symbols, scribbles, or some other unknown representation.

No matter how dedicated the linguist the task of translating a completely alien language will be a daunting if not impossible one.  In my opinion and perspective on the Universe, I find the possibility that mankind would be able to translate an alien language into a usable form to be exactly zero.

Where are all the Babel Fish? We need one if we are ever to have a chance to succeed in translation. The Babel Fish is a small, leech-like, yellow fish, and by putting this into one’s ear one can instantly understand anything said in any language. The Babel fish has led to significant and profound consequences for the Universe; apart from the philosophical implications, the Babel fish has started more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation because it has removed all barriers to communication. I have always suspected that Douglas Adams is an alien. Seems like an unlikely solution for an even more unlikely problem.  This whole translation endeavour is the ultimate expression in futility next to the S.E.T.I. project. I agree we must try to translate to the best of our abilities, but have the perspective that unless a Universal Rosetta Stone falls from the sky or an imaginary fish makes a home in your ear, we will eternally be lost in translation.

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