Speak like a human to ET


By Morris Jones

Much attention in the METI world is focused on designing codes or languages that could be understood by extraterrestrials. We don’t think they would speak any languages commonly used by humans, so attempts are made to produce something close to a “universal language”. Mathematics heavily influences this process, and with good reason. It’s a more objective reflection of the universe, and taps into rules and laws that would apply to extraterrestrials as much as us. Addition works the same way on Earth and Proxima Centauri. But even the way humans interpret and communicate mathematics is subjective. It’s not only the code and symbolism we use. It could even reflect cognitive processes that could be unique to humans, and not necessarily shared by creatures with different minds. 

Other attempts at communication involve photographs and pictograms. But even these efforts can be less clear than we think. What we show, and what we expect to be interpreted, can be very different. People read different messages into the same image, even if they speak the same language. These differences can be profound between members of the same species. Imagine how this would affect communication between different planets!

This analyst thus seeks to highlight a paradigm that approaches extraterrestrial messaging from another angle. Speak like a human! We don’t know how extraterrestrials think or communicate. Any effort we make in this regard is likely to have problems. But we know how humans communicate very well. Our languages and media (including all the arts) are vivid and profound. We have a lot to say, and the means to do so. Our systems are not always perfect, but they are effective. 

SETI and METI scientists love to invoke analogy in their considerations of extraterrestrials. We know about humans but we know essentially nothing about extraterrestrials. So it makes sense to work with what you have. Extrapolating human factors to extraterrestrials is hazardous, but it does have some degree of utility. There is likely to be a lot in common, even though there could be profound differences.

Let’s apply this principle to communication. The languages of humans are known to us. They could even be more universal than we realize. Cognitive scientists and linguists claim that much of the basis of language seems to be hardwired into our brains, whether we speak Spanish or Swahili. There could even be principles of logic and information theory that mandate certain factors in communication, regardless of biology. Extraterrestrials may not think exactly the same way or communicate as we do, but they could still decipher much of what we want to say.

Our languages are more than just means of communicating ideas. They presumably convey knowledge about the minds and societies that developed them. Some of these mechanisms are known to us, but others could be yet undiscovered by our own scholars. Extraterrestrials may know better. Furthermore, they could presumably conduct comparative linguistic studies with their own languages or those of other civilizations they have encountered.

Furthermore, human languages are really a more open and direct way of saying what who we are. They are a part of us, and we should communicate our languages as much as we communicate anything else.