Exolinguistics (also called xenolinguistics and astrolinguistics) is the hypothetical study of the language of alien species. The nature and form of such languages remains purely speculative because so far no search for extraterrestrial intelligence projects have detected signs of intelligent life beyond Earth. The possibility of future contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life has made the question of the structure and form of potential alien language a topic of scientific and philosophical discussion.
In addition to creating academic debate, the potential nature of an alien language has also been tackled by science-fiction writers. Some have created fictional languages for their characters to use; others have circumvented the problem by proposing translation devices like the universal translator, or by creating universal languages that all involved species can speak.
The question of what form an alien language might take, and whether humans would recognize it as a language if they encountered it, has been approached from several perspectives. Consideration of such questions form part of the linguistics and language studies programs at some universities.
Life on Earth employs a variety of non-verbal methods of communication, and these might provide clues to hypothetical alien language. Amongst humans alone, these include many visual signals such as sign language, body language, facial expression and writing (including pictures), and it is possible that some extraterrestrial species may have no spoken language. Amongst other creatures, there are some which use other forms of communication, such as cuttlefish and chameleons, which can alter their body color in complex ways as a method of communication, and ants and honey bees, which use pheromones to communicate complex messages to other members of their hives.
Dutch mathematician Hans Freudenthal in a 1960 book described Lincos, a constructed language which includes a dictionary that uses basic mathematics as "common ground" to develop a working vocabulary. Dutch mathematical astronomer and computer scientist Alexander Ollongren defined in 2013 in a book new Lincos as an astrolinguistic system based on constructive logic.
Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that "if a lion could speak, we would not be able to understand him". This is on the grounds that language only acquires meaning through a community of speakers using it as part of their 'form of life' (way of life). Hence beings with a radically different way of life would not be able to make sense of the others' utterances. Later philosophers have similarly argued that the world might be described using radically different and mutually incomprehensible 'conceptual schemes'. In particular, Willard Van Orman Quine considered radical interpretation, that is, how we would go about understanding an unknown language in practice; from this he derived his thesis of the indeterminacy of translation, according to which translation gets less and less determinate the more abstract the concepts being translated are.
The first alien language in a work of science fiction may have been Percy Greg's Martian language in his 1880 novel Across the Zodiac. As the science fiction genre developed, so did the use of alien languages. Sometimes these are explicitly detailed, as in Greg's work, at other times they are implicit.
Some 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. For example, the protagonist of C. S. Lewis's novel Out of the Silent Planet is able to use his training in historical linguistics to decipher the language spoken on Mars. Others work on the premise that languages with similarities can be partially understood by different species.
Stanislaw Lem's novel His Master's Voice describes an effort by scientists to decode, translate and understand an extraterrestrial transmission. The novel critically approaches humanity's intelligence and intentions in deciphering and truly comprehending a message from outer space.
In some cases, authors avoid linguistic questions by introducing devices into their stories that seamlessly translate between languages, to the point that the concept of different languages can largely be excluded from a franchise. Notable examples include Douglas Adams's babel fish, the TARDIS from Doctor Who, the translator microbes in Farscape, and the universal translator from Star Trek. In other cases, the question of language is dealt with through the introduction of a universal language via which most, if not all, of the franchise's species are able to communicate. In the Star Wars universe, for example, this language is known as Basic and is spoken by the majority of the characters, with a few notable exceptions.
Some fictionalized alien species take advantage of their unique physiology for communication purposes, an example being the Ithorians of the Star Wars universe, who use their twin mouths, located on either side of their neck, to speak in stereo.
In some franchises this universal language is an intermediary language; one that different species can easily translate to and from their own languages, thus allowing simple communication between races. Examples of this approach include Interlac from the Legion of Super-Heroes, and later Babylon 5.
In the Uplift Universe, the numerous sapient species use at least twelve "Galactic" languages; each version is used in communication between species that can articulate it, and that find it useful in expressing their concepts.
Not all of these universal/intermediate languages take the form of spoken/written languages as is recognized in the human world. In the film and book Close Encounters of the Third Kind scientists use Solresol, a language based on musical tones, while in the film and book Contact, aliens send the instructions to build a machine to reach them using mathematics, which the main character calls "the only universal language". Similarly, in Stargate SG-1, the protagonists encounter a galactic meeting place where different races communicate with one another using a language based on atomic structures which is "written" in three dimensions rather than two.
A number of long-running franchises have taken the concept of an alien language beyond that of a scripting device and have developed languages of their own. Examples include the Klingon language of the Star Trek universe (a fully developed constructed language created by Marc Okrand), the Zentradi language from the Macross Japanese science-fiction anime series and the DC Comics Kryptonese (for which there exists an alphabet and language glossary). For his 2009 science-fiction epic film Avatar, creator and director James Cameron constructed the fictional Na'vi language (with the aid of college professor Paul Frommer) for his fictional alien Na'vi race in the film.
