Climbing the Tower of Babel


“…if a lion could speak, we would not be able to understand him.”
--Ludwig Wittgenstein


What if we finally met an alien from another world? How would that alien communicate with us? Would we even have anything in common? Any spoken language on Earth is based on a number of factors. To produce a sound, we rely on a number of anatomical features including our lungs, larynx or voice box, and the upper vocal tract, including the nose, mouth, lips, tongue and teeth. Different sounds can be created by the manipulation of different parts of the system. An alien on another world probably would not have those same anatomical features, so how can we possibly expect to communicate with them? A first and fascinating attempt at the creation of an alien language can be found in a novel by Percy Greg, who wrote, in 1880, Across the Zodiac.

In order to communicate with aliens, science fiction has come up with an answer, and it is a device that has been perpetuated in many science fiction movies. In the movies, communication between humans and aliens often takes place through a convenient instrument called “the universal translator.” In spite of its prevalence in current Hollywood movies, it had its origins in science fiction literature.
The universal translator was first described in a 1945 novella, First Contact, by Murray Leinster. Other authors have come up with their own version of universal translators. Douglas Adams in his A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy uses Babel fish, whose complex physiological makeup allows them to be manipulated as universal translators. In David Brin’s Uplift series, intelligent species use at least twelve “galactic” languages, with each version used in communication between species that can articulate it and find it useful in expressing their concepts.

Some early science fiction works operate on the premise that alien languages can be easily learned if one has a competent understanding of the nature of languages in general. In C. S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet, a linguist is easily able learn the language of Mars due to his professional background. In H. Beam Piper’s short story "Omnilingual," a Rosetta Stone found on Mars enables an archaeologist to decipher the Martian language. The real Rosetta Stone was created in approximately 196 BC and it contains Greek script on the bottom of the stone, Demotic script (an ancient Egyptian form of writing) in the middle and Egyptian hieroglyphics at the top. It has allowed scientists to decipher ancient Egyptian writing.

Several science fiction authors have not been quite so simplistic. They envision a verbal language; however, nothing as simple as accented English, as is often found in many science fiction shows and movies. Dave Mason wrote a short story entitled "Not So Certain," which is literally jaw-breaking for all who attempt to speak it. Samuel Delany, in his Babel-17, creates an artificial language that is literally a weapon of war. Naomi Mitchison’s Memoirs of a Spacewoman is a classic in terms of not only the variety of aliens, but also the methods of communication.

Similar to the Rosetta Stone, which allowed scientists to read Egyptian hieroglyphics, many software companies are looking at developing such universal translators as we have in science fiction. In fact, several very simple versions have already been developed. You can find them anywhere on the Internet by just searching for a translator from one language to another. If you were to enter a word or phrase into the translator in one of the online computer programs, you can come up with the equivalent in another language.
However, you will never find, at least with today’s technology, that you will be able to get a good translation. There is so much more to language than merely translating words, even amongst Earth’s various cultures.

Language itself only acquires meaning through a community of speakers who use it as a part of their culture. Contrary to what might be expected with a spoken language, instead of hearing being the predominant sense that is used, humans use all of their senses to communicate with each other, and it is actually vision that is most prominent. Certainly there is more to communication in humans than just verbal interaction

We laugh or smile when we are happy. We cry when we are sad. We raise our voices when we are angry and in some cases, lash out violently. When we are scared, we either run away or confront the fear head on. The reactions are physiological; however, they are in response to an external stimulus, our environment. They are called emotions. We know what they are, but really have no clue why they exist. There are many theories on why emotions arose. More than likely they exist as they aided in the survival of species and perform some form of adaptive function. Charles Darwin, in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, presented a case that emotion serves in both human and animal communication as well as assisting in their survival.

Regardless of where emotions arose or even why, they are now a part of our repertoire of communications. Even if you cannot understand somebody, a smile will go a long way to easing any tension.

Many animals also display emotions. They display emotion in different ways. For example, dogs show their emotions through their body language. Sadness may be displayed as downturned ears, happiness as a wagging tail, fear as fight or flight, and anger as a baring of the teeth.

Other animals such as the very intelligent octopus appear to show no emotions, at least from a human perspective. For example, they do not show fear of things that would send any mammal into a flight-or-fright reaction mode. They do not appear to become agitated in a number of circumstances; in other words, they could be described as laid-back. Are octopi feeling anything? So far, we just don’t know.

Even though emotional responses can be considered as an almost instinctive reaction, the emotional response also has a social context. For example, men in many cultures such as Western society and Asian countries are less likely to cry in sadness. In Middle Eastern cultures, however, there is an expectation to grieve openly, even among men. In many African cultures, laughing is a sign of embarrassment. In our culture, it is a sign of happiness.

