Humans, presumably, come from Hummus
July 21, 2011 5:29 AM   Subscribe

How to talk to an alien, a detailed guide to first contact. You might want to invent your own language for just such an occasion. Or just get to know the most common patterns for fictional alien languages.(previously)
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin (47 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
The cat's cradle seems more prone to miscommunication than useful, but the rest seems OK. I mean, I don't expect the UN to adopt these procedures exactly, but they aren't necessarily BAD ideas.
posted by DU at 5:40 AM on July 21, 2011

In before Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra...
posted by MCMikeNamara at 5:50 AM on July 21, 2011 [12 favorites]

Your job is to make sure that the proper authorities are notified, but that you have assembled such a winning team of experts that the government can't take the lead away from you.

That just seems incredibly naive.
posted by aerosolkid at 5:53 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

If we can't talk to the whales after all these years, why should we do better with aliens?
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:58 AM on July 21, 2011 [10 favorites]

Obscure Reference FTW.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:08 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here's a This American Life story on the debate over what first contact should be, which includes some of the wonderfully ridiculous ideas ordinary folks submitted to a social networking website and which were actually beamed into space.
posted by Apropos of Something at 6:12 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

They've already made a poster for easy reference.
posted by Renoroc at 6:14 AM on July 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

Just be wary of anything the aliens give you with the title To Serve Man.

It's a cookbook!! IT'S A COOKBOOK!!
posted by Skygazer at 6:15 AM on July 21, 2011

People of Mars, you say we are brutes and savages. But let me tell you one thing: if I could get loose from this cage you have me in, I would tear you guys a new Martian asshole.....

What Jack Handey would say to the Martians.
posted by therubettes at 6:15 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

If we can't talk to the whales after all these years, why should we do better with aliens?

Because if aliens land here, we know they are intelligent enough to communicate with AND that they must understand certain concepts that we have in common (e.g. whatever physical principles and math they exploited to get here). We don't know either of those things about whales.
posted by DU at 6:18 AM on July 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Just say you're an Englishman in New York.
posted by bwg at 6:20 AM on July 21, 2011

Eep opp ork ah ah
posted by Sailormom at 6:28 AM on July 21, 2011

But what if... They're Made Out of Meat? (film adaption).

Justin B. Rye's site (last link in post) is well worth exploring. It's one of my all-time favorites.
posted by Kattullus at 6:49 AM on July 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

My question has always been - which talk show would an alien choose? Especially now that Oprah is gone.
posted by TMezz at 7:02 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ooh eeh oohh ah ah ting tang walla walla bing bang

No manah manah?!
posted by likeso at 7:12 AM on July 21, 2011

No mention of the language that Luc Besson and Milla Jovovich create for The Fifth Element?
posted by clvrmnky at 7:16 AM on July 21, 2011

No manah manah?!

I guess I have no manahs....
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:17 AM on July 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Aww. Here ya go.
posted by likeso at 7:20 AM on July 21, 2011

The fictional language one references the Githyanki from D&D's "Fiend Folio" and the K'Kree from Traveller? Nice.
posted by edheil at 7:20 AM on July 21, 2011

This seems like the perfect place to mention the Language Construction Kit. I keep wanting to order the book version, but I've got so many other things I should be doing instead of creating my own alien language.

I also want to take this time to mention that I have a recurring fantasy of discovering aliens and learning their language so I can translate Shakespeare into it.

Really, it's a wonder I didn't get beaten up more in school than I did.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 7:28 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

This marklar makes a very valid marklar. Unfortunately, there are several marklars in it's basic marklar. For instance, a marklar that marklars on marklar might not necessarily marklar. Marklar?
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 8:07 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've got my nonary Marain font to make a big LAND HERE PLZ on the roof for if it's the Culture, I suspect JedWard are a naturally-occurring Ambassador for if it's the Ariekes, and I'm willing to grudgingly promise not to send any more FTL communications if it's the Lions and Tigers and Bears. Sorted?
posted by emmtee at 8:13 AM on July 21, 2011

"Aliens" to describe other humankinds (be they humany humans, or tentaclely or ectoplasmy humans, as I think of conscientious species such as us as human-meaning-conscientious) always seems kind of space-hayseed to me. Like, "OMG Ma, thems aliens from outer space!" Like we don't live in outer space too.

