Alien encounters

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The blurb for the movie Arrival, due to open in November:

When mysterious spacecrafts touch down across the globe, an elite team, lead by expert linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams), is brought together to investigate. As mankind teeters on the verge of global war, Banks and the team race against time for answers – and to find them, she will take a chance that could threaten her life, and quite possibly humanity.

Last week, a magazine writer asked me for a linguist's perspective on first-encounter communication strategies. She posed a set of interesting questions, starting with this:

  1. An alien is standing in front of you, apparently peaceably. What is the first thing you try, in an attempt to communicate with it? Is a greeting important? Are there any underlying rules for communication across cultures (and language barriers) that govern your decision?

I never got to the rest of the questions, because this is what I wrote in response to that first one:

Many imaginary encounters with "aliens" are modeled after the "monolingual demonstration" of first-contact fieldwork techniques, invented by Ken Pike in his own work, and developed over time as a sort of public performance for pedagogical reasons. The personal and social context is described in this obituary:

Pike's practical contribution in linguistics was in his amazing ability to train so many students to learn, analyze, and publish data on unwritten minority languages. One of his major goals was to help colleagues with their linguistic challenges. To that end he established linguistic workshops around the world, in which he and his junior colleagues helped thousands of field researchers and Bible translators with difficult analytical challenges in aboriginal languages. When Pike first went to live with the Mixtec people in southern Mexico in 1935, he knew no Spanish, nor did the San Miguel Mixtecs. So he began learning their language monolingually, since there was no common language. This method eventually developed into his famous pedagogical monolingual approach for learning hitherto unknown tribal languages.

Who would have guessed then that there were some four to five thousand such languages spoken around the world that were unidentified and unknown even to linguists in the 1940s? This holistic approach to language learning became Pike's trademark. He eventually taught thousands of his students how to learn such languages by using the method that he demonstrated countless times in his legendary monolingual demonstrations over the decades.

Take a look at this detailed description by Adam Makkai, or this YouTube video of a demonstration by Dan Everett.

The trouble with this model is that "aliens" are likely to be, well, alien. All human languages are quite similar in many ways — but aliens' modes of communication might be very different.

There's no guarantee that their senses and their modes of action are going to be a good fit to ours. They might communicate via skin color changes like cuttlefish, except maybe theirs are only visible in the ultraviolet. Or maybe they can modulate and sense electric fields, like electric eels. They might use gestural and postural changes in a body that's very different from ours, or rapid morse-code-like modulations of sound at a dozen different frequencies independently and simultaneously. Maybe pheremone-like chemical signals are a crucial part of the process.

Whatever the modalities of communication, it's quite likely that we won't be able to imitate them without building some specialized apparatus. And it's quite possible that it would be hard even to recognize the fact that they're communicating with one another, before we even get to the point of trying to understand and imitate.

More likely, the process would be:

(1) Persuade them not to kill us, and vice versa;
(2) Persuade (or coerce) them to let us observe their within-species interactions, or vice versa;
(3) Design and build systems for recording, analyzing, and synthesizing their communicative signals (or wait for them to do the same thing for ours);
(4) Use those systems to engage in a sort of "monolingual demonstration", and hope that we can come to understand them and communicate with them to some extent.

It's possible that the nature of the physical world constrains physical evolution to make technologically-capable entities similar in various ways that make communication easier. So it's hard to imagine a species that communicates by generating and perceiving modulated gamma-ray bursts, just because the physics of the situation is against it. But I'd be surprised if this is enough to make it possible to give a useful answer to your first question "An alien is standing in front of you, apparently peaceably. What is the first thing you try, in an attempt to communicate with it? Is a greeting important?"

Like I said, you could pretend to be Ken Pike, because what else are you going to do? But don't count on it working.

When I wrote that, I obviously hadn't seen the movie, which won't be released for another couple of months. But (except for traveling to San Francisco for Interspeech, and giving a talk at Rutgers, and a few other things) I could have read Ted Chiang's "Stories of Your Life", which the movie is based on.

I skimmed it this morning, and Louise Banks' monolingual excercise with the Heptapods exhibits in a mild way a few of the issues I raised. She needs to use a "sound spectrograph" to analyze the aliens' utterances, which sound to her ears "vaguely like […] a wet dog shaking the water out of its fur", and she needs recording and playback to communicate in the other direction, since they don't recognize her attempts to imitate their speech.