Aliens may have a very different emotional response to their environments. Will their emotions be different from the ones that we know? Are there universal emotions out there that we may have in common with other beings across the universe? Research has shown that there may be a number of external stimuli that cause an emotional reaction, but the response, whether it be laughing, lashing out or crying, is preprogrammed by evolution.

This is well-documented in a science fiction novel by Hal Clement, Mission of Gravity. The creatures of the novel live in an environment where the gravity is over 700 g. The animals of the planet are fearful of any heights, which is understandable, as a fall in that environment, even a short distance, would be fatal. If we had a barren, dry world, such as we have in Frank Herbert’s Dune, the reaction to water wastage is violent, unlike here on Earth, where water is relatively abundant.

Without knowing the evolutionary context in which the emotional response originated or the cultural norm for that society, it is almost impossible for us to even contemplate that we would begin to understand any form of alien emotional response, much in the same way that we cannot expect an alien to understand ours. For example, a smile to an alien may be perceived as a threat, much as a smile with teeth bared is looked at by some Earth animals including primates as aggression.

In addition to emotions, there are other forms of nonverbal cues that are essential to our communication. The study of nonverbal forms of communication is called kinesics. It is comprised of a number of factors. For example, posture can convey the degree of attentiveness or the level of fondness one may have for another. Your clothing defines your culture, age, authority, confidence, and financial status, among other things. Gestures made up of movements of various parts of the body convey a lot of information. A hand wave can convey goodbye or hello in Western cultures. A shoulder shrug appears to be universal amongst humans, meaning “I don’t know.” In Western culture, eye contact is considered polite, whereas in some cultures, it is avoided, as it suggests sexual interest. Who knows what the nonverbal clues of an alien would be? In fact, their anatomy probably would not allow the nuances that we take for granted. A shoulder shrug would be impossible in an alien that does not have such a feature.

In 1963, Edward Hall, an American anthropologist, came up with the concept of proxemics, another nonverbal cue in human communication. It is the study of the measurable distances between people as they interact. The distance between people in a social situation often discloses information about the type of relationship between the people involved. Proximity may also reveal the type of social setting taking place. Proximity range has been found to vary with culture. For example, in northern Europe, there is a larger distance between communicating adults as opposed to their southern Mediterranean neighbours.

There may be even further barriers to understanding an alien or having them understand us. Even if aliens also speak words as we do, there are still potential obstacles to merely translating words. For example, they may verbally communicate at frequencies beyond that of human hearing or vice versa. Elephants, for example, communicate over long distances using low frequency infrasound, which is below what can be heard by humans. Our ears hear sounds that range from twenty to twenty thousand hertz, whereas the elephants communicate between fourteen and twenty-four hertz at a volume of around 85 to 90 decibels. Normal human conversation is carried on at around 65 decibels. 

Even if we did communicate at the same frequencies as our alien partners with spoken words, could we still understand them even with a universal translator? Would that translator be able to pick up the context of the speaker to translate it? For example, what about our perception of time versus that of an alien race? Length of time is often conveyed in relation to our average lifespans. If we speak about a week, it is not considered a long time to a human. However, if we were to speak about a species such as a housefly, a week is an eternity. Words regarding scales of time would not be easily interchangeable.

Even here on Earth we may have organisms where scales of time are dramatically different from ours, the time complicating any efforts at communication. Plants are living things that communicate with one another. Knowing the way that they communicate with one another may be another clue that we can use with our future encounter with aliens.

Plants have no brains or any form of neuronal network, but they do have biochemical ways of learning and memory. Contrary to what may seem obvious at first, plants are far from being passive bystanders at the mercy of their environment. They respond to environmental phenomena by movements and changes in their morphology. They signal, chemically, other plants as they compete for resources, whether it is the light above or the nutrients below ground. Plants under attack will send out chemical signals to other plants, allowing them to mount their own defense. Interestingly enough, we are probably familiar with that chemical, the smell of cut grass. In addition, if infested by certain insects, some plants will recruit, again chemically, insect predators to defeat them.

In fact, plant physiologists have made the claim that plants have as complex behaviors as we do, but their time scales are far slower than ours. Charles Darwin, in his book The Power of Movement in Plants, states that the tip of the radicle (the first part of a plant that emerges from a seed shell) acts like a brain of one of the lower animals; the brain being situated within the anterior end of the body, receiving impressions from the sense organs, and directing several movements. Recent experiments have demonstrated that there may be some form of self-awareness in plants, which essentially is very rare amongst animals. Plants that have been “tricked” to believe that they have not been pollinated, this in spite of the fact that they have been, actually produce more chemicals, in a sense crying out for pollinators. Is this an example of self-awareness and therefore intelligence? Some scientists say that it is. Others say that it is a farfetched thought.

