Friday 18 March 2011

On talking to aliens

A correspondent writes to ask what my thoughts are on alien languages. So I suppose I should begin this post with Kaltxi - ‘Hello’, or ‘Greetings', in Na’vi, the language of the humanoids who live on the moon Pandora, explored in the 2009 film Avatar. Na'vi joins a family of invented languages created to add linguistic verisimilitude to science fiction films. Gone are the days when every alien, from Martians to Daleks, gave the impression of being a native speaker of English.

How do you invent an alien language? It isn't as easy as you might think. It's not enough just to take some words from a well-known modern language and twist them a bit. If these beings look really alien, and behave in an alien way, then they should sound alien too - and their writing system, if they have one, should also look alien. So their speech shouldn't remind you of a human language - and especially not a world language like English. On the other hand, one has to be practical. The language mustn't be so different that it can’t be learned or pronounced by the human characters with whom the aliens are in contact. So alien language inventors usually base their creation on existing human languages, choosing the less common sounds and combining them in novel ways. The Ewok language in Star Wars, for example, was based on Tibetan; and if you listen carefully to scenes where aliens congregate you'll hear bits of Quechua, Haya, Finnish, and other languages in the babble of conversation.

Film directors have to think about other issues, when creating an alien language. Are the aliens ‘good guys’? If so, the director will want the language to sound pleasant to human ears, which will mean using softer sounds (such as m's, l's and r's), as in Na'vi. Are they ‘bad guys’? Then a harsher sounding language will be likely, full of sharp-sounding guttural consonants, as in Klingon. That's where linguists come in. The most sophisticated alien languages have been devised by professional linguists - notably Paul Frommer for Na'vi and Marc Okrand for Klingon.

Of course, film directors are also aware that aliens may not use anything remotely like the human system of speaking and writing. Astrolinguists, as they're sometimes called, speculate about the possibilities of cosmic communication. If and when the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence receives evidence of intelligent life, the alien system of communication may be quite unlike anything used by humans on earth. It might use the infra-red scale. It might use musical tones, as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It might use mathematical symbols, as in Contact. Or consider the range of behaviours used by animals, which include colour-change (as in chameleons), pheromones (as in ants), and dance movements (as in bees). Any of these could be the basis of an alien system. The Wookies of Star Wars sound as if they're growling. Droids such as R2-D2 use a complex system of beeps and whistles.

Alien sounds aren't the only features to be created. There has to be alien vocabulary and alien grammar too. Klingon has the word order Object + Verb + Subject, the reverse of English (though this pattern is found in a few human languages, such as Tamil). Yoda speaks English but with an unusual word order too: 'Your father he is... Strong am I with the Force.' Na’vi has singulars and plural nouns, as all human languages do, but also has special forms for expressing ‘two of’ a thing and ‘three of’ a thing, which are possible but uncommon in human languages. And humans would have trouble counting in Huttese (as spoken by Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars), as Hutts have only eight fingers, so their method of counting uses base 8.

Some alien languages have been developed by their authors well beyond the level achieved in the films. Klingon has the greatest following. So'wl' yIchu'. DoS yIbuS. yaSpu' tIHoH. That is: 'Engage the cloaking device! Concentrate on the target! Kill the officers!' These commands are taken from Marc Okrand's Klingon Dictionary (1992), a helpful guide to the official language of the Klingon Empire. The letters are close to English values, apart from the following:

capital D is a d sound with the tongue curled back (a 'retroflex' consonant)
capital S is halfway between s and sh
capital H is the ch sound in loch or Bach
the apostrophe represents a glottal stop

The author apologises for the phonetic approximation. As he rightly says, following notions of best practice in foreign language learning: 'The best way to learn to pronounce Klingon with no trace of a Terran or other accent is to become friends with a group of Klingons and spend a great deal of time socializing with them.'

There are now many works written entirely in t'hIngan Hol' (Klingon). In September 2010, an opera premiered in The Hague written entirely in Klingon: 'u'. Later that year, a Chicago theatre staged a Klingon production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It told the story of a warrior called SQuja' (Scrooge), who is visited by three ghosts to help him regain his lost honour and save Tiny Tim. As the publicity said: 'Performed in the Original Klingon with English Supertitles, and narrative analysis from The Vulcan Institute of Cultural Anthropology.'

Knowing a good thing when it sees it, and possibly anticipating an alien invasion one day, Google already has one alien interface: go to Google's Language Tools and there in the long list of languages you will find Klingon. I expect Na'vi will join it, one day, as Paul Frommer is continuing to work on the language as earthly interest grows.