Their writing system poses few visual decoding problems for her, other than a sort of cursive connection of symbols and a non-linear system for arranging them in space and time — but the analysis of content is problematic in various ways, starting with her discovery that their writing system is "semasiographic" rather than "glottographic", and in fact constitutes an entirely separate linguistic system, which she calls "Heptapod B" in contrast to their spoken language, which is "Heptapod A".

The aliens' inventory of concepts seems to have a different basis from that of humans, e.g.

Physical attributes that humans defined using integral calculus were seen as fundamental by the heptapods. As an example, Gary described an attribute that, in physics jargon, bore the deceptively simple name "action," which represented "the difference between kinetic and potential energy, integrated over time," whatever that meant. Calculus for us; elementary to them.

And it turns out that this arises out of a fundamental difference in interpreting the "grammar" of the physical universe:

Consider the phenomenon of light hitting water at one angle, and traveling through it at a different angle. Explain it by saying that a difference in the index of refraction caused the light to change direction, and one saw the world as humans saw it. Explain it by saying that light minimized the time needed to travel to its destination, and one saw the world as the heptapods saw it. Two very different interpretations.

The physical universe was a language with a perfectly ambiguous grammar. Every physical event was an utterance that could be parsed in two entirely different ways, one causal and the other teleological, both valid, neither one disqualifiable no matter how much context was available.

When the ancestors of humans and heptapods first acquired the spark of consciousness, they both perceived the same physical world, but they parsed their perceptions differently; the worldviews that ultimately arose were the end result of that divergence. Humans had developed a sequential mode of awareness, while heptapods had developed a simultaneous mode of awareness. We experienced events in an order, and perceived their relationship as cause and effect. They experienced all events at once, and perceived a purpose underlying them all. A minimizing, maximizing purpose.

As you can imagine, this difference turns out to play a role in the story's plot.

Anyhow, Chiang's Heptapod communication systems, as alien as they are, are much more easily accessible to human analysis and synthesis than I suggested that such systems might be. That's essential to his plot development — learning to deal with de-multiplexing a dozen frequency-divided channels of amplitude-modulated ultrasound, or whatever, would have been a narrative distraction.

Chiang's choice allows Louise Banks to apply Pike's method, and to come tragically close to getting it right. And it also lets Chiang introduce a wide array of linguistic concepts and associated terminology — I'll be interested to see how much of that makes it into the movie.


An earlier LLOG post on this story and movie:

"'Language is messy,' says our new linguistic hero", 8/11/2016

And some earlier discussion of Ted Chiang's thoughts about writing systems:

"Ted Chiang uninvents Chinese characters", 5/11/2016
"Backward Thinking about Orientalism and Chinese Characters", 5/16/2016
"Firestorm over Chinese Characters", 5/23/2016

 



49 Comments

  1. leoboiko said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 7:41 am

    but the analysis of content is problematic in various ways, starting with her discovery that their writing system is "semasiographic" rather than "glottographic"

    I don't see what's the problem here.

    [(myl) The problem was only that it took the fictional linguist a little while to realize that the Heptapods writing-like communications were not at all a system for writing down (some aspects of) their acoustic communications — as all full human writing systems are — but rather a completely separate "language", which she calls "Heptapod B" in distinction to the spoken language "Heptapod A".]

    I know the two terms from Sampson, a linguist who has published books on writing systems, who has long argued that full notation systems based purely on meaning ("semasiography") are, in principle, possible (just keep expanding some system like traffic symbols or assembly manual icons until you cover all semantic primitives). I in fact applaud the novel/movie's reference to actual linguistic terminology; perhaps the idea for Heptapod A and B came directly from Writing Systems: A Linguistic Introduction:

    There would appear in principle to be no reason why a society could not have expanded a semasiographic system, by adding further graphic conventions, until it was fully as complex and rich in expressive potential as their spoken language. At that point they would possess two fully-fledged 'languages' having no relationship with one another – one of them a spoken language without a script, and the other a "language' tied intrinsically to the visual medium. […] However, in practice no semasiographic system is anywhere near this comprehensive. […] Possibly the explanation for why we do not find semasiographic systems that are comparable in expressive power to spoken languages is that, for some reason that remains unclear, speech is simply a more suitable medium than visible marks in which to develop a comprehensive system for the articulation of thought.

