Alien Languages: Not Human


In the following essay, Anassa Rhenisch discusses why alien languages will have almost nothing in common with human tongues...and why alien forms of communication could eschew language altogether.

Contrary to Hollywood and the majority of fictional languages, alien languages are almost certainly not going to look like human ones. They're not going to have the same sounds, the same word orders, or the same way of solving problems like time, direction, and ownership. Why? Because human DNA and culture help determine what human languages look like, and aliens will, by definition, not share that background.

That's not to say there won't be similarities, though. Because language is a communication system and therefore has to convey information efficiently, there are some facts that won't change.


On Neurobiology

The ability to use language will be coded in the aliens' genes. Either the aliens evolved language and have basic linguistic structures in their brains at birth, or every individual has to independently invent the language from scratch. With humans, we call this nativism and it applies to a whole range of mental traits, not just language.

A corollary of having language hard-wired is that other brain "structures" will affect what the language(s) look like, because everything's likely using the same neural pathways. Unfortunately, we're still trying to figure out exactly where language overlaps with other pathways in humans, so I can't give examples that aren't personal conjecture. Let's just say that if an alien fundamentally perceives the world differently, its language is going to reflect that difference.

A second corollary is that members of the same species can learn any language spoken by that species, because the neural pathways will be the same. (A different species, such as humans, could have tremendous, even insurmountable difficulties learning these languages, and the aliens, ours.)


A species that has multiple languages, or has had its language evolve significantly, is going to have "encoded" more linguistic structures in its brain than any one language uses. This means that languages spoken by the same species do not have to be similar, and that even related languages can have big differences because a different element of code was chosen. French, Spanish, Catalan, and Romanian were all Latin two thousand years ago.

On Organization

An alien language will be organized, because without syntax and/or word building, there's no way of knowing who did what to whom where when, meaning that communication's negated or at least significantly hindered. An efficient language is going to get the point across as simply as possible, and meaning comes across much easier if the order of information is predictable. This means there'll be rules for word order or word formation, possibly both. However, those rules may look nothing like even the least common patterns in human languages. A sentence transliterated as "the bit dog man the" could be perfectly acceptable.


Ordering sounds may or may not occur. Why order sounds? Because some carry over distances better than others, and it's easier to hear soft-loud-soft or loud-loud even at close range than it is to hear soft-soft or soft-softer-soft. It's also possible, but not certain, that there will be vastly different sounds in the same language (b vs. ee vs. sh) because again, it's easier to distinguish words when they're not all variations of tkktt. This is, of course, assuming that aliens will be sensitive to variations in amplitude and frequency, like humans, and that they'll use sound for communication.

There will likely be ways to combine and recombine "clauses" and "phrases" to form different patterns with different meanings-reporting speech, for instance, or passive voice. Again, this is to simplify communication. Why create an entirely new string of words or sounds when a good one's already been laid out? Does anyone need an entirely new string of sounds for every possible sentence?


On Culture and Language Change

On Earth, languages change over time and differ between areas. The longer a group of speakers is separated from another, or the longer they're exposed to other linguistic influences, the more distinct their speech will be from other speakers of their language. The changes are somewhat counteracted by socio-political pressures (upward mobility, government mandates, education, and so on), but dialects and new languages do develop. This will likely happen on other planets too.


Because language is a means of communication, it's not going to develop in places where people have no need to communicate. Lone wanderers will not create language. Tribes will.

Finally, and I know this has be said elsewhere before this: aliens will have words for concepts and objects important to them and in their world, but not for unfamiliar concepts and objects. For those, they will need to invent or borrow words.


On Differences

Humans have two kinds of language: spoken languages, which use sound waves, and gestural (sign) languages, which use light waves and images. Other species on our planet communicate through chemicals (insects, plants, fungi), though those systems aren't nearly complex enough to be called languages. Aliens also won't be limited to the same systems as we are, because they'll come from a different evolutionary path. Taste, touch, and smell are equally possible, along with systems based on abilities humans don't have, such as telepathy or electric impulses.


Some of these possible systems aren't going to allow for the same kinds of segmentation human languages enjoy. Trying to describe "speech sound" to a scent-speaker or "word" to a telepath is going to be difficult.

Aliens aren't going have the same kinds of syntax, the same kinds of word structures, or the same kinds of grammatical elements (-prepositions, cases, gender…) as humans do. They have a different culture and biological background and can therefore develop other ways of referring to the world and indicating relationships. Perhaps it's not location that's important, but moment in time. There's be no word for "on", but there'd be words or affixes for any time relationship you could think of.


