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The dudes who study alien languages

Bring out your tinfoil hats and best conspiracy theories, because today’s Beluga feature talks about the linguists who study extraterrestrial languages.

Last week a bunch of nerds from both the linguistics department and astrobiology got together for a day-long workshop on the field of researching extraterrestrial language codes.

The workshop was organized by Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) as part of the US National Space Society in Los Angeles, California. METI, is partly responsible for sending messages to other star systems, the other part comes from NASA — in charge of bombarding outer space with golden records (but later on that). And because these guys like abbreviations so much, METI is part of SETI which stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, which aims to detect messages from alien civilizations. Confusing, we know…

So this is how METI proceeds: it blasts star systems relatively close to the Sun that is known to host Earth-sized, where water is likely to exist, using big radars. They’ve even blasted a radio message into the sky, conveying musical language explained through basic arithmetic.

Meanwhile in a parallel universe

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Our worlds leading linguist, Noam Chomsky argues that human languages are connected by a shared “universal grammar”:

“To put it whimsically, the Martian language might not be so different from human language after all.”

Chomsky often arguments that if little green men ever chose to visit our planet, they would perceive us to be speaking different dialects of the very same language. Why? Because based on his philosophical perception of language, we all share a common underlying structure. Yet, what might be true of inhabitants of Earth, doesn’t necessarily have to be valid for aliens, meaning they might have a different structure of communication.

Still, this is one big speculation and other linguists argue that:

“The whole universe is subject to the same laws of physics. For example, there are not that many ways a signal can be transmitted, particularly over large distances. (…)Also, we can expect that extraterrestrial languages … have a vocabulary consisting of building blocks of meaning that can be combined to create more complex meanings.”
- Linguist Bridget Samuels from the University of Southern California

As we can see, some language researchers believe that all aspects of the universe are…well, universal. And if we all came from the same elemental soup, we might all have something in common after all.

The premise of the METI workshop was to prove that we all share a basic grammar applying to the universe as a whole. But, like all things theoretical, skeptics offer their counter-argument about us ever communicating to little green men from Mars. Professor Emeritus Gonzalo Munevar from Lawrence Technological University argues that even on earth species develop differently through evolution and thus have different notions of “language”:

“An intelligent creature whose main sensory modality is electric rather than visual would have patterns of thought completely foreign to us.”
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What do we sound like to aliens?

Nasa launched Voyager 1 in 1977 into space, carrying the Golden Record — A soundtrack of human existence. Now, the original golden vinyl is some 13bn miles away from us, floating through space, waiting to be played. It carries an ensemble of different sounds and music, aiming at painting a picture of humanity.

On it you can listen to Bach, Beethoven, Mozart thunderstorms, crying babies, polyphonic calls of the Mbuti people, Benin drumming, Louis Armstrong, Blind Willie Johnson, Chuck Berry among other sounds.

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The message it carries signifies that we are a peaceful planet. But what if this message backfires and paints a picture of a species which loves to argue and is shrill, rather than peaceful?

Rebecca Orchard from Green State University argues that:

“The Golden Record is a beautiful artefact and representation of how humans want to see themselves, but it is meant to be received by and interpreted by something that has the sensory capabilities of the average human. If the second one of these senses is absent, or an entirely different sense is added, the Golden Record becomes a bit confusing.”

What Orchard is trying to say is that in order to understand the record, one has to have a “humanistic” understanding of the message. So, to our alien cousins, life on earth might sound very strange: “What if you pair the image of an open daffodil with the roar of a chainsaw?”


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