    More suitable for humans, certainly (who, at the very least, seem to have an innate disposition to acquire spoken or signed language, but not for visual-symbolic 'language'). DeFrancis and his school of thought have argued that full semasiography is principle impossible for humans, due to the strain they'd put in memory and such; and their discussion with Sampson went back and forth for a while. Some people argue that Blisssymbols is semasiographic, or at least "basically" semasiographic, while others (Unger, IIRC) have argued that it isn't.

    At any rate, even in the case of humans, full semasiography is certainly conceivable (because partial semasiography is a fact), while the question of whether it's viable is a matter of debate. So I don't see any reason why it would be impossible for aliens with an entirely different sort of mental hardware. As long as they have some sort of conceptual inventory, it's conceivable that they could represent them by drawing a symbol for each conceptual primitive, and composing symbols in space/time to represent conceptual operations. To communicate using visual symbols independent from their other, phonological language seems to me to be a very tame possibility, compared to some of the alien-er communication systems you've suggested.

  2. Sili said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 8:08 am

    Isn't it odd that the onus always seems to be on us to initiate communication?

    If aliens can traverse the universe, find us and analyse our atmosphere from a distance to know it's safe for them, why can't they pick up our mass media and learn English? Or Spanish. Why isn't Dora, the Explorer good enough for them?

    [(myl) In the story, the aliens do initiate the communications process, in that (1) they show up in many ships that stay high above earth in various places around the globe, and (2) each of these ships sets up a communications device on the ground, typically in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable field, which the humans call "looking glasses".

    "According to the briefings I'd attended, there were nine of these in the United States, one hundred and twelve in the world. The looking glasses acted as two-way communication devices, presumably with the ships in orbit. No one knew why the aliens wouldn't talk to us in person; fear of cooties, maybe. A team of scientists, including a physicist and a linguist, was assigned to each looking glass; Gary Donnelly and I were on this one."

  3. bks said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 8:34 am

    They experienced all events at once, and perceived a purpose underlying them all.
    So then, they aren't going to be of much help with the analog vs. digital question.
    (They sound rather like Vonnegut's Tralfamidorians.)

  4. Victor Mair said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 8:38 am

    Eight reactions / observations / suggestions:

    1.
    "All human languages are quite similar in many ways — but aliens' modes of communication might be very different."

    I totally agree (see here, for a very recent discussion about the commonality of all human language). That's why, initially, I would not even attempt to speak to the aliens at all. That would be hopeless for aliens who would be using non-human forms of communication. It might even be frightening for an extraterrestrial to hear an earthling making strange sounds from a hole in the upper part of its body.

    2.
    Instead, what I would do would be totally visual. The first thing I would do is stand before the alien and open my arms wide to show that I have no weapon and have no hostile intent.

    I would smile.

    Then I would take out my sketch pad and start to draw simple sketches of our encounter. I would point to myself and draw a stick figure of myself. I would point to the alien and draw a stick figure of it. Then I would associate the stick figures with objects close at hand. After that, if the alien's form of communication involved vocalisms, we could start to learn each other's language.

    3.
    The only sounds I would make during this early stage of communication with the alien are soothing vowels, no consonants. My vowels might have some joyful melodic contours. But mostly I would be silent during this initial stage.

    As a gesture, after the open armed greeting, depending upon how things are going, I might softly, delicately, gently hold out my hand, the way I do when I make friends with a dog I've never met before — always maintaining eye contact, if the alien has something analogous to an eye.

    Everything would have to be slow and tentative. Slow, slow, slow, like my pet snail Arnold (see here and here).

    Patience to the nth degree.

    Nothing rushed or precipitous or nervous or displaying anxiety, fear, and fright. Calm.

    4.
    After establishing that the alien and I could agree on the identification of objects, I would try to determine if it had any form of language, i.e., whether it uses sound to communicate information. If it doesn't use sounds to communicate, then we'd have to continue to communicate visually, with objects, gestures, drawings, and so forth.

    5.
    If the alien does use sound to communicate, then I would begin to learn its language and teach it my language.

    6.
    To get into the Peace Corps back in 1965, part of the entrance exam consisted of analyzing a completely made up language that was unrelated to any actual human language. The test consisted of answering questions about the nature and structure of this artificial language based simply on analysis of a page-long specimen. That was fun!!