Chemical communication in aliens has been used as a story element in Rebecca Ore’s tale entitled Becoming Alien. The story is about a human boy who is kidnapped by aliens and taken to their home planet, where he is tutored in the culture of the aliens. In this story the aliens do not pass on memories or knowledge to each other through any expected mode of communication, such as through observation, mimicry or any other conventional means. Knowledge is stored in chemicals and passed on through the chemicals.

Even the debate about intelligent plants being a great unknown has not stopped science fiction writers from speculating about them. Perhaps the most famous intelligent plants in science fiction are the triffids of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, about stinging plants that, once harvested for their oils, begin to compete for dominance with humans after a disaster that renders much of the population blind.

Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote of plant men in his Mars novels. J. R. R. Tolkien, in Lord of the Rings, wrote about an ancient race of Ents, which for all intents and purposes are trees.

Another issue that would further complicate communications with aliens is their spirituality if they are spiritual at all. Here on Earth, all of our religions, which are collections of beliefs created to explain the meaning of life, speak of an afterlife or transitional life. Belief is based on faith. What if we encounter an alien race in which it is based on fact? In George Martin’s story A Song for Lya, aliens are depicted with a belief in the afterlife that is based on fact, not merely conjecture.

Religions also tend to provide us with a moral code of conduct, with murder being a grave transgression in all modern religions. However, we do not have to go far back in history to find religions in which human sacrifice was the norm. There were the Aztecs, Maya, ancient Egyptians (where servants were interred alive with their pharaoh), the Romans (through their gladiatorial sports), the Celts, and Polynesians, just to name a few that practiced human sacrifice as a part of their religious beliefs. What is the moral code of the alien that we are communicating with, and how will it change their personal realities which, in turn, could affect communication?

The environment of an alien will also affect their reality and therefore our ability to communicate clearly. For intelligent aliens on a cloud-covered world such as Venus or Titan, even the concept of a larger universe may not be a reality to them, making conversations of a larger universe impossible.

Gender to an alien could be confusing as well and there may be no clear translations. We have here on Earth predominately male and female genders. To further confound matters, we even find here on Earth that some animal species including some aquarium fish will often change sex depending on their environment. Others, such as aphids, though there are males, are mostly females and can reproduce in the absence of males. However, aliens, like some animals on Earth, may be hermaphroditic, displaying both sexes. There may be more than two sexes, as in Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves, where aliens have three genders. Then there are some truly alien creatures with no apparent gender, such as the ones found in Stephen Baxter’s Proxima. In this novel, the aliens are created out of interchangeable “stems,” almost like Lego aliens.

Context is further complicated by archetypes. First described by Carl Jung, a student of Sigmund Freud, archetypes are patterns and images that are derived by the collective unconscious. Jung’s theory suggested that the human psyche is made up of three components: the ego or conscious mind, the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious.

The personal conscious is what contains our personal memories including those that we may suppress. The collective unconscious is the part of the mind that is a form of psychological inheritance, containing all of the knowledge and experiences we share as a species.
Where do these archetypes come from then? He suggested that these models are innate, universal and hereditary. Archetypes are unlearned and function to organize how we experience certain things.

If Jung’s theory of the human mind is a correct one, how can we expect an alien from another world to even begin to understand the archetypes that exist in the minds of every human on Earth? How can we expect to understand the collective memories of aliens from another world?

Human communication is also dependent on our anatomical makeup and environment. What if we had a totally different anatomy and environment to contend with, as we may have with some aliens? Aliens in a dark environment may flash light signals to one another, perhaps even at differing frequencies, to communicate. Here on Earth, on many a summer evening in warmer climates, fireflies can be found to communicate with light pulses through the interaction of chemicals in their bodies. Some species of octopi, squid and cuttlefish visually communicate with one another through specialized skin cells called chromatophores that can change colour, opacity and reflectiveness of the skin. An extra bonus of such dynamic skin for these mollusks is camouflage. Several species of deep-water fish flash signals using light pulses that are created by a symbiotic relationship with bioluminescent bacteria. Science fiction has created interesting aliens that also communicate visually. In Michael Bishop’s expanded version of his short story "Death and Designation Among the Asadi," Transfigurations, we find that Asadi communicate visually with their eyes, which rapidly cycle through the visible spectrum, an interesting example of colour language. In Terry Carr’s "The Dance of the Changer and the Three," there is communication not only through a colour dance but also via an ego mutation. Conversely, aliens that thrive in a thick soup-like environment would find visual communication impossible, instead possibly using radio or microwave frequencies.

