Could we learn E.T.'s language? (2nd part)


Author:  Sheri Wells-Jensen. 

Dr. Wells-Jensen is an Associate Professor and Co-Director of the ESOL Program at Bowling Green State University. She also coordinates BGSU's Minor in Linguistics. Her teaching and research interests include phonetics, applied phonology, psycholinguistics, speech production (especially slips of the tongue), language preservation, braille and xenolinguistics.

Here's a little linguistics game for you. Can you match the word for "fish" with the language it comes from? The words here are written in faux-phonetic transcription—kind of what you might do if you hear a word but don't know how to spell it (i.e. they are not all spelled the way a literate speaker of the language would spell them).

balik, i’a, machli, pes, riba, sakana, yu

Chinese, Hawaiian, Hindi, Japanese,

Russian, Spanish, Turkish

Answers below; if you get 4 out of 7 right, feel pleased with yourself.

The take-home is that languages can vary wildly when matching words to meanings, and there doesn't have to be any kind of pattern; the “fish” words in this little semi-random sample range from one to three syllables, are constructed from various consonants and vowels, and bear no particular resemblance to each other.

Despite all this arbitrary surface variation, human languages have an awful lot in common. Here's a partial list:

-     All languages have something like verbs and something like nouns (No, they don't all have adjectives).

-     All languages have ways of talking about the past and about the future.

-     All languages have pronouns.

-     All languages have rules that we obey when making sentences.

I don't mean things like "Don't end your sentences with a preposition" (which is not a real rule anyway, because, really, these days, is that even something kids learn about?); I mean rules that we follow without thinking about them and that keep things comprehensible. For example, if you have the sentence "The giant alien fish ate the Earthling linguist", English has a helpful rule about word order that clarifies the alarming news that the fish was the eater and the linguist was the unfortunate eatee and not the other way around.

-     All languages are more or less equally learnable, especially if you start out as a cute little baby. Plop said cute little baby down anywhere on the planet, and under normal circumstances she'll learn Turkish or Japanese or Hindi (or whatever the local language is) regardless of where she came from.

Those are some of the most obvious things languages have in common. (The hunt for other, subtler, commonalities keeps Earthling linguists occupied in their labs … and away from dangerous sea life … most of the time.)

The point here is that if you (or an intelligent extraterrestrial) can learn one of them, you could learn any other. The differences between human languages aren't different enough to change that. And we hope that this would be reciprocal: that if we could learn one of the languages spoken on an alien planet (a question we can get into next), we could learn them all.


balik - Turkish

i’a - Hawaiian

machli - Hindi

pez - Spanish

riba - Russian

sakana - Japanese

yu - Chinese