Alien Encounter at Penn

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Last week, I posted a few notes about how the alienness of aliens might make it hard to learn to communicate with them ("Alien Encounters", 9/15/2016). To start with, even the basic modes of signal generation and interpretation would probably not fit our biology very well. And the interpretation of signals — biological as well as cultural — might also be outside the range that we expect from experience with our fellow humans.

Some people, including my colleague and friend Victor Mair, nevertheless proposed methods based on those that have been found to work in human contexts. So to clarify the issues I was trying to raise, here's a little Alien Encounter Sketch.

The alien looks something like the head of a cuttlefish grafted onto a kangaroo's body, with a sort of bagpipe under the chin. Encountering Victor Mair, it stands tall, spreads its tentacles wide, blushes a deep hot pink, and says:

Following the methods he learned in the Peace Corps, Victor opens his arms wide to show that he has no weapon and has no hostile intent. He smiles.

The alien opens its arms wider, turns a brighter shade of pink, and exclaims:

Victor, feeling that his method is having a good effect, opens his arms wider and smiles more broadly. The alien sprays him with fluid wastes.

What has gone wrong?

Following the cultural norms of its species, the alien indicates a desire to cooperate. Specifically, it recites a traditional formula of greeting, which could be translated


It accompanies this offer by adopting a particular stance and coloration. An interlocutor who agrees to the policy of non-competitiveness will adopt a complementary posture, in this case retracting all appendages, and a complementary color, in the case a pale blue or green. In contrast, someone who plans to fight for domination will instead imitate the speaker's posture and color, as Victor did, with limbs extended and color pink.

Linguists may be interested in the creature's mode of communication. Earth's birds have two organs known as syringes, located where the trachea branches to attach to the lungs; and some species can create sounds via each syrinx simultaneously and independently, using methods that can create either pure or complex tones. Our alien has four lungs rather than two, and four syringes, each of which can be used to generate and modulate a relatively pure tone at a given (but variable) frequency. Their communication system therefore involves four multiplexed channels, with a typical meaning-unit being a pattern of short tones and silences at a single frequency, generating by a single syrinx. The aliens' hearing system is adapted to de-multiplex four simultaneous channels of this kind, so as to recognize the meaning-units that are combined in a particular vocalization.

Thus what I've translated a "noncompetitiveness" is 10110111010000100011 (where 1 indicates presence of a brief tone at a given frequency, and 0 indicates a silence of equal length), and the whole greeting formula invitation+noncompetitiveness+conditional+query is

 00000011110100011001 +
 10110111010000100011 +
 10100110001100111110 +

(A slower version is a bit easier for humans to parse.)

The choice of parallel 20-element morphemes, and certain properties of the time-alignment of tones and silences, are requirements of a specific alien poetic form, but never mind that for now.

Humans are obviously not equipped to produce sound patterns of this type, nor is our perceptual system well adapted to decoding them. Once we figure out how the system works, it won't be hard to write computer programs to analyze and generate such patterns — but …

After the effects of the alien's spray have worn off a bit, Victor tries again. This time he keeps his arms in, because he doesn't feel well, and his face is suitably pale, so the alien is persuaded that he wants to cooperate. Now Victor tries his next tactic:

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.

The frequencies used by the aliens' four syringes can be varied for prosodic effect — as you can hear in the examples above — but it's considered rather odd at best for the four frequencies to be small-integer multiple of a common base, say 200+400+600+800. That's because such harmonic combinations normally only occur in alien baby talk.

Unfortunately, exactly that type of harmonic overtone series is the invariable content of normal human speech.

So the alien's reaction to Victor's soothing vowel noises is to take offense: "This miserable creature is mewling like a sick infant. Is it mocking me? Or is that the only kind of talking it can do?"

And off she goes in a huff, to correct the WikiGalactica entry claiming that earth's dominant species is somewhat intelligent.






  1. Matthew Edney said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 6:58 am

    Never intelligent, just (mostly) harmless.

  2. richardelguru said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 7:00 am

    "The alien sprays him with fluid wastes."

    I vaguely remember a science fiction story in which the alien actually communicated by defecating. IIRR the human would only reply to them in private…

    [(myl) Indeed, I've imposed a species- (biome-?) specific interpretation that peeing on someone is a hostile act, or at least one with a negative valence, as opposed to the equivalent of applause or a hug…]

  3. Richard Stueven said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 7:17 am

    Red Dwarf, "Thanks for the Memory"

    Rimmer: Look, you're not thinking alien. That's what aliens are: alien. They do alien things. Things that are… alien. Maybe this is the way they communicate.

    The Cat: By breaking legs?

    Lister: And doing jigsaws?

    Rimmer: Why should they speak the way we do? They're aliens.

