Jun 302010

One of the most common “conceits” of modern science fiction, in particular televised sci-fi, is that aliens just happen to speak English. Shows like “Star Trek” and “Dr. Who” explain this away by claiming that the aliens actually are speaking alienese, but that the shipboard “universal translator” or the TARDIS are translating on the fly.

In reality, when and if we get out there and stumble across another intelligent species, figuring out how to communicate with them is probably going to be nightmarishly difficult. And if what we find is not a living culture, but instead the archaeological remains of a long-dead civilization, how do you even begin to try to translate fragments of an alien written language?

Not a problem that’ll be resolved easily or anytime soon. There is, however, hope that computerized translation systems just might be up to the challenge:

Computer program deciphers a dead language that mystified linguists

The lost language of Ugaritic was last spoken 3,500 years ago. It survives on just a few tablets, and linguists could only translate it with years of hard work and plenty of luck. A computer deciphered it in hours.

In this case, the computer was able to use Ugartic’s similarity to Hebrew to speed things along. Alienese is, of course, highly unlikely to be related to Hebrew or any other Human language. Still, it’s a start.

 Posted by at 10:13 pm
  • Pat Flannery

    Assuming they use a written language, then by combining it with illustrations of things that it appears with, you might be able to figure out at least what symbols go with what objects, if not how it’s pronounced. IIRC, we still aren’t sure about how exactly ancient Egyptian was pronounced, but can read the hieroglyphics of the pyramid-building period fairly well.

  • Michael Holt


    I want to see that system used on the Voynich Manuscript.

    Thanks for finding this, Scott.

  • Pat Flannery

    It wouldn’t work on the Voynich Manuscript, because they strongly suspect that the thing is a fake that was probably made to sell to some gullible customer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voynich_manuscript
    They did run the writing in it through a computer and it found there was no logical internal pattern in it that would suggest a real language or code of some sort.
    The fake hypothesis also would also account for the fact that the plants in it aren’t of any recognizable real types, as they are simply invented also.
    I imagine it was being pawned off as some sort of book from a far-off and at the time unexplored land, like China, El Dorado, or the Kingdom Of Prestor John.

  • JP

    I’d think mathmatics would be a good start to communicating with an alien intelligence. Dolphins would be a good test to talk to an alien, tho’ I’m not sure how many concepts we’d have in common..

    Maybe “one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish..”

    That’d make a good Avatar project.

  • sjv

    Alienese might turn out to be related to Hungarian:


  • Siergen

    A while back I stumbled across an old, now public domain sci-fi short story on the web about the difficulties of translating a dead language (in this case Martian). As I recall, they eventually got their first good leads when they recognized that some of the text they were poring over were scientific journals, and they could then leverage their own scientific knowledge to deduce some of the meanings.

    I’ll try to find it again, but I lost the original bookmark after a disk crash with no current backups.

  • Siergen

    Found it! It’s called “Omnilingual” by H. Beam Piper. Project Gutenberg version here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/19445/19445-h/19445-h.htm

  • admin

    “Omnilingual” is one of the few stories I’ve read that made a good effort at dealign with the problems of translating a dead alien language. What served as the Rosetta Stone was the Martian version of the periodic table.

    H. Beam Piper’s writing is not to be missed. Especially good was his “Lone Star Planet” (AKA “A Planet For Texans”) where it’s illegal to kill people… unless that person is a politician who is trying to get some unconstitutional law passed. Politicians dumb enough to propose the income tax have especially dim prospects for the future.

  • Pat Flannery

    The periodic table is an interesting thought; that should be laid out in a pretty similar form by any intelligent species.

  • admin

    Indeed. In the story, the human archaelogists found a Martian university… they could tell that it was physically separated into various disciplines (history, biology, mechanics, physics, etc) but they couldn’t make heads or tails out of anything until someone discovered a periodic table in the physics department and recognized it for what it was. It was desc ribed as being different in layout from the human one… but then, we’ve had several over the years. From a sufficiently detailed periodic table you should be able to get a number of things… not least of which being their system of numbers, and then to the names of the elements, many of which should appear in many other contexts (iron, for instance, should be mentioned just about everywhere).

    Once you have the elements worked out, any chemistry texts should give you the names of comprehensible chemical compounds… you know the names for hydrogen and oxygen, for instance, and should then be able to find the word for “water.” And assuming the aliens are at all like us, “water” is another word that should appear all over the place.

    Science and mathematics are universal languages. In contrast, assume that a compendium of “Martian Religions Greatest Hits” were to be made available… or that the aliens were to try to understand English with nothing more than the Bible, Koran, Book of Mormon and Dianetics. They’d never get *anywhere.*

  • Pat Flannery

    I went over to the Gutenberg link and read the story, and it got me thinking about other ways you could lay out the Periodic Table; about the only one I could come up with was something like a bulls-eye split into pie-slice segments with hydrogen at the center, helium either directly above or below it, and then the other elements going around it like numbers on a clock dial as you moved out ring-by-ring.
    After I checked up on it, I found I wasn’t the first person to come up with the idea of doing it like that: