Linguist Sheri Wells-Jensen explains the pitfalls in our assumptions about extraterrestrials

What Linguistics Can Tell Us about Talking to Aliens

In the 2016 blockbuster film Arrival, aliens with inscrutable motives descend on Earth—and it is up to a scientist played by Amy Adams to help communicate with them. Were this to occur in real life, it might be Sheri Wells-Jensen who gets the call. A linguist at Bowling Green State University, Wells-Jensen has thought a lot about just how different alien minds might be.

Many researchers have automatically presumed extraterrestrials would possess senses like the ones most of us use every day. But Wells-Jensen’s sensory experience of the world—as a blind person—has given her a rare perspective when it comes to imagining the alternatives and what they might mean for humans’ ability to understand aliens.

Scientific American spoke with Wells-Jensen about language, crab-shaped aliens and multidimensional ways to view the world. An edited excerpt follows.

Can linguists inform the search for extraterrestrial intelligence?

If we are expecting to come across an alien language, we have to start thinking about what language is, how we recognize it and how it could be different from what we know. We need to create a bunch of crazy hypotheses, and we need to start thinking outside our box.

How are you trying to think outside the box with your research?

Back in 2014, I got a call to talk to the SETI [Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence] Institute and was trying to get up to speed on the literature. And one of the presumptions I kept coming across is that any extraterrestrial civilization would have to be sighted. I’m trying to break that box down. The dangerous thing about presuppositions is that you don’t know you are making them.

For me, this ties back into lots of other anthropological questions about how we treat one another. If we as a species cannot even deal with minor differences such as race and gender, why do we think we are going to get along with crab-shaped aliens, for example? Can we be kind and empathetic to one another, which is a small task compared to saying, “Yeah, let’s welcome the crab-shaped aliens with their intestines on the outside of their bodies who chew with their mouths open”?

Do our bodies influence our cognition?

I can give you a bunch of minor examples—the word for “see” also means “understand” in some languages. Or we have words for “left” and “right,” “straight ahead” and “back”—kind of in four directions, which is correlated with human body symmetry. But if we had three hands, would we have “left,” “right” and, uh, “the other hand”?

This is a question that fascinates me. The structure of ASL (American Sign Language) conforms largely to the same rules as spoken language, except you can do more things simultaneously. But it is not alien. It is recognizably a human language, and we can all learn it. And blind people can learn the languages of the sighted people around them. One of the questions I have is, How dissimilar does your body shape have to be to really test this hypothesis?

Alien bodies could be very different from ours. They could use sonar and live in water, for instance—and have that third hand.

Exactly. For example, I can imagine right, left and some other direction called “squirk.” It would take a while to learn it fluently, but I feel like I could learn it. But how far do you have to go before it slips over into incomprehensibility? It could be that alien languages just get harder and harder to understand as the forms of the body diverge. Or is there this barrier? For instance, “No, my brain can’t do that”? Would the two languages forever be incompatible? We have to practice thinking about these examples—even the ones we don’t like.

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