Societies influence languages. Words, ideas, and ways of speaking can become taboo and be edited out of the language. Governments can use education and the law to enforce certain forms over others. Societies that lack moral codes or have a highly sophisticated concept of direction are going to have whole sets of words, structures, and solutions that other societies won't. Similarly, living in five dimensions is going to alter your worldview.

Summary Caveats

Sentient aliens don't need a language. Communication, certainly, but not a language. Civilizations will most likely have language, though, because of the distances and degree of communication required.


It's entirely possible that an alien civilization could develop with solely non-linguistic communication or a proto-language. I'm too steeped in human linguistics to see how, but I can't discount the possibility.

When I use words like "word" and "speaker", I mean the regular definition as well as the parallel meaning for languages not based on sound waves and the human brain.


Because I am taking human languages as my reference point whether I like it or not, I will have introduced biases into this essay based on what's logical and definite to me. An alien (possibly another human) could read what I've written and prove me wrong.

It's my hope that by delineating what humans will recognize in alien languages, I'll inspire a completely non-human language. If we're not limiting ourselves to human-like biologies, why stick to human-like languages?


Bibliography and Links

Non-human communication:………


Interesting constructed languages:

A book:
Jackendoff, Ray. Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution. Oxford University Press, 2003.


This post originally appeared on I Like A Little Science In My Fiction.

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Whilst this brings up some nice points, let's put a biological spin on this for a moment shall we? Any sentient being out there that has evolved to the point of using comunication will have done just that, evolved. Because of this any comunication they will develop will be based on senses that would have given them an evolutionary advantage in the past. Language does not after all spring forth fully formed one sunny morning. It develops from the equivalent of grunts. In lower life forms further back along the evolutionary path.

Now at this point I will make 2 assumptions about the environment based on observations and statistics. Whilst it is true that life can appear and thrive in extreme environments, that life is somewhat specalised and is not hugely diverse. Diversity is, after all, the key to evolutionary progresion. It's more statistically likely then that higher lifer forms will exist in less oppresive environments.

1. Their home planet will be bathed in radiation from a local star.

Stars are without a doubt the most abundant source of energy available to life in this galaxy at least. More life has evolved to take advantage of this on earth than any other form of energy (heat from geothermal vents etc).

2. The planet the aliens evolved from will also have a gaseous or liquid atmosphere. No braner here, not saying it's impossible to evolve life in a vacume just it's a lot harder than in an atmosphere. If it wasn't we would have seen a buttload of evidence of it by now having ventured out into hard vacumes. Hell even mars has only shown us possible fossilised bacteria.

What do these environments tell us about the aliens then? Well the first thing is thattot is fair to assume then that aliens will have evolved a sensitivity to light pretty early on in their evolutionary path. Seeing predators is a handy thing to have. Look around, the vast majority of life on this planet is sensative to light that's because the paths that did not evolve light sensativity got eaten sharpish and never passed on those genes. Secondly evolving a sensitivity to sound waves be it in a gas or liquid gives a similar advantage. More so, evolving a sensitivity to variation to amplitude and frequency will also help diffarentiate a potential mate from a big bad trying to eat you.

Given that such sensativities are such a massive evolutionary advantage they would have evolved fairly early on. As a result they would be shared among the majority of life on the planet and therefore very likely to appear in the aliens. As such any form of cumunication used by mobile creatures would almost undoubtadly feature visual and audio components. Sight and sound are good for long distance comunication and can be produced at very little cost to the animal. Language evolves too don't forget and such a low cost helps it to progress. The trouble with such exotic comunication forms is that they require some very select senses for them to work. These senses would just have had less time for evolution to refine. Not saying they can't exist but it's more likely that language would use simpler blocks to build on. Speach works in the dark, over long distances and doesn't always give your position away to potential predators in a way flashing some light would (cirtainly not over such a distance that light would give you away). Sound is the logical and simplest way to comunicate and doesn't require line of sight to work. It's how most higher life forms do it after all.

This does not mean that we could understand an alien language when spoken assuming it was even in our auditory range, let alone speak it. We could use technology to help however. Once the difficulty of the syntax issues were sorted, tech to listen to and translate in both directions would be a relativly simple matter. It is likely indeed that any spacefairing race would have already developed tech to do just that if only to inform us that we are now slaves to our new alien overlords :)