My daughter and I are working on a story involving aliens, and we want the language to be different, in at least some ways, from any human language. Does anyone know some features that all human languages are supposed to possess? How about features that no human language is supposed to possess? (I should perhaps point out that these aliens do speak with their mouths, but they have a somewhat different though overlapping set of sounds.) Any features which no language at all could possess, or all languages must possess (we'd need arguments supporting any of these).
We'd also be interested in features that most languages do or do not have, and any odd, interesting features that you know of in other languages.
By features, we include not just grammatical rules, but also parts of speech (e.g., oriental languages have no articles), tenses, etc. and even concepts.
One feature that I believe belongs to all human languages is that when we list things, or put them in an order that is comfortable for us, we tend to do it by the position in the mouth of the main vowels of the words (names for the things).
Just in case that doesn't make sense, I'll give some examples.
The words "tic, tac, toe" are ordered so that the first vowel sound is closest to the front of the mouth, with the next vowel sound next closest, and the last vowel sound is next closest.
We do the same with our irregular verbs: "sing, sang, sung" and with other lists: "red, white, blue." We also tend to do it with pairs: "black and blue," "stop and go," "up and down," and so on.
We tend to move from the front of the mouth to the back, and when we don't, we have to be deliberate (as opposed to automatic) and it feels funny.
I don't know if that will be of any use to you (you can read more about it in Steven Pinker's THE LANGUAGE INSTINCT), but there may be something else in Pinker's book that you can use.
Rick, if the language is an auditory one, of necessity you're going to have some amount of similarity to spoken human languages. You could make it purely tonal, or something like that, but then it'd be awkward to translate to paper. You could do something similar to what Auel did with the neanderthals in her Earth's Children series, and make sound and gesture complement one another so that gesture modifies the nuanced meaning of a sound, or vice versa.
One potential way to make a language more alien is to shape the manner the language itself is used; as an example, the episode of Star Trek TNG called "Darmok" deals with Captain Picard having to establish communication with an alien whose words are successfully translated by the Universal Translator, but whose meaning is entirely opaque, because the nature of the language itself was entirely metaphorical, referring back to elements of the alien's historical culture. So understanding the words themselves was meaningless without understanding the history they referred to.
Any sort of cultural difference like this can lead to misunderstanding or challenge; even among humans, some words translate in a way that is linguistically straightforward, but culturally complex. For instance, the concept of "friendship" to a westerner and to an Arab are two entirely different things, because of the nature of their respective cultures.
Thanks, everyone. I actually ordered The Language Instinct a few days ago, but it hasn't arrived yet.
Zero, thinking about sign-language is a good idea. Do you know of any striking differences/similarities (besides the "makes noise/doesn't make noise" distinction)? Similarities vs differences in grammar, or whatnot? Or a good source to find out?
I do expect the main language we're working with to have a number of definite similarities to human language, Grovekeeper, and we've been making it nearly pronounceable; that is, humans can come up with a close approximation, and that's what the transliteration will represent. But we also want some real differences, especially things that cause the aliens to make errors, when translating into or from English, of a sort different than any of the usual "foreign mistakes".
I think words reflect what matters to a people and its culture. For example, I heard there are primitive tribes that do not have counting words like we do; they just have "one", "two", "three" and "lots". They see no need to distinguish between four, eight or fifty animals and for them all these quantities are simply "lots".
I heard also that Eskimos have many different words for what most of us would call "snow" which enable them to distinguish between different kinds of snow--packed, light and fluffy, melting, firm, etc, I imagine.
It all depends on what you're looking for. Are you looking for "Language" or "Communication"? There are specific things that all Human Languages have in common, even sign language, which linguists study and which have set the standard for the definition of a language. This is why, linguistically speaking, bees and birds can communicate, but they don't have language.
Some of these aspects: - Infinite Capacity to say new things: All human languages provide the tools to express an infinite variety of concepts. Given the English language for example, I take take the same set of words and rearrange them infinitely to express whatever new concept I want. Bees, on the other hand, generally only speak about a few topics such as honey, the location of nectar, etc. They're communication doesn't have the infinite flexibility of subject matter that languages have. - The ability to speak of the past: All languages are capable of speaking about things that have happened in the past. - The ability to speak about things that are not physically present: I can talk about gigantic aliens without gigantic aliens being in my sight, presence, or even existing.
These are just a few that I can remember from my Linguistics class in college.
Here are a few other things you might be interested in: - Mental Lexicon: Linguists believe that stored in our brains is a mental lexicon that we develop when we learn our native language. This contains the sets of words of the language and also contains the rules for using those words and also for speaking those words (which are not necessarily the same). It is easier for our brains to story rules rather than individual words. That's why, instead of storing all the words "Dog, dogs, cat, cats, human, humans, etc." = singular to plural, our brains just store the singular words, and then the rule that when you make something plural, you add an "s" to the end. That's just a simple example, but there are much more complicated rules we have stored in our brains, especially about sound changes and such, accents, etc. that we never even think about when we speak. Yet, all that information is still stored in our brains.
Also, different languages treat parts of a sentence differently. English is a Subject, Verb, Object language. But others are SOV, VSO, etc. Still others have no word order in that regard. Declined languages like Greek and Latin are like that, where each word tells the hearer its role in the sentence by the form it takes. Hence, word order is not necessary, but instead changes the subtle meaning of a sentence. English usually accomplishes this same feat by putting more tonal stress on a certain word, whereas Greek and Latin change word order.
Other languages think differently about who is the subject of a sentence, who is the agent, etc. Some languages are set up so that neuter nouns (those without gender) cannot be the subject of a sentence. Others are set up so that only animated nouns can be the subject of a sentence. Hence, the ways different languages address different ways of looking at language can prove for some interesting diversity.
If you want to see some really difficult or interesting langauges, for idea purposes, I'd recommend taking a look at Cherokee (good example of a syllabary), Finnish (has the most cases out of any language I believe), Greek and Latin (for word order diversity and specificity of meaning or lack thereof in the case of Latin), Hittite (does ridiculous things with enclitics), and Sanskrit (which I've been told is the language from Hell).
Also, make sure you look into the distinction between language and writing systems. A writing system is not a language. Language existed way before writing did, and often times the same writing system is used for different languages. Ex: Sumerian, Akkadian, and Hittite all use Cuneiform Script to write, however each is a distinct language that uses the script differently to do different things. Another example is the way that English, Spanish, Italian, etc. all use the Roman Alphabet.
Does your alien race use a writing system? How so? How are the writing system and the parent language of the system different?
quote:The ability to speak of the past: All languages are capable of speaking about things that have happened in the past.
Ah, that's one that I think would be good to subvert. Humans think in the past, so of course all their languages reflect that. Subverting it wouldn't work for the current aliens, but it might be appropriate for another set. Actually, I'd say that it's a subset of talking about what isn't right there. If aliens that lived only in the present were to have anything to say, they'd have to be able to talk about what wasn't present--but since they couldn't talk about anything that was present (or presumably "will be"), they'd have to have some form of telepathy or other distance sense (like eyes, right? which raises the question of what "physically present" means) that would broaden what they would have to say. I'll have to think about that one; although, as I say, it would be for a different group of aliens than the ones I'm working on at the moment.
Thanks again to everyone. This is good stuff.
[This message has been edited by rickfisher (edited December 22, 2007).]