Exolinguistics (also called xenolinguistics[1] and astrolinguistics[2][3]) is the study of the hypothetical 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.


Main article: Communication with extraterrestrial intelligence

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.[4]

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,[5] 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".[6] 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.

Science fiction

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.[7]

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.

Others work on the premise that languages with similarities can be partially understood by different species.

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:

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. Other alien species take advantage of their unique physiology for communication purposes, an example being the Ithorians, 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, Babylon 5, and the Uplift Universe, where 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.

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.

Other works present detailed, concrete examples of the difficulty of learning alien languages due to linguistic relativity.

Still other science-fiction stories imagine communication through telepathy.

See also


  1. ^ The first use of the term "xenolinguistics" in science fiction occurred in 1986, in the novel "Triad" by Sheila Finch.[citation needed]
  2. ^ Daniels, Peter T. "Aliens And Linguists (Book Review)." Library Journal 105.13 (1980): 1516. Academic Search Premier. Web. 7 June 2012.
  3. ^ Schirber, Michael. "Use Grammar To Decipher Alien Tongues." New Scientist 199.2678 (2008): 12. Academic Search Premier. Web. 7 June 2012.
  4. ^ Course notes by assistant professor Sheri Wells-Jensen, Bowling Green State University
  5. ^ Nova, Quick Change Artists
  6. ^ "Ludwig Wittgenstein Quotes". Brainy Quotes. Retrieved 11 September 2012.
  7. ^ Ekman, F: "The Martial Language of Percy Greg", Invented Languages Summer 2008, p. 11. Richard K. Harrison, 2008
  8. ^ http://kiitralanguage.wordpress.com
  9. ^ http://www.sccs.swarthmore.edu/users/99/jons/snd/tvsnd.html

Further reading