    7.
    Once I got into the Peace Corps, I was assigned to Nepal. My group was sent to a training program in Columbia, Missouri. Within three months, we had to get from zero knowledge of Nepali to functional fluency (at the start, we were complete aliens to the language). This is how we did it (5th ¶):

    =====

    … total immersion during Peace Corps training in Columbia, Missouri. From the day we started learning Nepali, not a word of English was spoken in the classes. I still remember very vividly the first three pairs of sentences we learned in Nepali. That was a thrilling experience — to jump right into a language and never look back. After spending two years in Nepal without speaking English for more than ten days during the whole period, my Nepali was close to native fluency level. I even dreamed in Nepali!

    =====

    Here's a rough description of my first encounter with Nepali:

    =====

    My introduction to Nepali was completely through oral immersion. I still remember the first three sentences I learned, and they helped me to grasp some essential features of grammar, not to mention a number of key words that are forever etched in my memory — completely through sound, without the intervention of any written symbols.

    =====

    I should note, however, that — although I learned those first three sentences without the intervention of any written symbols — pointing to objects while speaking was an essential part of the process.

    Furthermore, Nepali is a human language, with all of the commonality discussed in #1 above. It is likely to be much more difficult to learn the language / mode of communication of an extraterrestrial, but I'd love to have the opportunity to try.

    8.
    If people are interested, I would be happy to make a short video of the way I learned my first three sentences of Nepali and post it to Language Log. That way, the entire Language Log readership would not only know several useful Nepali words, they would also grasp the rudiments of basic Nepali grammar.

  5. KeithB said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 8:43 am

    Victor: You are assuming they have eyes. I believe that a first contact situation would be so context dependent that it is useless to come up with a protocol or set of rules.

  6. raempftl said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 8:46 am

    I would assume that the aliens being advanced enough to travel to earth would have prepared something to start communication with us. So the first point on my list would be "Look out for the aliens' attempts to communicate with us".

    They probably already have some information on us and will have thought of something more efficient than the things we might come up initially.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 8:53 am

    @KeithB

    I specifically said "if the alien has something analogous to an eye."

  8. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 9:30 am

    Sili: There's lots and lots of science fiction where the aliens have learned English, usually without any information on how. (Occasionally they've learned Portuguese or League Latin or something.) In stories where language learning is an important part, humans usually do at least half the work, because it's hard to write successful stories with alien protagonists.

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 9:31 am

    Hopefully they will have reviewed this https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contents_of_the_Voyager_Golden_Record, so they will know how to say hello-or-some-approximate-equivalent in 55 different Terran languages and have had an opportunity to plan their small talk on the relative merits of Chuck Berry and Mozart.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 9:38 am

    (Prof. Mair should be happy to note that the 55 languages NASA sent out into space include four separate Sinitic topolects, rather than treating "Chinese" as much of a muchness.)

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 9:46 am

    Prof. Mair: Opening your arms wide might indicate vulnerability and an expectation that there won't be a fight, or it might indicate intimidation. If you meet a mountain lion, you're supposed to try to look as big as possible, including spreading your arms. Likewise, as some SF stories have mentioned, smiling could be a threat, namely baring one's teeth. And what if the aliens communicate with sounds that we'd call consonants, and vowels remind them of predators' howls?

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 9:52 am

    Prof. Liberman: (1) Persuade them not to kill us, and vice versa;

    But there's the rub: How do you do that without being able to communicate? Demonstrations of firepower?

    Whatever method you use, I suspect step 2 might at least partly follow from it.

  13. KeithB said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 10:55 am

    Sorry Victor:

    Is this were we mention the ST:TNG episode Darmok?

  14. Joe said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 11:02 am

    @J.W. Brewer: SNL already covered that engagement (Star Trek's V-GER as well). Hopefully, our alien overlords are hipsters and would know what to do with a golden phonograph record.

    Maxine Universe: Uh — and you're saying that the, uh — another civilization has found the tape?

    Cocuwa: Yes. They've sent us a message that actually proves it. It may be just four simple words, but it is the FIRST positive proof that other intelligent beings inhabit the universe.

    Maxine Universe: Uh — what are the four words, Cocuwa?

    Cocuwa: The four words that came to us from outer space — the FOUR words that will appear on the cover of Time Magazine next week — are: [ he holds up the magazine" "Send More Chuck Berry".

  15. Victor Mair said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 11:30 am

    Go ahead and mention it, KeithB. Why are you sorry?