Here on Earth many animals communicate with one another through smell. Ever take your dog for a walk? Most of the time the animal’s nose is on the ground picking up scents that you and I can only imagine. However, to a dog whose sense of smell is far greater than that of a human being, it is a whole new world of information. Our cats, too, will often rub, much to the chagrin of their owners, on walls and other vertical fixtures; they are depositing a scent secreted by glands that only other cats can appreciate. In Charles Sheffield’s Colossus, a major character is a cephalopod-like creature that speaks through pheromones. Aliens in Piers Anthony’s Cluster speak not only with scents but also with electromagnetic pulses.

Weakly electrical fish such as electric catfish and electric eels communicate with one another with electrical stimuli. One fish generates an electrical field and the receiving fish will interpret the signals. It is speculated that even some mammals such as the primitive platypus and echidna, both egg-laying mammals, also communicate electrically since they are capable of electrical reception.
Seismic communication is a method of communication through the use of vibrations through a substrate. The substrate may take the form of the ground, a plant leaf or a spider web, to name a few. Many species communicate and receive information in this manner.
Bees communicate through a “dance language.” Scientists have even created computerized bees that were accepted by living bees. The mechanical bees could communicate with their biological counterparts through dance.

With such highly varied ways of communicating and all of the nonverbal nuances of language, simply creating a universal translator is really not an option in a lot of cases.

A totally fictional but popular method of nonverbal communication in aliens is through telepathy. Telepathy is the transmission of information from one person or being to another outside of the normal methods of known sensory channels. It was first coined by a scholar in 1882 named Frederic Myers, a founder of the Society of Psychical Research, who looked at it as thought transference. There is no reliable evidence that it occurs in humans; however, that has not been a problem for science fiction authors. In fact, the famous editor John W. Campbell, who is credited with the discovery of such science fiction luminaries as Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, actually encouraged writers to tell tales of such powers for his Astounding Stories magazine.

Many of the earlier tales of telepaths dealt with how telepaths would interrelate with the rest of humanity. One of the first novels that used telepathic communication as a theme was A. E. van Vogt’s Slan, which told of a race of telepaths struggling against their ordinary counterparts. John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids is about a post-apocalyptic, strictly religious society that seeks to destroy any deviation from their version of the norm, including a group of telepaths. In his novel The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester wrote what is essentially a police procedural set in a society where telepaths are fully integrated into society.

Still other authors have looked at how the telepathic ability impacts the character. In Clifford Simak’s short story "Time is the Simplest Thing," the main character reaches out to beings on other worlds until one day he has communed with a strange alien light years from Earth. Lester del Rey’s Pstalemate and Jack Dann’s The Man Who Melted tell of telepaths that become insane because of their ability. Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside has an interesting tale of a telepath who exploits his ability by reading minds of others for profit. As time moves on, his skill becomes weaker and weaker, and now he must cope with the gradual loss of his gift.

Some authors use telepathy as a plot device to have characters communicate with one another. Telempath by Spider Robinson tells of communication between plasma entities in Earth’s atmosphere. In her series The Dragons of Pern, Anne McCaffrey features dragon riders who converse speechlessly. In Robert Silverberg’s Starborne, a starship’s only communication with the Earth is via a telepathic link.

Other authors endow their aliens with telepathic powers. The Cat series by Joan D. Vinge is about half human, half aliens with telepathic abilities. Joe Haldeman’s Mindbridge is about an alien race with telepathic powers that offers the human race the incredible gift of being able to read minds. In Orson Scott Card’s Ender series, the alien Bugger’s queen communicates with her race telepathically. Joanna Russ wrote a novel, And Chaos Died, about a man shipwrecked on an alien world where he learns the ability to communicate telepathically.

Telepathy, as far as we know, is fictional only, but the concept of somebody or something reading your mind is unnerving for its invasiveness of your privacy. Perhaps we can see telepathy as a metaphor for our modern society. Increasingly with our present technology, privacy is becoming more and more elusive.

What about a universal language? There are some theorists who insist that we can communicate with our alien counterparts through a universal language such as mathematics. However, we may be somewhat premature in making this leap of faith. In 1931, Kurt Gödel, an American mathematician friend of Einstein, came up with the incompleteness theorem, which essentially demonstrated with proof that there exist statements that are unprovable in any logic system including arithmetic. According to the theorem, arithmetic, which we often feel is totally rational, is not only incomplete but also inconsistent. Hence the apparent universality of mathematics may not even be an option. Science fiction author Greg Bear in Anvil of Stars describes aliens called Brothers whose mathematical system does not use whole numbers at all; they are referred to as smears. They regard irrational numbers as the perfect smears.

