Could Space Aliens Speak Our Languages?

Read you loud and clear (Express Newspapers via AP Images)

If it’s good enough for Noam Chomsky, it’s good enough for me:

It could be a Star Trek or Star Wars universe after all. One where a diverse set of intelligent extraterrestrial species from across the galaxies all easily communicate despite some pretty dramatic biological differences. Some of the world’s leading linguists argue that human languages are connected by a shared “universal grammar.” And now some, including perhaps the most well-known linguist, say they’re optimistic that connection could extend to extraterrestrial languages too.

“To put it whimsically, the Martian language might not be so different from human language after all,” explained Noam Chomsky and Jeffrey Watumull in a presentation at the International Space Development Conference (ISDC) in Los Angeles on Saturday.

Chomsky is a noted author on both linguistics and global politics and is often referred to as the “father of modern linguistics” who pioneered the notion of a universal grammar. “Chomsky has often said that if a Martian visited Earth, it would think we all speak dialects of the same language, because all terrestrial languages share a common underlying structure,” said Douglas Vakoch, president of METI (short for Messaging Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), which organized a daylong Language in the Cosmos workshop at ISDC. “But if aliens have language, would it be similar to ours? That’s the big question.”


If you’re on the Right, forget your knee-jerk reaction to Chomsky the “progressive”; the man is the father of modern linguistics and still one of the leading figures in the field. So it’s worth paying attention to his theories of language, and whether there are some — literally — universal structures that all forms of communication must and so share. A galactic grammar, as it were.

The notion here is that there are aspects of the universe that are, well, universal. While hypothetical aliens may have evolved very differently from us on very different worlds, all species — and by extension all languages — must spring forth from essentially the same elemental soup.

For an excellent fictional treatment of this notion, please see 2016’s movie ArrivalBut unless the aliens pay us a visit, as they do in the film, we may have a long wait:

Unfortunately, the latest research suggests Proxima Centauri sends sterilizing flares in the direction of its lone Earth-like planet. METI has already targeted a message to another nearby world, but a response wouldn’t arrive until 2042 at the earliest.

“The greatest shift of mindset that we need to succeed in a two-way conversation with ET is to think in multigenerational terms,” Vakoch said. “The scientists who start an experiment in active SETI today will probably not be around when any responses get back to Earth.”



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