It’s always been mind boggling how humans in sci-fi movies could communicate with Hollywood aliens whether they’ve come to our planet in peace, or just for the kicks of a planetary invasion. I’m well aware that it’s just for the sake of viewers’ getting the hang of the plot, but the ease of communication and getting fluent in alien language in less than an hour of screen time, is still an illogicality that doesn’t make any sense, just like extraterrestrial beings speaking with a distinctive English accent. A massive, interstellar galactic federation consisting of hundreds of super advanced alien races with the universal language being standard American English is yet another cosmic mystery.

A still from a great sci-fi movie: “Guardians of the Galaxy – Vol.2”, where the design of different alien races suffer either from lack of imagination and creativity or the fact that some people just watch these for the humanoid cast.

Xenolinguistics is a hypothetical subject which is basically the study and research of the languages of never-encountered-before extraterrestrial beings. Surprisingly, despite the missing extraterrestrials, xenolinguistics has been becoming more and more popular among linguists over the past decade. Surely, without ever encountering an alien race, allocating time and resources seems like a fruitless effort, but it might also be wise to brainstorm beforehand and be prepared to solve several issues likely to come up regarding the first contact with our very first aliens. For instance, the idea of using toddlers, who are just learning to speak, to communicate with aliens upon first contact, rather than expert linguists is the byproduct of such brainstorming. These toddlers would be the perfect candidates for picking up language in a natural way, as they’re just figuring out how to receive and give information in a world less known and somewhat still alien to them.

Perhaps imaginary friends in childhood are in fact aliens in disguise. Image Credit: Thrive

There is a fat chance that we will not even be able to communicate with aliens (unless they are gray and from Hollywood) through conventional methods like the use of sound, gestures, mimics, writing, mathematics or visuals. What if the first ones we meet are an advanced galactic race of invisible blob-like organisms that communicate through smell, giving bursts of different smells at various intervals to chat about a vast amount of subjects from interstellar travel to cosmic small talk. Will we even be aware of their presence, let alone communicate?

Before venturing into the depths of the universe to have a chat, isn’t it a better idea to solve the inter-species language barriers in our own tiny world as we aren’t the only intelligent life forms inhabiting this planet? (And, yes, I believe animals have intelligence, it’s just different from ours.)

Let’s have a quick peek at the communication patterns and our efforts in communication with the different species of our own planet… the ones (meaning all) we yet to decipher fully:

  • The meows! Kittens only meow to let their mothers know if they are cold or hungry. Once a kitten becomes a cat, they stop meowing to each other, and only meow to humans to get attention, let us know they are hungry or just to say welcome home. The irony is that they are the ones attempting to communicate with us…
  • The round dance and the waggle dance of honeybees is used to convey the exact distance, the direction and the quality of the pollen source discovered, to other honeybees. Yes, we’ve figured this one out, but understanding the method and even the meaning of communication between the members of a different species is very different from two species initiating communication with each other. You may think we are far more intelligent than honeybees therefore, there’s no need for us to communicate with them, but it’s another irony as far more intelligent extraterrestrials that might visit us in the future might think the same way, and just refrain from communicating with us.
To bee or not to bee!
  • Speaking of intelligence, dolphins excel at intelligence-based tests, are capable of complex problem solving, can individually learn and pass on their new knowledge to their young. They are also highly social and certainly do have a language consisting of a series of clicking sounds and whistles. So, have we attempted to communicate with them? Nope. At least, not in ways we are determined to communicate with equally intelligent extraterrestrials.

Just admit it, we will never be true horse whisperers in a literal sense with this attitude.

Perhaps, the first aliens we encounter would be pale humanoids? And somehow believe that sharing similar physical features is the key to bring down the intergalactic language barrier. It would really be easier to wave our arms, nod or just point at things! Or we could always try writing, drawing or typing in binary codes on a computer screen. If you think that can work, I suggest we have a look at our own world history and face the fact that we are far from deciphering most ancient forms of communication… ancient human writing, but let’s start with the ones we could decipher to lift up the spirit:

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics is one… but it still was an indecipherable tough cookie until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone which was a slab bearing three scripts carved in two languages (serving as translation): Ancient Egyptian and Ancient Greek… So, it was more thanks to the efforts of translators rather than linguists (xenolinguists) that we were able to crack ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Ancient Babylonian was deciphered more or less the same way; using ancient Persian as a reference in bilingual texts…

So, on most occasions a reference source, a key, was needed to decipher an unknown writing system… and even after that it took years to decipher some of these ancient scripts created by and cracked by the members of the same race! As Yuri Knorozov, the linguist who cracked Mayan hieroglyphs once said:

“What is created by one human mind can be unraveled by another!”

Yuri Knorozov

So true! But, how about what is created by an unknown alien race? Can it ever be unraveled by us?

It’s a tough question as there are still ancient writing systems and languages in our own human history that is far from cracking like;

The Harappan script of the Indus Valley Civilization is suspected to use the Boustrophedon style, written from right to left in first line and from left to right in second line meaning the alternate lines were reversed, sometimes with reversed letters.

Reverse Boustrophedon, where the text in alternate lines was rotated 180 degrees rather than mirrored, just like Rongorongo, the writing of ancient Rapa Nui, which we could only decipher the direction of the text but are still mostly clueless about the content.

Image Credit: How Reverse Boustrophedon looks like in Modern English by Kwamikagami

All these culs-de-sac were encountered in the attempts to decipher human originated scripts… now think about extraterrestrial language or writing systems! And, then add the effect of culture on top of that as culture, influences language greatly and it can never be ignored.

In the next post (Part II), we’ll look into how cultural elements influenced Earth languages up to now…

2 thoughts on “Xenolinguistics – Deciphering the Impossible? (Part I)

  1. Evren’de başka canlıların da yaşadığının kabullendiği günümüzde, bilinmeyenlerin şifrelerini çözümlemenin yollarını araştırma gayretini çok olumlu ve iddialı buluyorum.Diğer bölümlerini merakla ve sabırsızlıkla bekliyor olacağım


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