    Lister: OK, professor, what does it mean?

    Rimmer: Maybe, maybe, OK? Breaking your leg hurts like hell, OK? "Hel." They do it below the knee, "lo." "Hel-lo," gettit? They do it twice – twice, "two." "Hello two." And the jigsaw must mean "you." "Hello to you."


    The Cat: I wouldn't like to be around when one of these suckers is making a speech!

  4. leoboiko said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 7:28 am

    Their communication system therefore involves four multiplexed channels…Humans are obviously not equipped to produce sound patterns of this type

    The aliens in China Miéville's Embassytown—highly recommended for linguists!—use two channels, and for as-yet-undiscovered reasons, attempts to reproduce their signals electronically have been ignored by speakers. They'd only respond to conscious beings speaking in parallel channels. The solution the humans find is quite ingenuous, if horrifying.

    Another interesting characteristic of their language is that it's referential—like in a very naïve model of language, their words refer to things. So when their language planners want to add a simile to the language, e.g. "it's like the man who swims every day with fishes", they have to get some guy to actually enact this. And after the poor man dies, the simile must become "it's like that man who used to swim every day with fishes and is now dead", changing its meaning. After humans decipher the trick to communicating with them, we can of course speak freely of anything; this is experienced by them as something like magic or hallucination. Then things gets bad.

  5. leoboiko said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 7:33 am

    I think that, if an intelligent species is visiting us and trying to establish friendly communication, they'd be as sensitive and cautious to these issues as us—probably more—and wouldn't interpret any sound or gesture as hostility, only actual attempts at causing damage.

    Probably they would be the ones to decipher our communication first, since they're space-faring beings and would have developed their own Peace Corps protocol. Just like we look for human-language universals and trends (Greenbergian universals), they might have an inventory of "kinds of signal which seem to evolve often in intelligent species, cross-planetarily".

  6. Termy said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 8:35 am

    I'm not sure whether it can be easily found for free online, but this reminds me somewhat of Kim Stanley Robinson's The Translator, which may conceivably be the story richardelguru vaguely remembers. Certainly fluid-spraying played a significant role in the story.

  7. Michael said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 8:51 am


    thank you for that great piece of content!

  8. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 9:14 am

    "If a lion could speak, we could not understand him." And lions, as fellow mammals designed to function in a similar ecosystem etc., are physiologically much less "alien" for all purposes other than perhaps those slippery notions like "sentience" or "mind" than most hypothesized space-alien-visitors would be assumed to be. Although I suppose Wittgenstein's gnomic utterance (even if taken to be true) doesn't necessarily foreclose the possibility of reasonably effective cross-species communication at a level that might not qualify as actual language use.

  9. Stan Carey said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 9:15 am

    Fluid wastes if he's lucky.

  10. JS said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 9:39 am

    Well and good, but the original question asked how to respond in the context of a single face-to-face encounter, and I still don't know how to avoid the fluid wastes (that is to say, how to accomplish MYL's #1 "persuade them not to kill us"). As such, I'm inclined to go with VHM — behind him, naturally.

  11. Joe said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 9:41 am

    "And off she goes in a huff, to correct the WikiGalactica entry claiming that earth's dominant species is somewhat intelligent."

    However, the species' self-organization and reproductive proficiency could be an excellent nutritional source for those long space journeys.

  12. maidhc said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 1:56 pm

    Thanks for the syringes.

  13. maidhc said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 3:33 pm

    There's a real-life example of such encounters in North Sentinel Island.

    Attempts at contact have been made sporadically since 1880, so far without success.

  14. Guy said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 4:12 pm


    I feel the same way. If the aliens are both non-hostile and intelligent, they should understand that they shouldn't jump to conclusions about what we're communicating. If they are prone to hostility, then I don't feel like things turning bad can necessarily be blamed on us, since ensuring that no hostility is perceived in a first contact scenario isn't really possible. If we're going to run into an alien species that will harm us over the slightest faux pas, it probably doesn't matter much how good our procedures are.

    I'm reminded of the television series Babylon 5, where a disastrous war with the Minbari in which humanity was nearly exterminated began because during the first encounter with a Minbari vessel (that happened to be carrying the Minbari leader) the Minbari ship opened its gun ports as a traditional greeting and the commander of the human ship interpreted that as a sign of hostility and ordered an attack.

    Now, we can question whether it's good first contact protocol to put your weapons in a state in which they are prepared to fire as a greeting, but it still seems pretty clear that the blame lies mostly on the human commander who decided to shoot first. (I think it was established at some point in the series that the commander hadn't been properly trained in first contact protocol).

    Of course, I don't think the show made clear how it was even possible to tell that the gun ports were gun ports. But the Minbari are basically hairless humans with bone ridges on their heads, so the show wasn't super-realistic about the level of "alien-ness" that could be expected.