Not that I am interested in bumping into other outer space beings any time soon. As a humankind, our kind is as of yet immature in the aggressive-and-uncertain-and-head-in-the-sand kind of way. (Not understanding that polluting our water and oceans is bad pretty much spells that out.) Also, the profit over people thing is a strong indicator we have some ways to go yet. So, first I'd like to have that kind of stuff in order before meeting a peer "kind".

Another reason I am not keen on meeting up with any other 'kind is because our kind is so colonizing and exploitative. Maybe that's a natural order thing, and maybe it isn't. But if it is, I certainly am uninterested in connecting with anyone who is who has figured out space travel. It most certainly Would Not End Well.

Also, what with all the stuff we don't understand about reality—for instance, reality (including all the weird stuff like UFOs, bigfoots, paranormal glitches, altered mind-states, etc)—unless said hypothetical visitors could drop in and give a quick explanation for what gives with all the glitchy stuff that doesn't fit into ordinary frames of reference ("Oh, your kind has a little consciousness 'bug'. Just repeat an [anti-bug concept regiment] twice before bed. It cures schizophrenia too.") then it would just be more of the same. That is, more unexplained weirdness that doesn't do much for loving one another and encouraging happy and emotionally satisfying lives.

That said, loving sexy mutually respectful aliens who are good with adults kids animals and plants and who like picnics, waterfalls, apples, dolphins and sunsets, none of this applies to you. You may contact us whenever you feel like it.
posted by humannaire at 8:25 AM on July 21, 2011

Find out something about their biochemistry. See how they react when offered ethanol.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 8:25 AM on July 21, 2011

If you come across an alien species, do your best to communicate. Groom what hair they have, even if they're mostly bald. Do not throw feces at them. Demonstrate our superior intelligence relative to other animals by poking a tool, such as a stick, into a mound of termites. After eating some termites to show that they're edible, offer some to the alien. This will create a basic social bond, on which all future interactions will be based. Remember! The aliens, beiong vastly more intelligent, will probably have little interest in harming you; you are not likely to end up as meat or a sideshow attraction. On the contrary, the aliens will probably have a great deal of respect for your interest in their species.
posted by Greg Nog at 8:54 AM on July 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

This suave dude was already there first. Bonjour, Monsieur Charles Cros!
posted by homerica at 9:00 AM on July 21, 2011

Find out something about their biochemistry. See how they react when offered ethanol.

Followed by investigation of their reproductive biology.
posted by Panjandrum at 9:10 AM on July 21, 2011

Nanoo nanoo!
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 9:16 AM on July 21, 2011

Because if aliens land here, we know they are intelligent enough to communicate with AND that they must understand certain concepts that we have in common (e.g. whatever physical principles and math they exploited to get here). We don't know either of those things about whales.

No. Obscure Reference had it right. We will almost certainly have more in common with whales that any alien that chooses to land here. We're both mamals, with recognisable limbs, and mouths and eyes in their expected places on a skull. Both we and whales can can see light, hear sound, feel pain, care for our young, breathe oxygen, poop, drink water etc etc. Despite the differences we still have the same basic body plan.

We know whales communicate - all mamals do. What we don't know is what they're communicating. Whether they are intelligent doesn't even matter, if they're not, that should make whale-talk theoretically easier to decipher.
Be we can't even grasp the most basic structure. It sounds like a song to us, and maybe it's just that. But maybe not: we simply don't know a lot about whale songs.

Whales have to "talk" in water; sound carries a lot further. So little private conversations are out of the question. On the other hand, a whale can communicate with another whale that is miles and mile away. That means the medium (water) will have a great impact on the way a language is structured and what it can express.

Now imagine an alien that evolved under conditions that almost certainly are very different from ours.

You can't expect an alien to have a language at all. It's very likely they will have ways to communicate, but that doesn't have to be by means of structered release of soundwaves as we do. They could use light (from infrared to ultraviolet), movement (like bees), by touch, by scent, by changing shape.

Good luck talking to that.
posted by Sourisnoire at 9:17 AM on July 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

most common patterns for fictional alien languages.

Before I click the link, let me guess: Lots of apostrophes?
posted by Ratio at 9:22 AM on July 21, 2011

Groom what hair they have, even if they're mostly bald.
posted by Kronos_to_Earth at 9:48 AM on July 21, 2011

In this paper we will be concerned with Lincos, a language designed for cosmic intercourse.

I think I can tell what the real intended use of this language is...
posted by LogicalDash at 12:33 PM on July 21, 2011

We know whales communicate - all mamals do.

