A web exclusive story from Astronomy magazine

Is there a
universal
language?


If we make contact with another species, will learning their language change how we view ourselves? This concept is one of the main themes explored in the film Arrival (2016).Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

How human bias affects our chances of communicating with extraterrestrial life, which will almost definitely not be as we know it.

by Jesse Shanahan

The worldview-shattering sight of alien spaceships entering Earth’s atmosphere has been utilized in film and literature dating back at least to H.G. Wells’ iconic 1898 novel, The War of the Worlds. For more than 100 years, humanity has considered the implications and conflict that could arise from first contact with a potentially hostile extraterrestrial species.

Around the same time, we also began searching for evidence to refute our apparent galactic solitude. In 1896, Nikola Tesla first proposed that contact with alien beings was possible when discussing the potential uses of his electrical transmission system. Several years later, he claimed such contact, as he received an unusually repetitive radio signal that disappeared when Mars was absent from the sky.

A view from within Gale Crater, taken by the Curiosity rover, which is searching for signs of martian life more than 100 years after Nikola Tesla claimed to receive a signal from the Red Planet.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Unfortunately, we may never know what exactly Tesla detected, but theories range from user error to the possibility that he may have picked up signals from Jupiter’s magnetosphere. Although Mars is vacant of the martians Tesla hoped to reach, the hope for intelligent extraterrestrial life remains an inspiration to many exoplanet hunters, astrobiologists, and SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) researchers. What many do not realize, however, is that linguists and anthropologists will take over when such a discovery is made. For after we answer the fundamental question, “Are we alone?” the next one to invariably arise is: “Who are you?”

This question may be much harder to answer than many astronomers realize. Having no obvious common ground or language model to follow means the methodology that linguists have carefully developed to translate unknown languages would be useless.

Most current strategies assume a language with a structure based on units of sound, for example. When linguists tackle an unknown language, dividing spoken phrases into repetitive units of sound is the first step in noticing patterns that could indicate meaning. In the absence of such units, a written language can be analyzed for similar linguistic structures of meaning, called morphemes, but this often requires a prohibitively vast corpus of data. Even then, all of these strategies, often referred to in sum as combinatorial linguistics, were refined for use in making sense of archaic, dead terrestrial languages and require a deep archaeological background to utilize effectively.

Even Noam Chomsky’s famous theory of Universal Grammar presumes that certain structures of language are universal and have a genetic and, therefore, uniquely human foundation. Creating a method to decode an unknown language without relying on parallels to Earth languages seems like a Sisyphean obstacle. It is completely possible that an extraterrestrial language could be soundless or, alternatively, lack a written component, so these traditionally reliable methods would be useless if we are presented with such an alien language.

Still, scientists — physicists, mathematicians, and astronomers — have attempted to tackle this problem based on the premise that math and physics are a kind of universal language. The SETI Institute, founded in 1984, hosts a collaboration of these scientists and is dedicated to the pursuit and interpretation of an intelligent extraterrestrial message. SETI not only searches for signals from distant stars, but also hosts a wide array of scientists pursuing projects in planetary astronomy and astrobiology.

In 1974, the Arecibo Radio Telescope was used to make a deliberate broadcast in the direction of the globular cluster M13, in the hopes an alien civilization will one day receive it.H. Schweiker/WIYN and NOAO/AURA/NSF

Astrobiologists in particular are familiar with the difficulty of removing terrestrial bias from research, as they search for traits of life that we have gleaned from studying how life appears on Earth. They toy with the possibility of silicon- versus carbon-based organisms or the idea that life elsewhere might have requirements beyond those of the incredible biodiversity on Earth.

Pliciloricus enigmatus is an extremophile that does not require oxygen to live.
Carolyn Gast, National Museum of Natural History

The existence of bizarre organisms called extremophiles that can survive in unbelievably harsh conditions on Earth is a clue that life outside our planet could be even more extraordinary. For example, one terrestrial extremophile is Spinoloricus cinziae: the first animal species discovered that does not ever require oxygen during the course of its life. Another extremophile is Thermococcus gammatolerans. Aptly named, T. gammatolerans has an immense resistance to ionizing radiation. Unlike humans for whom a dose of 500 rads is lethal, T. gammatolerans can survive doses of radiation up to 3,000,000 rads. If such incredible variety of life exists on Earth, it’s conceivable that this diversity is not restricted to our planet alone. Similarly, it follows that such exotic life could also have bizarre systems of communication as well — systems we might not be able to comprehend using methodology based solely on Earth languages.