  15. AntC said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 4:26 pm

    @maidhc Thanks for the syringes,

    Indeed. Presumably channeling Geoff's plurals for flowers. I'll point out to the nurse at my next flu jag to use only one syrinx/syring.

  16. V said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 6:23 pm

    @leoboiko, @Guy

    I'd go further: I'd think that if aliens are deliberately visiting us with the goal of establishing contact, they'd almost certainly try to study human languages (or at least human behavior) *remotely* before contact, e.g. by monitoring human media broadcasts or through some other means of surveillance.

    Besides this upping the chance of successful communication happening in a timely fashion, it also just seems wiser from a safety perspective for the aliens: surely, rather than generously give all our behavior the benefit of the doubt, they'd prefer to go in with at least some foreknowledge of what body language humans use to demonstrate hostility, in case things go south. (I suppose this isn't necessary if the aliens possess some technology that makes it virtually impossible for a human to harm them face to face.)

    But to maintain the linguistic discussion at hand, I think we should just say that in Prof. Liberman's scenario, it is assumed that the humans and aliens have not had a chance to study one another in advance.

  17. Steve Morrison said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 7:49 pm

    However, the species' self-organization and reproductive proficiency could be an excellent nutritional source for those long space journeys.

    Oh, surely these aliens are more benevolent than that! After all, I’ve managed to translate a little bit of their manual, and its title means “To Serve Man.”

  18. CL Thornett said,

    September 23, 2016 @ 12:22 am

    I'm currently feeling rather discouraged about the human race and suspect that unless our aliens had exceptionally good luck, any gesture of peace and goodwill would be interpreted as a threat by the humans they encountered and the alien would be shot.

  19. Bob Ladd said,

    September 23, 2016 @ 5:46 am

    I'm surprised no one in this comment thread or the previous one has mentioned Suzette Haden Elgin's Native Tongue, which treats some of these same questions, though probably from a point of view that MYL would still find too human-centric.

  20. Matt said,

    September 23, 2016 @ 10:34 am

    The most likely scenario is that the aliens would stop off at planet #4 first and get the lowdown from the famed Martian linguists. "Oh, those guys down the gravity well? Yeah, they all basically speak the same language. Not the rocks, though; they don't learn it no matter how much you speak it to them."

  21. Zeppelin said,

    September 23, 2016 @ 11:54 am

    I think the first thing I would do is give them something. Doesn't matter if it's worthless, I imagine any social species (and they'd have to be social to invent space flight, presumably) can understand that giving someone something is basically a positive act.

  22. Gwen Katz said,

    September 23, 2016 @ 5:02 pm

    Even if the appropriate response is a complementary gesture, presumably the aliens' young learn by imitation, so they ought to recognize imitation as an attempt to learn to communicate, just as we can figure out what a toddler means if they mix up "you" and "me."

    I have a very hard time indeed imagining a social species that doesn't learn by imitation, unless it was telepathic or something, which would create a whole new level of hurdles in communication.

    [(myl) The (referential aspects of the) communication systems of non-human social animals on earth are largely genetically determined. Thus the various alarm calls of vervet monkeys are the same in East Africa and in the West Indies — though infant vervets need to learn that the "terrestrial predator" alarm applies to leopards in Africa and to feral dogs in the Caribbean, and that storks are not actually flying predators, while eagles are. Songbirds learn detailed song patterns by imitation of adult birds (though these often must be the same species), but these decorative, not referential. In fact, I don't think that there are ANY documented examples of (natural) referential signals being learned by imitation in non-human animals — can you cite any?]

  23. Guy said,

    September 23, 2016 @ 6:07 pm


    Hopefully what you give them doesn't poison them or introduce a plague.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    September 23, 2016 @ 7:27 pm

    Just to join in the fun….

    The alien is emitting a stream of sounds at me. If it is trying to communicate something to me with those sounds, they must be part of a coherent and principled system. If the alien is not inclined to douse me with its fluid wastes or destroy me forthwith, and if it is willing to keep making sounds (or flashing colors or whatever kind of signal), then I probably could start to figure out bits and pieces of its sound / color / whatever signal system — so long as the signals it is emitting are within the receptive range of my senses. Otherwise, especially if it has hostile intent, I'm a goner.

    If the alien is friendly, I'll work with it to figure out some way to communicate. As suggested by Zeppelin, I'd give the alien something, such as a selfie of the two of us taken with an iPad that I'd hand over to it.

    Such interaction might take a long time before something clicks, and we might experience many frustrations and failures, but maybe we'll be able to learn something useful about each other in the process.

    It's worth a try: better than not trying.

