NEWS Q&A

The researchers who study alien linguistics

Nature speaks to linguist Sheri Wells-Jensen who co-hosted a workshop about the challenges of communicating with extraterrestrials.

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Louise Banks (played by actor Amy Adams) attempts to communicate with aliens in the 2016 film 'Arrival'

The 2016 film Arrival starred Amy Adams as a linguistics professor who was drafted in to communicate with aliens.Credit: Moviestore Coll./Alamy

Sheri Wells-Jensen is fascinated by languages no one has ever heard — those that might be spoken by aliens. Last week, the linguist co-hosted a day-long workshop on this field of research, which sits at the boundary of astrobiology and linguistics.

The meeting, at a conference of the US National Space Society in Los Angeles, California, was organized by Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI). METI, which is funded by private donors, organizes the transmission of messages to other star systems. The effort is complementary to SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), which aims to detect messages from alien civilizations.

METI targets star systems relatively close to the Sun that are known to host Earth-sized planets in their ‘habitable zone’ — where the conditions are right for liquid water to exist — using large radar dishes. Last year, it directed a radio message, which attempted to explain musical language, towards a nearby exoplanet system. The message started from basic arithmetic (encoded in binary as two radio wavelengths) and introduced increasingly complex concepts such as duration and frequency.

Nature spoke to Wells-Jensen, who is a member of METI’s board of directors, about last week’s meeting and the field of alien linguistics.

Was this the first workshop of this kind ever?

We’ve done two workshops on communicating with aliens before, but this is the first one specifically about linguistics. If we do make contact, we should try and figure out what would be a reasonable first step in trying to communicate. Right now, we are trying to put our heads together and figure out what’s likely and what could be done after that.

Portrait of Professor Sheri Wells-Jensen taken outside

Linguist Sheri Wells-Jensen.Credit: Sheri Wells-Jensen

When did scientists begin to think about how to talk to aliens?

Science-fiction writers have been asking this question forever. But you might say it started with Frank Drake’s message [sent from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico in 1974]. That was the first time someone transmitted a message to other star systems.

Once we knew that there were exoplanets out there, things got real. And when we discovered the first planet in the habitable zone, many people started thinking “oh my gosh”. We used to wonder if there might be intelligent beings out there somewhere. Now, we can point to a specific star we know has a planet in the habitable zone and ask: are they right there?

When did professional linguists get involved with this research?

There’s a funny little intersection of linguists with science-fiction writers — people like Suzette Haden Elgin, who wrote a novel called Native Tongue in the 1984. She believed that how your body is shaped and how your mind interacted with the environment were crucial to the structuring of your thoughts — and to your language. She imagined that, as a consequence, children would be able to learn an alien language only if the aliens had humanoid bodies.

But linguists like Noam Chomsky say that there is something abstract that makes language, and it doesn’t have to do with the way your body is shaped: it’s the ability to think recursively.

What was discussed at the conference?

The piece that was underpinning everything there, I think, was the extent to which human language is innate. If language has a necessary innate piece, then two civilizations might have a good chance of understanding each other: that was the Chomskian approach represented in some of the papers presented at the conference. Others expressed the sense that third factors — body shape, what your planet is like — would have more to do with language and that little has to be innate. If that is so, then we’d have a better chance of understanding aliens that are similar to us than of understanding those that aren’t.

The message from aliens in the 1997 movie Contact began with numbers, and so did the message that METI sent out last year. Is it generally assumed that to establish communications you have to start from mathematics?

You’d think so. If you built a radio telescope, you should be able to assume that whatever knowledge was necessary for that included math. But technology is not the same as understanding.

What difficulties does METI face in sending more messages?

The factors have to come together: there has to be funding and telescope time. If you’ve got a radio telescope in your backyard which you can use, you can just do it. All kinds of folks are broadcasting all kinds of things. And [in 2008], Doritos sent a commercial into space.

Is anyone keeping track of the amateur ‘contacters’? There is no log and no regulation. I think it’s really important that we gather this information, because what if somebody answers? What if an alien message refers to a signal someone has sent — and we don’t know what was sent?

Linguist Laura Welcher, at the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco, and I have long been talking about the need to archive all the signals that are going out. We also have to tend to it so that people in the future can still understand it.

How will we make contact? Was the scenario depicted in the 2016 film Arrival plausible?

That’s what everybody wants. Every linguist I know wants to be Amy Adams [who played the lead character], who is called to interpret the aliens. But that’s probably not how it would go down.

The one thing that we can I think be sure of is that if we get a signal, we will know it’s an artificial signal [and not from an astronomical source]. And then we’ll know that we are not alone. Will we ever be able to understand it? I don’t know.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05310-x

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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