But this communication is not really a "language" in the same sense as human language. One of the defining characteristics of a language is that it is a system whose components can be arranged into an infinite number of expressions. The infinite number of expressions is how we can transmit and record new ideas, build upon past knowledge, etc. It's how we have civilization. No known non-human animal has a system of communication that can do this. Not even whales.

Some people assume that aliens would also have to have the ability to create the same variety of expression; or else they would still be in their oceans--alien whales, if you like. This system would have to be composed of a finite number of parts just for reasons of basic how-the-universe-works.

It could be completely alien in every other way, but it would still be more similar to human language than whale language in that very fundamental sense.

(I would like to point out we already do communicate with some animals. I can record an animal's distress call and play it back, and that animal can react to the perceived danger. It's not really a meaningful communication, but then, I'm not going to chat with a Finch about Voltaire.)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 12:46 PM on July 21, 2011

Ack! Ackackack! Ack! Ack! Ack!
posted by Splunge at 12:47 PM on July 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've said this before but, it seems like if they've managed to make it all the way here and they want to talk to us, they've probably got a method already figured out. Besides, you'll be much to busy staring wordlessly into their cold insectoid eyes to attempt conversation.
posted by doctor_negative at 1:08 PM on July 21, 2011

Yeah, it's quite possible we wouldn't be the first "intelligent" species they've encountered, and that they already have the language problem solved. They could have had millions of years of technological progress on top of where we are now. All sorts of stuff is possible, so speculation is difficult at best.
posted by wildcrdj at 2:16 PM on July 21, 2011

If I'm an alien species and I've traveled to another inhabited planet that has not previously made contact with any other species, I don't think my best plan is going to be to just land in a random place and chat with the first slope headed humanoid I encounter.

I'm far more likely to try and make some sort of contact with a world government or multiple governments. First, this reduces the likelihood of a military response. Second, bugging some lonely widow in a cabin is likely to result in me getting killed (or her getting killed). Third, I increase the chances that somebody will dig up a person who is smart enough to figure out how to communicate with me.

And, as a side benefit, I get to see who the leaders are and transmit their pictures to our mother ship hiding behind Saturn so that we can use homing death rays to eliminate them all simultaneously right before the invasion.
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:28 PM on July 21, 2011

Bah-weep-Graaaaagnah wheep ni ni bong.

(Just how many alien greetings have we come up with so far? And how many will the aliens have come up with in their version of popular media?)

(Of course, there's always the option of tentacle porn as a greeting protocol...)
posted by DataPacRat at 3:03 PM on July 21, 2011

Yip yip yip yip yip
posted by hattifattener at 3:23 PM on July 21, 2011

I liked that the link about alien languages talked about the difficulty of etiquette with aliens.

One of Cherryh's Compact novels talks briefly about the issue. The main character praises another person by saying they exhibited 'extraordinary virtue'. Since cultures are different in the Compact, it's considered polite not to be more specific about which virtue is being exhibited when one is praising someone else, because what is a virtue to one might be an insult to another.

Of course, given the current state of things I could only imagine what representatives of our species would try to do to be polite to alien visitors.
posted by winna at 5:24 PM on July 21, 2011

Two of Stanislaw Lem's novels deal with the problem of communicating with a species that has nothing in common with humanity. The first is possibly among his best known, Solaris, and the other is His Master's Voice. Both are pretty good reads.
posted by John of Michigan at 6:28 PM on July 21, 2011

Of course, we and aliens just don't have to talk. (NSFW)
posted by John of Michigan at 6:33 PM on July 21, 2011

I feel it is important to establish at an early stage that these are, in fact, beneficent aliens from Galactic Utopia Central, and not some other aliens that stole their ship.
posted by Sparx at 7:52 PM on July 21, 2011

Wouldn't comparing geometry, trigonometry, &c and other basic mathematical truisms be the ideal first step? See if our thinking processes are similar or vastly different?

The easiest way to learn yes/no true/not-true is through simple maths. 1+1=2 yes/true vs 1+1=5 no/not-true.

Of course, unless these aliens are refugees and at the end of life support, they could just monitor our EM emissions and learn our languages from immersion; or they could infiltrate one of their young (assuming that language acquisition functions similarily to humans) into a human community and have them learn the language and convey the skill back to their overlords.

ESL* aliens are among us!

*Earthishs as a Second Lanugage
posted by porpoise at 10:53 PM on July 21, 2011

« Older Thinking of taking a photograph?   |   “I think it’s important to do things every once in... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments