Your intrepid heroine has just crossed the galaxy in a spaceship--or journeyed on horseback to a distant land. Now what? I'd like to brainstorm ways to overcome the language barrier without changing your book into a story about language.
One idea: The ever useful language charm--get a red coated mage to touch your lips and your ears and you'll never have a problem with languages again! Unfortunately, it's usually too expensive for a mere mortal.
Galactic Standard--it's spoken everywhere. Or a babel-fish in your ear or sci-fi equivalent. Implant that deals with brain waves and so converts stuff for you... Posts: 2989 | Registered: Oct 2007
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Sometimes you can have fun with the langugage problem. A little accent indicates another language. I have a human stuck among aliens who don't even believe he is capable of producing their speech much less understanding it. Then he freaks them out with garbled but just understandable bits.
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Mathematics is the universal language. I have heard that it is fairly easy to construct a binary code that represents the basic tenants of language without using abstract and concrete nouns. It would sound something like the following - "You come with me. I have eat (food)." You could slowly build more complex thoughts upon this foundation.
The other alternative is sign language, which I believe was the initial means of communication with Native Americans when they were covertly invaded by Europeans. However, it is highly unlikely that an alien civilization would follow our evolutionary path. Although, arguments can be made for probable symetrical development and the need for an intelligent being to have free dexterous appendages and some form of visual/auditory ability.
Or that they would "see" any kind of sign language in a way that humans could produce one.
When you consider that communication can be through any of the senses, how would you communicate with a creature that uses chemoreceptors to communicate? If you smelled bad, you'd be saying one thing to them, and if you changed your aftershave or perfume, you might be saying all kinds of other things to them.
Not to argue with either of you, but I would postulate that in order for an alien species to evolve into a spacefaring civilization, it would require an awareness of space. I cannot think of any way chemoreceptors alone could provide this. I would think some form of visual awareness would be necessary.
On the otherhand, I see a lot of possibilities for how an alien species could accumulate information without speech/hearing, including chemoreceptors.
How about she is blessed with the gift of tongues? (at least you'd have bible backing for beleivability factor)
She's a linguist with a gift for languages.
Also when you're living among the people you pick it up fast. When my husband went to Brazil he could speak broken Portuguese in about three months, one year to get fluent. Just give her a few months or a year.
She befriends the local linguist who knows her language.
She brings along someone who knows the language.
This is all assuming they're human or aliens who are similar to humans.
For some reason I thought we were talking about communicating with aliens when we land on their planet.
There are a lot of science fiction stories out there about aliens encountered by humans landing on the alien planet. Not all intelligent aliens need to have space-faring capabilities as long as one does and can contact the other.
The "universal translator" - doesn't your universe have one?
Hmm, maybe your heroine should pilot (is she old enough to drive? Mine isn't or she'd pay yours a visit, LOL) her starship over to mine (we're headed to the Gliese 876 system...) and pick up one of these bad boys.
While she's visiting, she might be interested in this new polymer they've been using that is frictionless and impenetrable, and slides into and out of place in a split second. Great for doors/vestibule curtains and these nifty transport discs that you can glide on to get around. Big ship, lots of walking otherwise...
Give your visitors a few years approaching the alien planet, maybe during braking manoeuvres as they slow down from lightspeed. Study their electronic communications--radio and TV--which hopefully they'll have whether they "speak" vocally, chemically or by touch.
That way your visitors can learn not only how the aliens "talk" but whether they are likely to talk to strangers, or simply cook them for dinner.
If they don't do electronic communications, drop some invisible surveillance drones into their pubs and cafes and parliaments and learn how they speak that way.
I know this is slightly off the subject, but it is partially related. And besides, this isn't exactly the most hopping topic around...
I spent some time last night contemplating how an intelligent alien species might evolve without sight or hearing. <I'm sure all you ladies out there envy my wife> Anyhow, I came to a very profound conclusion -
I don't believe it would be possible.
Let me explain. Let's assume that all life must evolve based on natural selection and that intelligent life is a product of a diverse ecology (sorry all you pequenino fans). It would be expected that the creature with the most advanced sensory system would quickly become the dominant species.
