Alien Languages: How Foreign Would They Really Be?

This post, from Juliette Wade, originally appeared on her TalkToYoUniverse blog on 1/10/10.

This post was requested by CWJ, my friend from the forum over at Analog – thanks so much for the question, CWJ! It also strikes me that this may be a timely topic for people who are considering the Na’vi language that was used in Avatar.

CWJ asked: 

Juliette, I’d like to hear more about (constructing) non-human languages. In particular, if Chomsky’s idea of universal innate grammars is correct, does that mean there are only certain avenues down which humans can go, which might be different from aliens? That is, maybe there are some concepts or constructs that would be difficult for humans to truly conceptualize. Or the other way around. In short, I am interested in the possibility that communication may be very difficult.

This is a complex question, so I’ll take it a bit at a time.

First, the Chomsky question. Chomsky proposed the idea that there was some basic sense of grammar universal to all humans, that was passed on as an instinct.

Now, human languages are very diverse. The most thorough article I’ve seen on this topic was recently published in the Economist, and you can check it out here.

In fact, it’s hard to say how much of human language is innate and how much is learned. Humans are oriented towards language from birth or even earlier; this is well known, as newborn infants prefer to listen to language sounds over non-language sounds, and their mother’s native language over other languages (studies measured strength of sucking response!). They also go through a number of language development stages, like early babbling, even if they don’t have any auditory language input (say, with non-hearing babies). Non-hearing babies are also known to babble with their fingers. People have also looked at pidgin languages, which tend to take on grammatical structure – and very similar grammar structure – when they’re passed on to the second generation, and used this as evidence for a more extensive innate language faculty.

Read the
rest of the post on Juliette Wade‘s TalkToYoUniverse blog.