Modification as a Universal Property of Intelligent Communication

Daniel Ross
University of California, Riverside, USA

Speculation about extraterrestrial communication introduces many unknowns. Even if we may be able to make educated guesses about life beyond Earth, such as Simpson’s (2016) claim that intelligent species from other planets are likely to exceed 300 kg, the potential variation represented by any species we may encounter is unpredictable. Communication systems vary most perceptibly in their medium, whether auditory, visual, chemical, or even encoded signals; given our lack of information about the physical characteristics of any extraterrestrial species, we cannot predict their medium of communication. Therefore, this chapter emphasizes the probable commonalities in the structure of the communication systems of all intelligent species. By separating form of communication from its structure, we can make broad generalizations about human language that likely apply to unknown species.

Universal Grammar has been proposed as a theory of shared genetically-based features in human languages, but even if correct, “universal” grammar is strictly human. Recently, Noam Chomsky has emphasized a single operation Merge as the core of human syntactic competence and universal grammar (Chomsky 1995; Hauser, Chomsky & Fitch 2002), allowing for recursive structures by combining two elements (e.g., words and phrases) into a larger element (e.g., a larger phrase). While Merge as proposed applies only to human languages, more fundamentally human languages allow for modification: words and ideas are not uttered in isolation, and they may be augmented by complex structure. This concept of modification is broader than the traditional term in Linguistics (McNally in press): I consider any structural augmentation to modify the other elements – adjectives describe nouns (new car) and objects instantiate verbs (eat pizza). Modification is inherent in intelligent communication regardless of form and medium. Even among non-human animals without fully-developed Merge per se, modification stands out as an indication of intelligent communication (Slobodchikoff, Perla & Verdolin 2009:74ff). The abstract nature of communication necessitates the ability to hold concepts mentally and manipulate them with additional linguistic functions. The implications are that the phenomena described by Merge are due to underlying conceptual and communicative needs that would extend to all species with complex communication systems. Regarding the form of communication, it is a byproduct of the need to linearize or otherwise represent this modificational hierarchical structure as a signal (such as a sequence of sounds in spoken human languages). Repetition is already predicted from intelligent extraterrestrial signals, which is reinforced by the inherent modificational structure of intelligent communication proposed here.

Chomsky, N. 1995. The Minimalist program. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Hauser, M. D., N. Chomsky & W. T. Fitch. 2002. The faculty of language: What is it, who has it, and how did it evolve? Science 298(5598). 1569–1579.

McNally, L. In press. Modification. In M. Aloni & P. Dekker (eds.), Cambridge Handbook of Semantics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Simpson, Fergus. 2016. The size distribution of inhabited planets. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters 456(1). L59–L63.

Slobodchikoff, C. N., B. S. Perla &J. L. Verdolin. 2009. Prairie dogs: communication and community in an animal society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


Daniel Ross is Lecturer of Linguistics at the University of California, Riverside and a Ph.D. Candidate in Linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has taught courses on Syntax, Semantics, Morphology, and Historical Linguistics. His dissertation focuses on Pseudocoordination, Serial Verb Constructions, and other Multi-Verb Predicates as instances of form-structure mismatches in syntactic structure; from a comparative perspective, these constructions are strikingly similar in function and syntactic properties despite variation in form, and from a theoretical perspective the data from English and other languages proves difficult to explain in conventional syntactic theory. The research in the dissertation is supported by a 325-language comparison of an array of morphosyntactic features. His research interests concentrate on Syntax and its interfaces with Morphology and Semantics, and he explores these topics from a broad perspective including Typology and cross-linguistic comparisons, experimental and corpus-based methods, and field work on Faroese, a North Germanic language spoken in the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic. He has studied twenty languages at the university level and regularly looks for ways that understudied languages can contribute to syntactic theory. He has presented at conferences and published articles on aspects of syntactic theory and cross-linguistic morphosyntactic variation.