  16. Victor Mair said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 11:47 am

    @Jerry Friedman

    About opening the arms, a lot would depend upon how big and ferocious looking the alien was. If it were only one foot tall, I wouldn't want to magnify my size. If it were two or three times as big as me, it would be useless to try to intimidate it with my size anyway. In any event, the arms would not be opened with the intent of displaying awesomeness, nor would they be open to show vulnerability, but strictly to show lack of hostility and the intent to welcome the alien. The exact manner in which I opened my arms — slowly — would depend upon the reaction of the alien.

    I was aware of the recommendation to spread one's arms and look as big as possible when suddenly confronting a mountain lion. That makes some sense with a creature the size of a mountain lion. When I run in the hills above Stanford or Berkeley, I always have that in mind.

    Theoretically I suppose that you could say consonants could exist without vowels, but they wouldn't carry very far. You're imagining a language consisting only of consonants. Try it.

    When I smile, I usually don't show my teeth (photographers always have to coax me to do that), just wrinkle up the corners of my lips and my cheeks.

    Anyway, whatever I'd do in the presence of the alien, I would be extremely sensitive to gauge its reaction, and I in turn would react accordingly. Slowly and tentatively.

  17. maidhc said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 1:01 pm

    Most likely aliens would analyze our TV and radio broadcasts before they made contact, so they would be well-informed about what we do.

    In an SF story I read years ago, the aliens came here a few thousand years ago and decided that the most advanced civilization on our planet spoke Sumerian, so that's what they learned. When they come back, they're ready to talk to us in Sumerian. Suddenly experts on Sumerian become the most sought-after people in the world.

    If aliens could come here, it would imply that they had discovered how to travel faster than the speed of light. If they had done that, their technology would be so much more advanced than ours that there would be very little we could do to influence what they did.

  18. KeithB said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 1:09 pm

    Sorry because I missed your premise.

    As far as Darmok goes, could aliens be so, well, alien that it would be impossible to communicate?

  19. Y said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 1:20 pm

    By the time aliens came by here, chances are we would not be the first ones they encountered, and will have had their own version of fieldwork training. So they'd be forgiving of our peculiarities. (Unless they just wanted to incinerate us all, in which cae the whole thing is moot.)

  20. KeithB said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 1:31 pm

    Y:
    In that case the first and last Alien word we would learn would be the equivalent of "Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator".

  21. Michael said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 4:00 pm

    @Victor Mair

    >>>I specifically said "if the alien has something analogous to an eye."

    You did say that at point 3, however in point 2 you assume that the alien will somehow be able to interpret marks on a page as carriers of meaning. Even for creatures WITH eyes, this seems like a bold assumption.

  22. Daniel Barkalow said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 4:39 pm

    I think it would be great to have a sci-fi movie where humans are abducted by aliens and kept in boxes in alien gathering places, and it turns out that the humans are being coerced to watch the aliens' within-species interactions, in the hope that we will eventually come to understand them.

    Personally, I would try making marks in some dirt, since the aliens are almost certainly able to perceive macroscopic physical structures somehow, if only to be able to move around.

  23. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 6:36 pm

    @ Victor Mair:
    I might softly, delicately, gently hold out my hand, the way I do when I make friends with a dog I've never met before…
    You've been very lucky — so far. One of the first things you learn at an animal shelter (where I worked as a volunteer for more than a decade) is: Never extend your hand towards an unfamiliar dog, because s/he may bite or rip your hand to shreds.
    The recommended and safe method is to keep your hands at your thighs, turn sideways to make yourself appear smaller, and let the dog sniff your hand. Then proceed at your risk. (Do likewise with extraterrestrial aliens you may meet.)

  24. Victor Mair said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 6:38 pm

    Every creature I am aware of that has visual sensors uses them to extract information from observed patterns. What else would they be for?

  25. Terry Hunt said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 6:40 pm

    I'm sure that most here are already familiar with H. Beam Piper's 1957 story 'Omnilingual', which seems to me relevant to this discussion, but for any that aren't, it has its own article on Wikipedia and is available on Project Gutenberg.

  26. Nick Barnes said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 6:45 pm

    If they have the technological ability to get here then they are able to squash us like bugs, if they notice our existence at all, and if they are so minded then I doubt our ability to persuade them otherwise. Attempting to kill them would be likely to at least draw their attention, and persuade them to eliminate us.
    My recollection of the story is that Chiang's heptapods, although mysterious, are similarly assumed to have that capability. I infer from the trailer that the ones in the film are too.