The existence of alien languages and the ease or difficulty of translation is used as a plot device or script element in a number of franchises, sometimes seriously, and sometimes for comedic value. In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country the crew is forced to speak (broken) Klingon without the Universal Translator. In the film Mars Attacks!, the language spoken by the Martians appears to consist only of the words "ack!" and "rack!" spoken at different pitches and volume. The film's universal translator consistently translates these as being offers of friendship despite the fact that the aliens' actions are anything but friendly. In one episode of Babylon 5 a human tries giving orders to a Mimbari crew in their language, speaking gibberish until she blurts out "Ah Hell!" in frustration, thus inadvertently giving the command "Fire all weapons" in Mimbari. Also in Dragon Ball Z, Bulma speaks in her usual language (Japanese) and thereby involuntarily activates some functions of an alien starship, as her words are identified by the ship's computer as Namekkian orders.
C. J. Cherryh's Chanur series of books relies heavily on linguistic and psychological problems of communication between various alien races. Some examples include usage of obscure languages and cultural references to conceal information from others, imperfections of computer translation, use of pidgin and linguistic barriers, psychological concepts which do not have matches in other races' languages, and a race so alien that it cannot be understood at all without a translation by another race which itself can barely be understood due to manifold meanings in each message. In the Foreigner universe, Cherryh explores the interface between humans and atevi, whose language relies on numerical values, causing the main character, Bren Cameron, to constantly calculate as he speaks the atevi language, Ragi. Conversely, in the Simpsons the fact that English is mutually understood by the show's human and alien characters is noted as being "an astonishing coincidence".
Other works present detailed, concrete examples of the difficulty of learning alien languages due to linguistic relativity. In Mary Doria Russell's philosophical/sci-fi novel The Sparrow, a linguist who travels to an alien planet as part of a Jesuit mission discovers a language with unique and (at first) incomprehensible tenses and conjugations. In Carl Sagan's novel Contact (and the subsequent film adaptation), a broadcast from an extraterrestrial source is discovered to contain multiple layers of encrypted messages. Ted Chiang's short story Story of Your Life describes attempts to communicate with a technologically-advanced alien species that has no apparent understanding of basic mathematics and physics.
Still other science-fiction stories imagine communication through telepathy. There is for example the Vulcan mind meld in Star Trek. In the science-fiction novel Ender's Game, the "Buggers" are an alien species in which their queen can telepathically communicate with every member of her species, but no humans except Ender. The inability of the two species to effectively communicate serves as a critical element of the novel's plot.
Sheila Finch published a collection of short stories about first contact and alien communication, The Guild of Xenolinguists, (Golden Gryphon Press), in 2007.
In 2008, the game Dead Space introduced a form of alien language known as Unitology, for the religion that mainly uses it. Unitology is only shown to be written with no example or indication of a verbal dialect.
In Futurama, a language exists called Alienese, which originates from an unspecified extraterrestrial source. At least one character has achieved an academic degree in xenolinguistics, which gives her the apparently rare skill of knowing how to translate between English and Alienese.
- Asemic writing
- aUI (artificial language)
- Hélène Smith
- Klingon language (Star Trek universe)
- Lincos (artificial language)
- Martian language (Chinese)
- Na'vi language (Avatar universe)
- Search for extraterrestrial intelligence
- The first use of the term "xenolinguistics" in science fiction occurred in 1986, in the novel "Triad" by Sheila Finch.
- Daniels, Peter T. "Aliens And Linguists (Book Review)." Library Journal 105.13 (1980): 1516. Academic Search Premier. Web. 7 June 2012.
- Schirber, Michael. "Use Grammar To Decipher Alien Tongues." New Scientist 199.2678 (2008): 12. Academic Search Premier. Web. 7 June 2012.
- Course notes by assistant professor Sheri Wells-Jensen, Bowling Green State University
- Nova, Quick Change Artists
- "Ludwig Wittgenstein Quotes". Brainy Quotes. Retrieved 11 September 2012.
- Ekman, F: "The Martial Language of Percy Greg", Invented Languages Summer 2008, p. 11. Richard K. Harrison, 2008
- McConnell, B.S., 2001. Beyond Contact: A Guide to SETI and Communicating with Alien Civilizations ISBN 0-596-00037-5
- Meyers, Walter E., 1980. Aliens and Linguistics: Language Study and Science Fiction ISBN 0-8203-0487-5
- Interstellar Message Composition (SETI)
- A Primer In SF XENOLINGUISTICS, by Justin B. Rye
- "Omnilingual", by H. Beam Piper by Tenser, said the Tensor
- ENG 480/580; Extraterrestrial Language
- Communicating with Aliens: the Psychological Dimension of Dialogue
- Conlangs seeking to emulate what an alien language might look like:
- Fith: An Alien Conlang With A LIFO Grammar and Ilish – by Jeffrey Henning (dead link; copy of Fith and Ilish pages at the Internet Archive)
- Machi and Bogomol languages - by Terrence Donnelly (archived copy of an alternative web address at the Internet Archive)
- Rikchik by Denis Moskowitz
- A Booklet on Daharran Grammar from the Orion's Arm Universe Project