All animals, including humans, can and do learn. Rats learn to master a maze. Even animals as primitive as planarians (flatworms), and even protozoans can learn how to avoid certain unpleasant stimuli.

We pass on our knowledge and memories to our offspring through both written, verbal and nonverbal means; in other words, language. Other animals also pass on information to their young through nonverbal demonstrations which may be a form of language.
For example, snow monkeys in Japan now all wash their food in the sea prior to eating it. This practice dates back to one individual in the 1950s that began washing the sand off sweet potatoes that researchers provided. How did the snow monkeys pass on their knowledge? Through mimicking and demonstration to the young, the knowledge was being passed on.

What about the mother leopard teaching her cubs to hunt? How is this information passed on? Mimicking and demonstration.
What about creatures that do not teach their young? How is information conveyed? Is it built into their genetic makeup? More research is needed here since we have, for example, salmon which hatch from their eggs and make their way out to sea only to return four years later to the very stream in which they were first spawned. How was this information transmitted to the eggs by a dying parent? How do sea turtles who lay their eggs on a beach impart their knowledge to their unhatched young? Many sea turtles lay their eggs on the very same beach where they were hatched.

There may be more bizarre ways of passing on knowledge however. In the 1960s, scientists taught planarians to avoid electric shock. Instead of verbal or any other conventional communication, the newly found knowledge of the educated planarians was passed on to other planarians through cannibalism. The educated planarians were eaten by other, consuming, planarians. In turn, the consuming planarians, without any apparent training, avoided the electrical shock. Similarly, Michael Stanwick’s Midwinter’s Tale is about alien carnivores that learn by eating the brains of their victims. No memory is ever lost. When an animal dies, its brain is eaten by another of their group, thus preserving the knowledge. The twist in the story is when one of the carnivores eats a human brain.

Another question we have to ask ourselves when it comes to communicating with aliens is will we recognize an intelligent alien with which to communicate? Intelligence may be elusive. We may not even recognize it. Whales, octopi, some primates and perhaps, according to some, plants, are actually intelligent. An interesting example of this inability to recognize intelligence in an alien race is found in Brian Aldiss’ The Dark Light Years. Here he depicts aliens called Utods that humans refuse to believe as being intelligent because they live in their own excrement, a true ethnocentric bias.

Then again, we may also find ourselves dealing with an intelligence that is so far advanced beyond ours that we fail to comprehend what it is that they are trying to convey. In Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey series and in Carl Sagan’s Contact, the aliens are so far beyond our realm of comprehension that we fail to truly appreciate what it is they may be trying to convey.

So how can we, if we can’t possibly understand an alien, communicate with them? With the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) programs (there are multiple agencies involved including Harvard, the University of California, Berkeley, and the SETI Institute—there is no direct government funding, as it relies on private donors) in place, is there any point?

Of course there is, and as humans, we continue to try in spite of the odds. Many science fiction writers have tapped into the SETI programs and are actually able to comprehend the messaging. One is a short story by Stephen Baxter. "Last Contact" is about the near future where the expansion of the universe accelerates to a point beyond that which scientists have calculated. SETI scientists find a suddenly huge number of messages coming in. The message sadly is “goodbye.” Robert Sawyer also explored a message that we actually understood. In his novel Rollback, instructions for incubating two baby aliens are received.

In Gregory Benford’s A Dance to Strange Music, an expedition to Alpha Centauri finds a collective life form that is apparently sending out information-rich SETI messages to one star system after another.

Jack McDevitt, in his short story "The Hercules Text," writes about radio communication with a distant civilization. He also wrote the humorous story "Nothing Ever Happens in Rock City," about the first SETI message from the perspective of a liquor store owner near the observatory.

Some authors have explored what may happen if we discover such a message. Robert Sawyer further explored the theme of radio communication with aliens. In Factoring Humanity, radio signals from the stars force humans to reevaluate their self-image, as they also do in Carl Sagan’s Contact. Chloe Zerwick and Harrison Brown in The Cassiopeia Affair also explored the effects that a radio message might have on Earth’s population.

We still have not answered the question of whether or not we will ever understand alien intelligence. Perhaps we will forever be confounded by them. Michael Bishop’s Death and Designation Among the Asadi is about a scientist who becomes frustrated when he realizes that the alien culture of the Asadi is just too complex to comprehend. Then again, if there is one thing that much of science fiction has taught us, it is that where there is a will, there will be a way. We will ascend the Tower of Babel.


Further Reading
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