Specializations > Typology and Descriptive Linguistics

Need help with glyphs


I had a lame discussion with a friend who claimed it was impossible to communicate with aliens because our language capacity is too unsophisticated. That nonsense aside, he offered me this photo as evidence. He gave no description. Is this human writing? Is it just conspiracy nonsense?  I don't recognize it.

I don't recognize the image. There are scripts out there I wouldn't recognize, but my best guess is that this is not a real human language. Instead, it looks like something from a sci-fi movie or TV show. The fact that the glyphs repeat so often suggests it is a simple cypher for a small alphabet (like English) rather than something like Chinese, or even a syllabary, and the 'letters' then seem too complicated for so being so few. So it seems like a slightly awkward attempt to make the letters look 'alien'. In style it looks something like Star Wars writing (http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Aurebesh) but that's not it, just the same angular look that feels like sci-fi. (Actually you'll notice the Star Wars characters are simpler, more realistic for a small alphabet.)

There's no relevant argument to be made from showing someone a script they don't know, by the way. Learning that would require context and a lot more information. Imagine giving a child one page of English writing and no instructions. That's not an argument.

As for the more general claim about aliens having languages we can't understand, there actually is a scientific argument behind that, though not uncontroversial. The word "communicate" is too vague. I'm sure we could communicate with aliens to some degree-- we could shoot at their spaceshoots and that would send a message. Or various other things. But assuming they have a language, we might not be able to speak it. Or maybe not fluently. Some linguists believe there is a biological/innate component to human language, such that our genetics predispose us to certain kinds of grammatical structure. If the aliens did not have that same kind of structure in their language, or more importantly if they had some other kind of genetic structure defining theirs, then we might not be able to use our biological basis for learning languages to learn theirs. We could still try to decode it, such as using computers, or doing Latin-translation-like exercises by hand. It might work, might not. And my best guess it that we could at least become not-fully-competent(/fluent) speakers, because surely we could at least attempt to "say" a few "words" (however those things are realized). But it is possible that we couldn't, because the genetic structure would be different. Or it could even be as simple as the aliens communicating using two mouths, or using smell, rather than something we can naturally or easily do ourselves. Without any data we can't know for sure. Think about the opposite though: the assumption that any possible alien language would have roughly the same structure as human language, or that human language has no genetic component and that we are able to learn any pattern-based language. Maybe! But that's a controversial opinion.

Noam Chomsky has stated that we wouldn't be able to use an alien language because of genetic differences. I don't necessarily agree with that, but of course I don't know.

Interestingly, ideas about "Universal Grammar" (unfortunately named in this context, referring to features shared by all human languages) are quite vague and do not currently make any specific claims by consensus. The one thing that Chomsky says is certain, and others seem to generally agree with, is that we can combine two words/phrases to form a larger phrase: combining A+B to make AB. That's called Merge in Chomsky's current work (Minimalist syntactic theory), although all syntactic theories seem to have some equivalent (also called embedding, sometimes related to the idea of 'recursion'). Regardless, a feature like that is powerful and important for intelligent communication (I've actually written a paper about this, saying that I'd expect it to be found in alien communication!), so whether or not we have a genetic basis for "Merge", maybe aliens do also. And maybe they have other features, or maybe we do (just not identified by consensus yet). In short, it's really hard to come up with specific reasons for this, yet there is a coherent argument that biologically we might not be prepared for an alien language. The question boils down to whether there are many possible types of grammars for languages that are constrained by genetics, or whether there are many possible types of genetics that would all converge on a relatively narrow class of languages. That is, did we invent Merge in a uniquely human way, or did we discover Merge as a useful way to communicate? An open question, and one hard to answer without any data from aliens. But I think either answer is possible, based on our current understanding of human linguistics at this point.

Regardless, one common perspective of our genetic basis for learning language, "Universal Grammar" is that it is available for children while acquiring their first language(s), but not available to adult, learning second language(s). But adults still manage to learn those languages to communicate, just not at native levels like the children. So communication with aliens might be more like studying a language at a university and not being fluent in it, rather than something we couldn't do at all. And I assume at first that adults would try to communicate, so it would necessarily be like that. Whether, if the aliens stayed around for years and interacted with us peacefully, even offering to teach classes, children would eventually grow up learning to speak their language natively? That's what is really controversial (and unknown). But could adults attempt to form some sentences, even with mistakes? Probably. How well we could do that would depend on, I suppose, just how different the languages were, and how much data we had to try to figure it out. But it's entirely possible we'd get to a level of non-native communication and never reach (even for children, with their human genetics) native levels. But no communication? Unlikely. Beyond that it's just a guess at this point.

Whether humans would be too "unsophisticated" to understand an alien language is a different question. My point above is that we might just have different (not better/inferior) genetic bases for language. "Unsophisticated" implies a hierarchy, such that although we could not speak to aliens using their language, that they would be able to speak to us. And I'm not sure your friend meant to imply that. Otherwise it's just a bit of handwaving and not really linguistics. There is a common assumption that any aliens who visit Earth would be more technologically advanced than us (because we are not currently capable of visiting their planet), but that doesn't necessarily mean their language would be different, although it might be.

It is human writing, though not writing in a real language. We know it's not alien writing because aliens are science fiction. Unless you can identify the specific conlang, you can't tell if it purports to be a script for a mythical human language, or an alien language. It is not The Hero's Tongue. It's possible that there are species that we can't communicate with because they are long-range telepathic and don't need language, as in the case of the buggers, although they did manage to communicate with one human.


--- Quote ---It's possible that there are species that we can't communicate with because they are long-range telepathic and don't need language, as in the case of the buggers, although they did manage to communicate with one human.
--- End quote ---
Or scent! But that's a problem of medium, and if the language could be translated somehow into another symbolic form (like writing, or an oral code, whatever), we could potentially still speak it, depending on its structural properties (if it's compatible with our genetic capabilities for language). Unless, of course, it is full access telepathy where there is no longer any "language" at all but just pure mind-reading, which would make for an interesting story but is outside the scope of understanding "alien language" in my opinion.


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