Alien Language Translator
By: Shahzad Bashir
In the upcoming sci-fi thriller “Arrival”, a number of mysterious aircraft reach the Earth. As humans are faced with the challenge to communicate with extraterrestrial visitors, the vast world of translation gets the brief limelight.
The film contains a plot where a team of linguists gathers to solve the challenge that lay ahead—how to communicate with the extraterrestrial beings who have just stepped on planet Earth. In doing so, the film touches upon a very real challenge—how to communicate with individuals with whom you don’t share any intermediate language?
Although the notion that aliens do not exist is still debated, the fact that they have a distinct language of their own is clear. This alien language can be in the form of signs, symbols, pictures, or even tones and music. The question here is—in the absence of any common language, how will you decipher the alien language?
Let us start by asking the question—what would an alien language not have?
The Features of Alien Language
The best place to start here is by considering what a commonly spoken language has and what features of these languages may be missing in an alien language. According to famous linguists, a language only needs two things—a symbolic system that can represent meaning and the method of conveying those symbols.
No Set Pattern
Although the languages spoken on Earth may sound very different from each other, they tend to fall in certain patterns which are decoded by linguists. For example, take word order. In those languages where verbs come before objects, prepositions such as “on” precede nouns. This is why in English we say “ate the apple”, or “in the bush”. In other languages such as Japanese, these patterns are reversed. Nevertheless, most languages of the Earthfall in one of these patterns. This makes the variation among these languages easy to predict and decipher.
Alien languages, on the other hand, might not follow a set pattern or style. They are unlikely to follow the same linguistic rules as human languages and might not share any similarity to Earth languages. This will pose a big challenge for the linguists who would have a hard time recognizing the meaning of this alien language as they cannot even assume that it will have nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs. As the language would not be a product of culture and historical evolution, it would be quite difficult to classify them according to some decipherable pattern.
The alien language is likely to be unique, distinct, and different from all the languages of the Earth. But are there languages of the Earth that can be termed “alien”?
The “Alien” Languages of the Earth
In the quest to search for alien languages in the skies, one might miss the languages already existing on Earth which are “alien” to other languages. These languages might be strange ones, with no root connections to other languages, making it difficult for linguists to decode and decipher.
One of the languages which are cited as the strangest language on planet Earth is Chalcatongo Mixtec. This is an indigenous language of Mexico and contains with which the speaker can indicate a question. For example, “the mice are running” and “are the mice running?” are similar in this language. It is entirely up to the audience to decide whether it is a phrase or a question, based on context and intuition.
Malay Dialect in Roau
If you think bot being able to recognize a question is strange, you have obviously missed a language where you cannot decipher between subject and object, and even singular or plural. The Malay dialect spoken in Riau province of Indonesia is one such language. In this language, Ayam Makan (meaning “chicken eat”) can mean anything from “the chicken is eating” to “we ate some chicken”, “the chicken is eating” and “when we were eating chicken”.
The reason for this simplistic grammar of this Malay dialect lies in the fact that it was used as a lingua franca between different regions. It was also spoken by individuals with limited understanding. Maybe the alien languages which aliens bring into the world might be simple as this language.
Another language that deserves a mention in the alien languages is Klingon, the language of the alien race in Star Trek. Although this language was devised by an actor and a producer, it went on to become the most complete constructed language on Earth. Klingon is unlike any other language in existence today and is designed for fictional purposes only.
Understanding the Alien Language
If the aliens happen to come to Earth, the challenge they will pose will be communication. It is obvious that we will want to communicate with them, but is highly unlikely that they will make it easy for us by saying “we want to talk to your leader”. For developing an understanding of extraterrestrial languages, a branch of linguistics known as Xenolinguistics (or astrolinguistics) has evolved.
A language known as Lincos is one of the most proactive efforts to communicate with aliens. Created by a mathematician Dr. Hans Freudenthal in 1960, the language is as unique as the purpose it serves. It was designed to be understood by any intelligent life, irrespective of their concept of syntax or language. Lincos has a starting point of assuming that any being that is capable of transmitting and receiving radio transmissions must have an understanding of logic. This is the reason why it is based on the transmission of information through pulses, which are explained through numbers, mathematical concepts like addition and subtraction. The only issue with Lincos is that it requires a “dictionary” to be sent at the start of the transmission, so as to make it easy to decipher and understand.
The complexity of Alien Languages
It is possible that the languages of the aliens have evolutionary roots like the languages on Earth. They might have a system of organization and structure different from that of human languages. Moreover, these extraterrestrial beings may have a communication system starkly different from that of humans. Humans communicate through sight, touch, and sound. It is possible that aliens may have a transmission of a message through “taste”. Who knows?
Nevertheless, a system that can be established to communicate with aliens is through the use of technology. Human linguists have loads of linguistic tools at their disposal, such as deciphering the roots of a language and its context. In the absence of any context, technology might bridge the gap by recognizing an underlying pattern of alien languages. In addition, just like the human languages, the alien languages may have symbols or characters, which can be decoded for a pattern.
Translation technology such as machine translation might just be the solution to deciphering an alien language. In the absence of any common language, a machine translation device can be used. An example is the babel fish in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy. When placed in the ear, the machine device allows a person to understand any language he hears. This could be used to communicate in languages that are unfamiliar and unlike any living language of the Earth.
Who can Make Communication with Aliens Possible?
The concept of communicating with the aliens is not a new one. Several films have touched upon this subject, such as Star Trek where a whole new language has been created to communicate with the aliens. Although some languages on Earth are also distinct to the point of being “alien”, they still have an underlying pattern that is decoded by linguists. On the other hand, the languages of extraterrestrial beings may not have an underlying pattern or style.
Considering the complexity of the situation, the question is—who will make communication with aliens possible?
The answer is expert and professional linguists belonging to professional translation agencies. Although these linguists might not be native to these alien languages, they may possess an understanding of the common ways that can be used to decode these alien languages. With the help of machine translation, they can succeed in making a glossary of alien terms, making it easy for them to communicate with extraterrestrial life. Moreover, they might stumble upon a pattern of the symbols and characters in the alien languages, aiding in the storage of language depositories that can be used in the future as well.
The Last Word
So far, aliens have not communicated with the humans of the Earth. In the case they do so, communication will be the biggest barrier. This is the reason why an expert translation partner can go a long way in making sure this communication is established easily and efficiently. Nevertheless, the alien languages will still pose a serious challenge for these linguists who come from native linguistic backgrounds. The real communication challenges between humans and aliens, however, remain to be seen.