Partner Series
Alien Interpreters? How Linguists Would Talk to E.T.
Credit: Dennis van de Water | Shutterstock.com

In the upcoming sci-fi drama "Arrival," several mysterious spacecraft touch down around the planet, and humanity is faced with how to approach — and eventually communicate — with these extraterrestrial visitors. 

In the film, a team of experts is assembled to investigate, and among the chosen individuals is a linguist, played by actress Amy Adams. Though the story is rooted in science fiction, it does tackle a very real challenge: How do you communicate with someone — or how do you learn that individual's language — when you have no intermediary language in common?

The film is based on "Story of Your Life," a short story by Ted Chiang. It taps into the common science-fiction theme of alien tongues; not only the communication barrier they might present, but the unusual ways they could differ from human language. "There's a long tradition of science fiction that deals with language and communication," Chiang told Live Science in an email. [Greetings, Earthlings! 8 Ways Aliens Could Contact Us]

And in both the short story and film, linguists play a key role in bridging the gap between humans and aliens — something that isn't entirely farfetched, according to Daniel Everett, a linguist at Bentley University in Massachusetts. "Linguists who've had extensive field experience can do this. That's what they do," Everett told Live Science.

Everett spent more than 30 years working with the Pirahã people of the Brazilian Amazon, learning and studying their language, which was poorly documented prior to his work. Pirahã is what's called a language isolate, a linguistic orphan of sorts, and is the last surviving member of its language family. It is also well-known for some of its atypical qualities, such as a lack of counting numbers or relative directions, such as "left" and "right," qualities which Everett worked out over years of study.

The people were similarly isolated, and were entirely monolingual, he said. So it didn't matter that Everett didn't know Portuguese. Rather than asking questions about the Pirahã language in a shared second language, he conducted his research in a style known as monolingual fieldwork.

Pointing to a nearby object, like a stick, and asking (even in English) what it's called is typically interpreted as a cue to name it, Everett said. From the names of things, a linguist can then work their way towards actions, and how to express relationships between objects, Everett said. All the while, linguists typically transcribe the statements, paying attention to the sounds, the grammar and the way meanings are combined, building a working theory of the language, he said.

Prompting respondents for nearly identical statements helps to illuminate specific meanings, Everett said. For example, given the words for "stick" and "rock," a person could enact "drop the rock" and "drop the stick," and see what parts of the sentence change. [Gallery: Images of Uncontacted Tribes]

With practice, linguists can discern the basic features of an unknown language after an hour or two of interaction with a speaker, according to Everett. But situations that demand monolingual fieldwork, without the aid of a common tongue, aren't as common as they were, say, a hundred years ago, he said. The practice is now viewed as a novelty feat by many linguists, and Everett has demonstrated the process for audiences, meeting the speaker of a mystery language for the first time on stage.

The process is also recognizable in Chiang's original story, in which the linguist protagonist's procedure is based on the work of Kenneth Pike, Everett's former teacher, Chiang said. "I spent about five years reading about various aspects of linguistics: writing systems, the linguistics of American Sign Language, fieldwork," he added.

A more thorough understanding of the language, beyond basic vocabulary and underlying architecture, would require knowledge of the culture, Everett told Live Science. "There are all sorts of cultural interpretations of even the simplest phrases," he said, "That's why conversation is so difficult," especially for two people with different native languages and cultures.

That difficulty seems less than ideal in sensitive situations, when a minor miscommunication could result in interstellar warfare, or at least, the death of an explorer (whether human or alien). Cooperation from both parties is essential, Everett said, because mix-ups are unavoidable. [13 Ways to Hunt for Intelligent Aliens]

"You're always going to blow it," Everett said. "It's not what you do, but what you do next. How do you respond to your mistakes, to your gaffes and to misunderstandings?"

Despite the repeated failures of a trial-and-error approach, Everett said he has always been confident in his ability to eventually figure out how a language works, which hints at something deeply human.                                          

"We know that every child can learn every possible human language," said Jesse Snedeker, a Harvard psychologist who studies the development of language in children. "Every child has to have some sort of internal capacity that allows them to learn language."

Linguists agree that all humans must share some cognitive or linguistic structures, but there's great debate over which features of language are universal — or at least, innately human. Pirahã, with its unusual features, has helped shape modern understanding of what those commonalities might be.

"We have to ask ourselves, 'Would we have the capacity to learn alien language, and would they have the capacity to learn ours?'" Snedeker told Live Science. "And different people would give you very different answers to that question."

Humans can't communicate with any other species on Earth, which makes it unlikely that we'd be able to communicate with extraterrestrial life forms, Chiang said.

"On the other hand, there's the argument that any species that achieves a high level of technology would necessarily understand certain concepts, so that ought to provide a basis for at least a limited degree of communication," he added.

Keren Rice, a linguist at the University of Toronto in Canada, agreed that basic communication should be possible between humans and aliens. "The only way that I could imagine this not happening is if the things that we think are common to languages — situating in time [and] space, talking about participants, etc. — are so radically different that the human language provides no starting point for it," Rice told Live Science in an email.

Although there are evolutionary roots to the structure of human language, Snedeker said, it's possible that there's only one way for languages to work. In that case, aliens may have evolved to solve the problem of language in the same way that humans did, making interplanetary communication possible. [7 Things Most Often Mistaken for UFOs]

Everett agreed. "It's entirely possible that there are languages that have systems of organization and ways of transmitting meaning that we've never imagined," he said, "but I think that's unlikely."

But even if people are able to discern the patterns in the language, the way the message is sent could be a challenge. Humans communicate mainly through sight, sound and touch, but aliens might not. "It's hard to imagine a language working on taste, but who knows?" Everett said.

If extraterrestrials have starkly different perceptual or expressive systems than those of humans, technology could help bridge the gap between human perception and alien output, linguists said. For example, if aliens spoke at frequencies that people can't hear, humans could instead interpret digital recordings as visual waveforms.

Snedeker said she asks her students a question on exams to test their understanding of the shared structure and evolutionary basis of human language: "If we discover a new kind of creature on Mars that seems to have a symbolic system of great complexity, who should we send, and how likely are they to succeed?"

"There's no right answer to the question," Snedeker said.

Original article on Live Science.