  27. Eric Vinyl said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 7:18 pm

    Professor Mair:

    YouTube's HTML5 player has the ability to alter the speed of playback. The previous video I was watching, I had slowed down; YouTube remembered the setting and when I watched the video of Arnold, it took me a while to realize he was going reeeeeeeeeaaaaaalllllyyyyy ssllooooooww (even for a snail).

  28. Victor Mair said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 7:30 pm

    @Reinhold {Rey} Aman

    Good advice!

    I would never extend my hand to a dog like that unless:

    1. the owner is present

    2. the dog is preferably on a leash under the control of the owner

    3. I've been interacting with the dog for a few minutes and it's acting friendly.

    Even so, I'm always ready to withdraw my hand instantaneously if something goes wrong with the signals the dog, its owner, and I are giving each other.

  29. John Swindle said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 8:47 pm

    Dogs might be valuable as consultants in the matter but perhaps not as first ambassadors. Collegiate handbooks on informed consent may be relevant. Also, I think I'd refer to "mysterious spacecraft" rather than "mysterious spacecrafts," at least until the aliens express a preference for one form or the other.

  30. leoboiko said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 11:48 pm

    @Victor Mair: I'll be waiting for the Nepali video!

  31. Sean M said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 2:01 am

    The other Silver Age SF reference is H. Beam Piper's "Omnilingual." It focuses on how to decipher texts in an unknown language without a bilingual and without knowing a language in the same family. Sit terra levis ei.

  32. Graeme said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 4:52 am

    Wow, I thought some of us law academics were precise with journalists. Mark certainly gave his inquisitor her money's worth!

    Understandable. First contact between journalist and academic is often fraught too.

  33. Graeme said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 5:05 am

    Also , is it a coincidence that alien spacecraft nowadays appear to have been designed by Bose or Apple? If not, those corporations may be able to help with the decoding of communications.

  34. leoboiko said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 7:39 am

    @Graeme: Someone was infamously able to infect an alien mothership with a computer virus using a Powerbook computer in Independence Day. It seems likely that Apple stole their tech from extraterrestrial sources (such as Xerox Parc).

  35. KeithB said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 8:22 am

    Graeme:
    Nowadays? The interiors of the Discovery in 2001 were pretty Apple like, and they weren't even alien.

  36. D.O. said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 12:49 pm

    Experts advise to stand firmly your ground, stretch hands and talk in low-pitched loud voice. Preferably being in a group. It is also important to avoid as much as possible getting between a mother and her cub. The bear will eventually go away, which must be the purpose of any chance encounter.

  37. Idran said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 2:58 pm

    @leoboiko: I'm not sure if you were joking or not, but that was actually explicitly established in Independence Day. They specifically said in the movie that the human computer revolution came about from reverse-engineering tech from the crashed ship at Roswell; the implication was supposed to be that that was why the virus upload even worked in the first place.

  38. James Wimberley said,

    September 17, 2016 @ 1:22 pm

    What's wrong, from the aliens' point of view, with the classic method of kidnapping young females, subjecting them to unspeakable experiments involving tentacles and body orifices, and forcing the survivors to learn BEM?

  39. Adam F said,

    September 19, 2016 @ 5:21 am

    I'm surprised no-one has mentioned Douglas Adams's Babel fish yet:

    It then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain which has supplied them. The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language.

    Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.

  40. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 19, 2016 @ 1:42 pm

    Prof. Mair: Theoretically I suppose that you could say consonants could exist without vowels, but they wouldn't carry very far. You're imagining a language consisting only of consonants. Try it.

    Well, I can't do it, but who knows what aliens are capable of? Cicada "songs" sound to me more like z's and n's than like vowels, and they carry quite well.

  41. Tim Martin said,

    September 20, 2016 @ 9:04 am

    Victor: I'd be interested in that video!

  42. M.Buettner said,

    September 20, 2016 @ 12:23 pm

    Victor Mair and Jerry Friedman, I don't speak Czech or Slovak, but I went to school with a number of people whose ancestors emigrated from that part of the world with names such as Ctvrtnik, Strnad, Vlcek and Vlk. Not entirely vowel-free – maybe vowel-minimal?

  43. Victor Mair said,

    September 20, 2016 @ 3:04 pm

    On the Nepali video — I'm gonna try to get someone to help me make it today.

    @M. Buettner

    "maybe vowel-minimal?"

