Help Wanted: Lost (and Confused) in Alien Translation

It is handy that nearly all the aliens we see on TV, in movies, or even in books speak English or, at least, some human language. Farscape had “magic microbes” that let everyone understand each other (and, apparently, made you think their lips were moving appropriately, too). Star Trek had the universal translator, but you rarely saw them actually use it, plus that’s an even more far-fetched device than the transporter.

In real life, it is easy to imagine that if there are aliens, they might not even use sound waves to communicate. Maybe they use light, odor, dance, radio beams, or who knows? Telepathy is common, but it seems hard to imagine that aliens could read minds of other beings with a different evolutionary path.

One thing that fascinates me is that we’ve probably had practical experience with this before. Think about this. In the dark past, you decide to go from Italy to China to bring back silk. You go, say, 100 miles, which was a lot back then. You notice people talk funny. But you can probably find someone around there who speaks at least a little of your language and a little of the local language. True, the further away you go, the less likely it is that someone knows your language, but you can learn some basic trade words all along the route using these local interpreters. It also helps that most languages in an area are somewhat similar.

Now, think about when Columbus and others went to the new world. Here’s a native American. He doesn’t speak a word of anything you’ve ever heard of, and vice versa. I’ve looked, and there’s surprisingly little recorded about how each group acquired the other’s language other than just “we learned to speak.”

Of course, unless that’s the whole story, it would be kind of boring if each encounter was a eight year language course before you could get to the story. There are at least two common ways to address this (three if you count ignoring it and just accepting that everyone speaks English). First, you can presume the aliens have been listening to our broadcasts and taught themselves human language. I suspect that would be very hard.

The other method is to assume there are no aliens or, at least, no new aliens. If your story is in the Terran Empire, it is either all Earth colonies or the aliens in it learned our language long ago. Some people posit something called “standard” that everyone speaks, and we just get it in English for convenience (the way French soldiers speak English in many American movies about Napoleon).

I’m not sure which of these is the better method. Writing about an encounter with new aliens is exciting. But it isn’t clear how to cut down on the linguistics studies it would take to communicate with them. What do you think?


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