In 1974, Frank Drake sent the Arecibo message from Puerto Rico to star systems outside our planet. It is now 2018, and we have come a long way- hand-in-hand – with science and technology. If you think that contacting the extraterrestrials is strictly a scientist’s business, then you are both right and wrong at the same time. Of course a scientist can expertly attempt to communicate with the beings in outer space. But not just the mainstream scientists dabble in this field. The scientists who study language are now making a grand entry. Thanks to them, alien linguistics a paving a path for the world to get in touch with the aliens.
The first step:
There is SETI- Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Then there is METI – Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence. While SETI focuses on detecting of outer space messages, METI works on sending messages to the outer space.
METI aims to establish communication with planets that are in the ‘habitable zone’ – this means, METI has discovered planets (called exoplanets) that have similar survival conditions like the Earth. And they are attempting to use language to communicate with the aliens there. In 2017, METI sent a message to the exoplanets using a complicated arithmetic formula of duration and frequency to explain all about the musical systems on Earth. On June 1, 2018, METI held a conference- named ‘Language in the Cosmos’- in Los Angeles to discuss the language theory for communicating with the aliens.
Linguists Sheri Wells-Jensen, Noam Chomsky, and Suzette Haden Elgin work with something that they like to call alien linguistics. Basically, these linguists team up with the other linguists to theorize the linguistics that can begin a bridge of communication with the ET.
How does alien linguistics help in the search for extraterrestrial life?
In an interview with Nature, Sheri Wells-Jensen discussed the whys and hows of alien linguistics. Jensen talks about how language theory was used by the linguists at the conference and understand how aliens might have learnt language.
One theory, given by Suzette Haden Elgis in her book The Native Tongue (1984), was discussed at this conference. Elgins believed that the body structure and the mind-environment interaction were the two major factors that decided how the language is structured. So, according to Elgin’s theory, humans can only interact successfully with the aliens if aliens had a similar body structure to the humans, and vice-versa.
Contrary to the theory that external factors give structure to language, came a theory that asserted that the factors were internal. Noam Chomsky believes that it is thought and imagination that shapes language – even in aliens. Chomsky, one of the leading linguists of our times, suggests that if universal grammar exists on Earth, then there is a huge chance that the same exists on exoplanets too. And thus, the day isn’t far away when an ET might land on our planet.
In Chomsky’s words, given that alien languages follow the same universal grammar rules, alien linguistics might not be so different from human linguistics. The Los Angeles conference has certainly paved a new way to look at how language to communicate with the aliens may not be so hard to structure after all.
The challenge in using language to communicate with the aliens:
Research by space linguists poses a new challenge on the path of extraterrestrial communication. If Chomsky’s law of universal grammar doesn’t apply to the aliens, it will be hard for the humans to communicate with beings from space. Chomsky himself admitted that if the aliens violate the universal grammar rules, it will become almost impossible for us to establish any interaction with the beings outside the blue dot.
According to Chomsky, languages that directly violate the universal grammar can be hard for the humans to decode. And because language (for Chomsky) is an innate ability for most part of human lives, humans will find it difficult to comprehend what the aliens might be trying to say, and vice versa. If this theory is accepted, then alien linguistics have a long road to travel before it finally reaches a destination.
Using more than just language to communicate with the aliens:
Some linguists agree that even if language can pose a challenge for the human – ET interaction for a long time, mathematics and physics – something that can still be understood without the underlying foundation of language – can act as a starting point.
Other linguists believe that it is the way the human language is structured that creates a hurdle in the transfer of messages. While human language is constructed with the pillars of nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc; linguists aren’t sure that alien linguistics possess similar categories. However, research by space linguists offers some hope.
Alien language theory suggests that although the aliens might have a language that might be different from the languages that humans use, they might still contain intrinsic grammatical categories. And assuming that the ET are as intelligent as us (or more), it wouldn’t be that hard for them to crack messages sent from Earth.
What does the future hold for alien linguistics?
No matter how you decide to look at language to communicate with the aliens, research by space linguists suggest that there is a bright future for alien linguistics. In 1997, characters from the movie Contact used mathematics and arithmetic to send a message to space. Fast forward to 2016. Aliens used a linguist, named Amy Adams, who decoded alien languages. Interaction with the outer space fellows has always been a hot topic of discussion and debate. Now that we almost certainly know that we are not alone in this almost infinite universe, there seems to a possibility of alien contact. Even if it takes ages for us to send a perfect message to the aliens or to receive a comprehensible one from them, alien linguistics is a direction that we can embark on for a more ‘galaxically social’ future. And a conference on alien linguistics is like a new ray of hope in that direction.