    Fair enough, but they don't get rid of that last vowel, lonely though it be.

  44. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 20, 2016 @ 4:29 pm

    M. Buettner: There's a famous tongue-twister in Czech and Slovak, "Strč prst skrz krk." I'm told it means appropriately enough, "Stick a finger in your throat."

    The Wikipedia article gives a longer sentence: "Škrt plch z mlh Brd pln skvrn z mrv prv hrd scvrnkl z brzd skrz trs chrp v krs vrb mls mrch srn čtvrthrst zrn." At this point we might have to discuss what "vowel" means.

  45. Victor Mair said,

    September 20, 2016 @ 5:06 pm

    @Jerry Friedman:

    Speaking not as a professional phonologist or phonetician, it seems to me that prolonged nasal sounds have a semivocalic quality to them.

    Prolonged sibilants require a continuous stream of air (not a burst) that causes the points of articulation (not the vocal cords) to vibrate audibly.

    Prolonged liquid sounds are like prolonged sibilants in requiring a continuous stream of air (not a burst) that causes the points of articulation (not the vocal cords) to vibrate audibly.

    All of these sounds are capable of prolongation, unlike stops, plosives, and occlusives.

    I love your tongue-twisters. I think their ability to exist with all of that vowellessness can be explained by what I wrote in the three paragraphs above. You will note that, in your Czech and Slovak tongue-twisters, every single word, no matter how long or how short, has at least one liquid or one sibilant.

    BTW, this reminds me of Geoff Pullum's recent post on rhotic fricatives, in which we encounter Czech syllables without vowels, but with 'ř'.

  46. Jim said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 12:02 pm

    @KeithB – the novel Blindsight has a good bit about alien beings that are, as the narrator puts it, "so profoundly alien that they couldn't help but treat human language itself as a form of combat."

    The aliens in Darmok were very easy to communicate with, comparatively. They had basically human motives and values, and their language had grammar that the universal translator could handle. It was just so heavily steeped with cultural allusions that outsiders (who were probably used to having the UT do all the work for them) had a hard time resolving all the references.

  47. Eugene said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 12:48 am

    Math already "semasiographic." Also variously Chinese, symbolic logic, chess, the behavior of nation-states with technology. Please refine this problem.

  48. Robbie said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 6:59 am

    Another sci-fi story that's relevant to this discussion is "Once There Were Cows" by Charles Runyon, whose main character is an alien linguistics expert. (I've never seen other stories by this author, but it feels like there should be more featuring this character.)

    Following a war caused by mistranslation, it has become mandatory for all spaceship crews to include a professional linguist. This particular crew lands on an unknown planet and finds it inhabited by friendly — perhaps too friendly — little humanoids. The aliens learn basic English quickly, but the linguist persists in studying the alien language, and as a result learns some disturbing things about their culture and history.

  49. David Marjanović said,

    September 23, 2016 @ 5:21 am

    Czech has syllabic [r] and syllabic [l], but that's it.

    Slovak not only has those, but has a phonemic contrast between long and short versions of each, just like it and Czech have for the vowels.

    Many kinds of German have syllabic [m n l], though only in unstressed positions. Conversely, you can make a case that at least some of these varieties have a phonemic contrast between syllabic and non-syllabic versions of at least [l] (thanks to non-rhoticity): kahl [kaːl] "bald", Karl [ˈkaːl̩] "Charles". – Syllabic [r], likewise limited to unstressed positions, is common in rhotic varieties of German, so basically in and around Switzerland; many or perhaps all the same varieties also have syllabic [l], but they lack syllabic nasals.

    In the Ōgami dialect of the Miyako language (spoken by older people on an island southwest of Okinawa), all nasals and all fricatives can be syllabic. There are a few voiceless words.

    Nuxalk (spoken by probably less than 20 people in Bella Coola, British Columbia) has syllabic nasals and syllabic voiceless fricatives, too. Many words consist only of voiceless consonants. On top of that, it has syllabic voiceless plosives – though, admittedly, it seems that all plosives are either aspirated or ejective, so they're probably all followed by a noisy pause ([ə̥]?) which might be the phonetically real syllable nucleus.

    As you can see from its name, even Nuxalk has phonemic vowels: /i a u/ with wide ranges of allophony. (The Wikipedia article quotes a few words that are transcribed as having long vowels; I guess those are just coincidental vowel clusters?)

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