Thermococcus gammatolerans is an extremophile that can withstand 6,000 times the amount of radiation that would kill a human.
Wikimedia/Angels Tapias

In fact, we see a wide range in forms of communication on Earth as well. Beyond gestural and vocal communication, we also see communication via dance in honeybees, hormonal communication in acacia trees, and beat harmonics (when multiple sound waves overlap to produce beats — try pressing two dissonant piano keys, and you’ll hear these beats very strongly!) in midshipman fish and penguins.

Of course, it’s debatable whether any of these systems of communication constitute “true” language, a term linguists seem to reserve only for human language. Still, it’s only in the last 40 years that signed languages have been acknowledged as proper language. What this makes clear is that human biases pervade all efforts to categorize both non-human communication and to develop a reliable translation methodology for new, inhuman languages.

An excerpt of the Lincos language, a mathematically-rooted form of communication created by mathematician Hans Freudenthal.
H. Freudenthal, LINCOS: Design of a Language for Cosmic Intercourse, part I, 1960.

Thus, many turn to mathematics as a seemingly unbiased avenue, but pursuing a mathematical or physics-based solution is not without its own drawbacks. Not only does it exclude the possibility of a radically different approach to physics (another element in many science fiction narratives), but it also lacks the inclusion of socio-cultural data: an intrinsic element in any thorough linguistic analysis.

Mathematician Dr. Hans Freudenthal attempted to design a language for use in extraterrestrial communication with beings who lacked any knowledge of Earth’s culture, languages, or people. Fundamentally rooted in mathematics, Lincos — an abbreviation of the Latin phrase lingua cosmica, meaning cosmic language — teaches the basics of numbers, arithmetic, set theory, and mathematical logic.

In any attempt to communicate with someone whose uses a different language, bridging the gap between the two interlocutors’ languages is essential. Lincos aims to do this by utilizing mathematics and physics as the common ground or linguistic bridge between Earth and an extraterrestrial civilization. However, it also makes the potentially fatal assumption that mathematics is a universal concept.

The Pirahã people of Brazil have a conceptually unique view of mathematics that mainly incorporates large or small quantities, rather than discrete numbers.
Essential Media & Entertainment/Smithsonian Channel

Cognitive scientist Rafael Nuñez argues that mathematics might not be as unbiased as we think. Although his theories are understandably resisted by mathematicians, they are supported by evidence of cultures on Earth whose perceptions of mathematics and number sense are unconventional. For example, the Pirahã people of Northwestern Brazil have no developed number sense apart from the general concepts of small and large amounts. Clearly, approaching a productive dialogue with a Pirahã speaker would not be successful if one took a solely mathematical approach. If such cognitive features aren’t even universal on Earth, it seems unlikely that they are unchanging throughout the cosmos. Assuming an extraterrestrial civilization perceives numbers, math, physics, and logic in an analogous way could be a swift path toward miscommunication instead of a productive conversation.

This table outlines the Pirahã people’s “one-two-many” counting system.
P. Gordon, Numerical Cognition Without Words: Evidence From Amazonia

The union of linguistics and computer science, known as computational linguistics, provides another variety of translation procedures but also has similar pitfalls to a mathematics/physics-based strategy. It makes the problematic assumption that extraterrestrial civilizations would produce messages in the same fashion as human beings. It does, however, acknowledge that the likely form of extraterrestrial communication would be via an electromagnetic signal.

No such signal has yet been received, but hope remains. Humanity has been producing radio signals on Earth for less than 150 years, and this limits the potential extraterrestrial civilizations that would have received our broadcasts to a small radius of stars.

Since humans have begun broadcasting radio signals, our messages have filled out a “bubble” in our galaxy a mere 200 light-years in diameter.Nick Risinger/Wikimedia Commons

Half a decade before H.G. Wells popularized the idea of first contact, a Prussian philosopher and linguist named Friedrich Wilhelm von Humboldt sat down and wrote about the connection between language and the mind.

Though seemingly unrelated to the problem of deciphering extraterrestrial communications, in pursuing the influence of language on thought, Humboldt unknowingly laid the groundwork for the theory of linguistic relativity: the idea that language determines (linguistic determinism) or influences (linguistic relativity) cognition. Humboldt’s primary argument was that the most significant function of language was as a “formative organ of thought” that affects the speaker’s view of reality.

