Noam Chomsky Says Alien Language 'Might Not Be So Different From Human Language'
Last year, the consulting linguist for the film Arrival, Jessica Coon, burst a lot of people's bubbles at Silicon Valley Comic-Con when she told fans that unless aliens have a certain pattern to their language (called 'hierarchical structure'), we're probably not going to be able to talk to them. Now, some major linguists have united behind the idea that alien languages may actually be intelligible, thanks to a concept popularized by the famous linguist Noam Chomsky: universal grammar.
There's some profound disagreements over what universal grammar actually is, but here's the general idea: There's a "system of categories, mechanisms and constraints shared by all human languages" that makes it possible to not only communicate between, say, Swahili and English, but understand their structures.
"Chomsky has often said that if a Martian visited Earth, it would think we all speak dialects of the same language because all terrestrial languages share a common underlying structure," says Douglas Vakoch, the president of METI (an organization focused on "Messaging Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence").
Recently, Chomsky himself has put forward the idea that the same universal grammar might apply to aliens, too:
"To put it whimsically, the Martian language might not be so different from human language after all."
This argument is built on a couple different ideas, one of which is that the laws of the universe are the same everywhere, so the language alien civilizations use to describe them might be fundamentally similar too.
According to two linguists from the University of California, Bridget Samuels and Jeffrey Punske, there's good reason to believe Chomsky is onto something here:
"The whole universe is subject to the same laws of physics. For example, there are not that many ways a signal can be transmitted, particularly over large distances. Also, we can expect that extraterrestrial languages...have a vocabulary consisting of building blocks of meaning that can be combined to create more complex meanings."
However, these claims don't take into account the incredible diversity of alien senses and potential means of communication.
Universal grammar may not apply to aliens who speak in pheromones or strange, circular patterns like the aliens in Arrival.
Even if we make contact with an alien civilization, the next breakthrough may have to be linguistic, rather than astrobiological.