Invented languages form quite a large family now. Superman (DC Comics) has Kryptonese. The giants in the Japanese Macross anime series have Zentradi. Of course, if you want to avoid the problem of creating a new language, you can simply invent a universal translation device, such as the Babel Fish of Douglas Adams’ A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or use your Tardis to do it for you. Or go in for telepathy, as the Vulcans do in Star Trek or the Ood in Dr Who. Or simply employ a being who speaks all of them, such as C3P0 in Star Wars, who can handle six million languages.

Evidently, alien languages provide linguistics with a new and expanding field of study. What should it be called? Some writers have opted for xenolinguistics, based on xeno-, meaning 'foreign' or 'strange'. Exolinguistics has been suggested too, from exo- meaning ‘outside’ or 'without'. Either way, it's probably the branch of linguistics with the greatest potential for development if, as they say, we are not alone.


Marc B. Leavitt said...

Dr. Crystal:
You may recall that Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan of the Apes (aka John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, a "peer of the realm") invented a language for his great apes.

As a child, I recall that Burroughs created the language, but I don't remember how well he fleshed out the grammar. The apes were called the "mangani," and humans were the "tarmangani."

I think that Kipling dabbled in this a bit as well.

Marc B. Leavitt

Anonymous said...

There are also sci-fi/fantasy created languages which are meant for "regular humans", such as the Dothraki language, used in the coming TV series "A Game of Thrones" (based on George Martin's book series "A Song of Ice and Fire"). In the original book series, we only see a couple of words of Dothraki, but for the TV series, HBO hired a linguist to create a complete language :-)

Owen Gregory said...

Not alien as such, but there are also Tolkien's invented languages of Middle Earth. I can't remember if they used any of them in the film versions. I suspect Tolkien was more interested in the written forms anyway.

Charlie Hickling said...

I question the idea of plays in the target language that are then subtitled. As a German A level student, I have attempted to watch films in German that have compulsary English subtitles. I learned nothing.

On another 'foreign' language that I know interests David, I believe 'text speak' is now phasing itself out. Once a prominent force of the younger generation, the number of Facebook/Twitter users abbreviating etc. is dwindling, and the majority speak as coherently as any prolific, respectable figure you can bring to mind.

I attended Mr. Crystal's recent presentation on Text Language as part of my English Language course, and I think that if such a well-documented style of language is being forgotten, then these invented languages will too vanish. Take Esperanto as a prime example. Noone can be bothered any more.

A fantastic read though, David, thank you.

Graham S said...

When young people talk to me, why do I feel they are asking me a question, when in fact I am hearing them making a statment?

DC said...

This is off topic. I have an article on the rise of the high rising tone on statements in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, p. 249.

Anonymous said...

Well, don't forget to mention that there are also various fora on the internet where people interested in linguistics (whether laymen or professionals) devise their own languages as a hobby. They call those languages "conlangs", which is a portmanteau of "constructed languages".

Kevin said...

A question inspired by Charlie Hickling's comment - although off topic: Is it possible to learn a language by watching subtitled movies, TV shows, etc?
I'm Dutch and I believe that many Dutch (or Scandanavians for that matter) can speak English (quite) well because of subtitling.

DC said...

No idea. I shouldn't be surprised - bearing in mind, of course, that the range of subject-matter is likely to be partial. One could end up being fluent in sex and violence and little else! Also, subtitling is an art form, and often the subtitles have an indirect relation to the spoken script, especially when there is sensitive subject-matter. I like the thought of someone speaking subtitlese, though. Be interesting to hear from someone who has done it.

Stanley said...

What a fascinating post! There's something secretly very exciting about considering how aliens would communicate, even if it may truly be in ways we couldn't even imagine.

I'm a student of linguistics at the University of Reading and I'm currently preparing an undergraduate dissertation on synthetic languages. I'm particularly interested in how languages such as Klingon and Tolkien's elven languages compare to something like Esperanto - a "real" synthetic language, so to speak - which had a particular goal in mind when being created. I'm a little worried about becoming entirely theoretical or not having enough to write! Would you have any tips for directions I could take?

DC said...

GIven the lack of detailed descriptions of constructed languages, your problem is going to be the other way: how to cut down. Esperanto is the most famous of dozens of auxiliary languages that have been created over the past century or so, so there's a huge amount of material awaiting analysis. I don't know of any comparative exercise of the kind you are proposing.

Anonymous said...

try to talk to alien here on

DC said...

Jim Wright has sent me a link to a report in the Vancouver Sun (7 July 2013) about the work of a linguist at the University of British Columbia, Christine Schreyer, who has developed an alien language, Krypton, for the recent Superman movie.
See here.