Additionally, Humboldt conceived of a Weltansicht, or a distinctly linguistic worldview, that a speaker uses to think, communicate, and conceptualize their reality. Almost a century later in 1941, this idea would be built upon by American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf when he proposed the idea of a “thought world:” “the microcosm that each man carries about within himself, by which he measures and understands what he can of the macrocosm…” Although linguistic determinism has been heavily criticized and refuted by modern research, the question of linguistic relativity is still an ongoing subject of investigation. The concept that each organism’s worldview is influenced by the language it speaks certainly inspires those who aim to tackle the problem of deciphering extraterrestrial communications.

In “Story of Your Life,” a short science fiction story by Ted Chiang, linguist Dr. Louise Banks is tasked with translating and serving as interpreter between a bellicose United States military and alien visitors aptly named Heptapods, due to their seven limbs. She regularly insists on an approach to communication that acknowledges the vast differences in “thought world” between her and her Heptapod interlocutors.

The feature film Arrival is based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, which focuses on humanity’s attempts to communicate with an alien species called Heptapods.
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

In an interview with Astronomy, Mr. Chiang said, “If we ever have face-to-face interaction with aliens, I think a socio-anthropological approach would be best.” In the story, what Dr. Banks does not realize immediately is that the most powerful aspect of her attempts to learn a language radically different from her own is that it would fundamentally change her own cognition as well.

This type of effect is hardly restricted to science fiction. In the late 1990s, a series of linguistic studies definitively established a link between the modality, or type (e.g., spoken, gestured, danced), of a given language and the user’s cognitive development. These studies argued that the previous lack of evidence for linguistic relativity was because the differences between the comparison languages were not drastic enough. Although to the average speaker, Russian and Chinese seem incredibly distinct, they are actually not opposed enough to trigger measurably significant changes in a speaker’s cognition.

However, when the modality of language is changed (e.g., from spoken to gestured), there are measurable and significant changes to the speaker’s cognition. Essentially, as subjects learned a new mode of language, there were marked changes in certain functions of their brain. Scientists found that not only is there a positive correlation between gestured languages and increased performance on various tests, but signers consistently outperformed their non-signing peers in nonverbal intelligence tests as well as performance IQ tests, regardless of the age at which they learned the signed language.

These tables list the results of a series of studies on the effects of gestural language on cognition.
Jesse Shanahan

Fittingly, Chiang also acknowledges studies of American Sign Language as some of his inspiration for the Heptapod language. In both “Story of Your Life” and groundbreaking linguistic studies, changing the mode of language has radical effects on human cognition.

Even more surprisingly, these were not temporary effects. Follow-up studies conducted on the same test subjects showed that these advancements were present up to six years after the initial introduction of an alternative mode of communication. Regardless of hearing ability, the original signers drastically outperformed their non-signing colleagues on variety of cognitive tests, including those of visual-spatial skills, spatial memory, and mathematical problem-solving skills.

These studies not only reinforce the idea that language can influence cognition, but show that the crucial force behind this influence is the mode of language learned. In terms of explaining these effects and attempting to determine why this type of linguistic relativity has such strong effects, a promising answer lies in the theory of embodied cognition. The embodied cognition thesis suggests that an organism’s body, environment, and sensorimotor abilities have an incredible influence on its cognition; specifically, it is the interaction between these various traits, which include language and thought, that determines the organism’s cognitive ability. Essentially, this theory simply argues that the mode of language used, the user’s thought, and the user’s cognitive proficiency are entwined in an interconnected web.

This very concept recently made its debut in popular film Arrival (2016), which was based on Chiang’s “Story of Your Life.” Just as in the short story, the process of learning the Heptapod language irrevocably changes Dr. Banks’ mental processes in provocative ways. In short, the Heptapod language, if it were real, would provide yet another piece of evidence in support of linguistic relativity.

A Heptapod logogram from Arrival; in the film, linguist Louise Banks strives to understand the Heptapod language and experiences a change in her own cognition as a result.
Credit: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Even beyond the changes in cognition that we see in oral language speakers learning a signed language or those suggested by Dr. Banks’ experience in “Story of Your Life,” an unsettling question lurks. If the mode of alien language were drastic enough, how far would the cognitive changes go? Are there more dangerous mistakes to be made in attempting communication with extraterrestrial life than a simple mistranslation?

Could humanity find itself irrevocably altered simply by acquiring a fluency in the language of some distant species from the stars?

Jesse Shanahan is a freelance science writer and accessibility consultant living in Washington, DC with the love of her life: a rescued border collie service dog named Hubble.