Language of Aliens: Could We Communicate with Them If We Ever Met?

Alien life forms have likely developed their own unique ways of communicating, so how would humanity be able to communicate with them if contact were ever established? "We know where to look. We know how to look," said former NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan in 2015 when she predicted that we might find evidence of extraterrestrial life within the next 10 years. Today, just two years past that timeframe, researchers believe they may be very close to discovering evidence that extraterrestrial life could indeed exist on distant planets. While conclusive evidence is yet to be found, some scientists argue that we should be prepared.

This article is part of a week-long special report on aliens, dedicated to the upcoming 60th anniversary of BBC's most famous extraterrestrial life form, Doctor Who.

But what if we were to find life on another planet? And if it turns out to be intelligent, how would we communicate with our cosmic neighbors? Scientists are already starting to ponder what an alien language might be like and whether our species could ever hope to understand each other.

Humans have a long history of overcoming seemingly impossible language barriers. Researchers deciphering ancient scripts and languages use common human habits as a guide. For example, the way we emphasize something in written form helped scholars decode the Rosetta Stone—a decree dating back to 196 BCE that provided the key to reading ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Body language is also a vital tool: when Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Americas, they used hand signals and gestures to communicate with the indigenous people they encountered. The tragic, violent outcome of these encounters should perhaps not serve as an example of how to do it successfully.

However, humans are a species that evolved to communicate with one another. Alien life, if it exists, might think and behave very differently from us. Their social structures, if they have them, could be entirely unrecognizable or even incomprehensible. So how could we ever guess what they're trying to say?

If you were to listen to Earth from space, you'd hear about 7,100 human languages. But our planet is home not just to humans but also to other creatures. Can the ways animals communicate with each other teach us something about extraterrestrial communication?

Arik Kershenbaum, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Cambridge, believes that evolutionary pressures are indeed universal, and that the evolutionary forces shaping life on Earth would create many similarities, including in communication, for extraterrestrial life. If he's correct, it would mean that life—and language—throughout the cosmos might share certain common traits.

Languages are one of the many ways we communicate with each other (Photo: Getty Images)

Languages are one of the many ways we communicate with each other (Photo: Getty Images)

However, communicating with animals might tell us quite a bit, according to Jan Roberts, a professor of linguistics who also works at the University of Cambridge. "We are the only species that has language in the sense of an open-ended system that you can use to express anything you want to express," he says.

It's an intriguing question to ask: we know what human grammars look like, but what could alien grammars look like? — Jan Roberts

Roberts recently co-authored a book called "Xenolinguistics" with Kershenbaum, Noam Chomsky, and other leading biologists, anthropologists, and linguists, to explore what a non-human, non-Earthly language might be like.