  25. Neal Goldfarb said,

    September 24, 2016 @ 9:04 am

    Isn't the most important question how rhe aliens would react to uptake and vocal fry?

  26. Zeppelin said,

    September 24, 2016 @ 11:06 am


    I'd give them something inert, like a glossy polished stone or a piece of gold. I mean, it doesn't have to be useful or do anything in particular, and attempting symbolism through the object would be premature. It's just a token to use in the act.

  27. Mary Kuhner said,

    September 24, 2016 @ 11:04 pm

    If the alien has real color vision, as octopus (octopuses, octopi, octopodes… darn it, cephalopods!) do, your selfie won't look like much. It fecklessly uses mixtures of just three colors to try to represent the spectrum, and why should anyone be expected to perceive that that hideous mix of red+yellow is supposed to represent orange?

  28. Eli Driscoll said,

    September 25, 2016 @ 12:54 pm

    "They're made out of meat."


    "Meat. They're made out of meat."


    "There's no doubt about it. We picked up several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, and probed them all the way through. They're completely meat."

    "That's impossible. What about the radio signals? The messages to the stars?"

    "They use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don't come from them. The signals come from machines."

    "So who made the machines? That's who we want to contact."

    "They made the machines. That's what I'm trying to tell you. Meat made the machines."

    "That's ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You're asking me to believe in sentient meat."

    "I'm not asking you, I'm telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in that sector and they're made out of meat."

    "Maybe they're like the orfolei. You know, a carbon-based intelligence that goes through a meat stage."

    "Nope. They're born meat and they die meat. We studied them for several of their life spans, which didn't take long. Do you have any idea what's the life span of meat?"

    "Spare me. Okay, maybe they're only part meat. You know, like the weddilei. A meat head with an electron plasma brain inside."

    "Nope. We thought of that, since they do have meat heads, like the weddilei. But I told you, we probed them. They're meat all the way through."

    "No brain?"

    "Oh, there's a brain all right. It's just that the brain is made out of meat! That's what I've been trying to tell you."

    "So … what does the thinking?"

    "You're not understanding, are you? You're refusing to deal with what I'm telling you. The brain does the thinking. The meat."

    "Thinking meat! You're asking me to believe in thinking meat!"

    "Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal! Are you beginning to get the picture or do I have to start all over?"

    "Omigod. You're serious then. They're made out of meat."

    "Thank you. Finally. Yes. They are indeed made out of meat. And they've been trying to get in touch with us for almost a hundred of their years."

    "Omigod. So what does this meat have in mind?"

    "First it wants to talk to us. Then I imagine it wants to explore the Universe, contact other sentiences, swap ideas and information. The usual."

    "We're supposed to talk to meat."

    "That's the idea. That's the message they're sending out by radio. 'Hello. Anyone out there. Anybody home.' That sort of thing."

    "They actually do talk, then. They use words, ideas, concepts?"
    "Oh, yes. Except they do it with meat."

    "I thought you just told me they used radio."

    "They do, but what do you think is on the radio? Meat sounds. You know how when you slap or flap meat, it makes a noise? They talk by flapping their meat at each other. They can even sing by squirting air through their meat."

    "Omigod. Singing meat. This is altogether too much. So what do you advise?"

    "Officially or unofficially?"


    "Officially, we are required to contact, welcome and log in any and all sentient races or multibeings in this quadrant of the Universe, without prejudice, fear or favor. Unofficially, I advise that we erase the records and forget the whole thing."

    "I was hoping you would say that."

    "It seems harsh, but there is a limit. Do we really want to make contact with meat?"

    "I agree one hundred percent. What's there to say? 'Hello, meat. How's it going?' But will this work? How many planets are we dealing with here?"

    "Just one. They can travel to other planets in special meat containers, but they can't live on them. And being meat, they can only travel through C space. Which limits them to the speed of light and makes the possibility of their ever making contact pretty slim. Infinitesimal, in fact."

    "So we just pretend there's no one home in the Universe."

    "That's it."

    "Cruel. But you said it yourself, who wants to meet meat? And the ones who have been aboard our vessels, the ones you probed? You're sure they won't remember?"

    "They'll be considered crackpots if they do. We went into their heads and smoothed out their meat so that we're just a dream to them."

    "A dream to meat! How strangely appropriate, that we should be meat's dream."

    "And we marked the entire sector unoccupied."

    "Good. Agreed, officially and unofficially. Case closed. Any others? Anyone interesting on that side of the galaxy?"

    "Yes, a rather shy but sweet hydrogen core cluster intelligence in a class nine star in G445 zone. Was in contact two galactic rotations ago, wants to be friendly again."

    "They always come around."

    "And why not? Imagine how unbearably, how unutterably cold the Universe would be if one were all alone …"

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