If we ever came across aliens, would we be able to understand them?

If we ever came across aliens, would we be able to understand them?
If we ever came across aliens, would we be able to understand them?

Many scientists believe that alien civilisations exist. For them, the question is now whether we will encounter them in the near future or a very long time from now, rather than if at all. So let’s imagine that we suddenly stand face-to-face with members of an alien species. What would we do first? Surely communicating that we come in peace would be a priority. But would we ever be able to understand each other?

The one thing we can be confident about exchanging with aliens is scientific information. If the laws of the universe are the same everywhere, then different descriptions of these laws should, in principle, be equivalent. This is the rationale behind initiatives like The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI).

Matters are more complicated when it comes to language, which is the single most important factor in human cooperation. It is by communicating our intentions that we are able to work together in surprisingly large groups. For this reason, it is plausible that any technologically versatile alien civilisation would have something like language.

Can we expect to learn such an alien language? The first hurdle would be its medium. Humans communicate in a 85-255Hz frequency range of sound and in the 430-770 THz frequency range of light. This is unlikely to be true of aliens, who will have evolved differently. Nevertheless, the problem is largely a technical one. Speeded up whale songs that are otherwise inaudible to humans, for instance, show that it is relatively easy to map “alien” stimuli into forms that humans can perceive.

Grammar versus semantics

The more difficult question is whether we would ever be able to learn the internal structure of an alien language. Existing perspectives in the psychology of language give two very different answers.

The generativist approach, which holds that the structure of language is hardwired into the brain, suggests this wouldn’t be possible. It argues that humans come with an inbuilt universal grammar that has a specific number of settings – each corresponding to the acceptable order in which words and parts of words can be arranged in a given language system. The language we hear in early life activates one of these settings, which then allows us to distinguish between valid and invalid ways of combining words.

The key point is that the number of grammars is very limited. Though the rules of human languages can and do vary, proponents of the generativist model argue they can only do so within strict parameters. For example, the “head directionality” parameter determines whether the verbs in a language precede or follow their complements, with English being head-initial (“Bob gave a cake to Alice”) and Japanese being head-final (“Bob to Alice a cake gave”).

For generativists, it is extremely unlikely that an alien species would happen to have the same parameters as human beings. In the words of Noam Chomsky, the leading proponent of this view:

The Conversation

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