Monday, May 31, 2010

Universal grammar and aliens

In a post called "Alien Language: Not human" over at I like a little science in my fiction (now, there's a good blog title), Anassa Rheinisch argues at some length on how the communication systems of space aliens may and may not be like human language.

The only part of the piece I might have anticipated is the conclusion, a plea for creation of non-human languages:
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?
That aside, I now humbly confess: There are aspects of language that I had never really considered.

Image from here (check out the link).


GAC said...

Being a bit of a conlanger I've done a couple alien languages, but they end up being quite human-like. The fact is I can't really construct a language that I have no possibility of understanding. I try to add in some alien sounds, though again, it takes a lot of work even to figure out the biological structures that would make sounds or other linguistic signals that don't sound human.

Another technique I use is to use the alien's physiology to put odd holes in the phonology. A creature with a beak or inflexible lips would be incapable of labials. A creature without a nasal cavity wouldn't produce nasals. And a creature with a very under-developed vocal system might be forced to speak only sign or touch-based langauges (I could see about smell, but it seems smell would be much to hard to fit into a grammatical structure -- unless maybe you can distinguish several smells simultaneously).

That said, there are some interesting alien languages. I recommend looking at Fith ( something with some truly bizarre grammar.

My last thought is -- human languages can be weird enough. With the amount of variation we see in human languages, it's easy to take some of the rarer traits and make something that sounds "alien" to 90% of the population. Much easier than creating a linguistic system that you yourself couldn't possibly understand.

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks. I agree especially with the last point: linguists have no shortage of work thanks to the weirdness of human language.

Also, I wonder about hearing: You could not only have very different ranges of perception, but also sensitivity to different regularities within the acoustic signal altogether.