That is why most creatures on Earth have all five of the natural senses. If a creature did not have any one of these senses it would likely become prey unless it overcompensated through another sense that gave it some advantage in a specific environment (bats).
Without the ability to defend itself against more advanced predators, a species could not live long enough to develop a brain advanced enough to...well, become advanced.
A sidebar thought: it's hard to work out an utterly alien language that can convey precise meaning when our own human languages tend to be so muddy and confusing.
A sidebar to the sidebar: A couple weeks ago, I watched a speech by the wannabe world power president of Iran. It was receiving a translation---I imagine there was some lag, 'cause the speech was live.
Several times in the speech, the translator used the word "humankind." Now, I don't speak Farsi (which I presume what he was speaking in, being Iranian---but it could have been Arabic), and don't know what the actual word is or would convey to a fellow Farsi (or Arabic) speaker. But I wondered why someone translating the words of someone devoted to Islamic power and a radical brand of Islam would choose a New-Age-y phrase like "humankind." Why not "mankind" or "humanity" or "the human race"? Or would it be properly translated as something else altogether? Was the translator, a female voice, incidentally, bringing her own biases to bear on the translation?
I had to wonder---mistranslated words have caused problems in lots of places, some of them quite serious. (The end of World War II may have been delayed by one mistranslated Japanese word, for instance.) And given the developing seriousness of relations between the US and Iran, trouble could be brought about by just about anything.
I think it depends on how "realistic" you want to be about the barriers of learning languages between species. Like most sci-fic stories, I think you can get away with a bit of hand-waving, but too much loses you credibility.
I have a big man-crush on the writer Ted Chiang and his novella "The story of your lives and others" is a very interesting exploration of the language problem (with a lot of other stuff thrown in). If you can get your hands on that, it's a great exploration of the concept of trying to communication with another species that has a fundamentally different way of viewing the universe.
Philocinema's point about mathematics raises its head in the story. The other interesting point it raises is the Contact chestnut about aliens learning English through television broadcasts; the linguist in the story points out that there needs to be interaction with speakers for language to be learnt. Get your hands on the story if you can, Ted Chiang really does his research and engages in as little hand-waving as possible.
This is all very interesting. So many authors just gloss over the language issue--it goes well with the stereoplanet thread--magically everyone speaks the same language on the planet. Or over time, every person in the galaxy has to learn to speak "Common." That certainly simplifies things if isolation isn't one of the themes of your story.
One idea I came up with and discarded was to have the language my characters speak evolve from the same roots as English, so that it was more like learning Spanish than Mandarin Chinese.
I think most writers gloss over the language issue because if we don't, readers may not understand what's going on. Suppose, in the extreme, that we learned the alien language--let's call it Little Green Speak. Then, all the dialogue would happen in Little Green Speak and the reader would have no idea what was happening.
So the simple fix is to assume everyone speaks English; or if they don't, sprinkle in a few words of Little Green Speak to set the tone, then use mostly standard English--same drill as for regional accents. (War movies do the same thing: Germans didn't really speak English with funny German accents in the Second World War.)
One method we could use to help aliens learn our language might be the techniques of teaching English as a foreign language. My brother taught English in Spain despite, himself, speaking almost no Spanish. The rule in the class is that we only speak English, and we use the English we have acquired to learn more. It starts with basics and picture books--pointing at objects and naming them; acting verbs and naming them. At first the English is very broken, but enough to communicate. Early lessons are designed to develop a vocabulary for teaching as well as basic communications. It's a "by the bootstraps" approach. I believe anthropologists use a similar technique when they find lost tribes in remote corners of the jungle, offering gifts to show they mean no harm. Of course, this technique assumes the aliens let us land without blowing us out of their heavens--so it would be unlikely to work for Little Green Speakers visiting Earth ;-)
There are several ways one might keep the alien language(s) flavour in a story. In Star Wars some of the aliens speak odd languages, and we know what they say from subtitles--hard to do in a book. In Star Trek the Klingons speak their own language, and in Firefly the characters swear in Chinese: in both cases we neither need nor usually get subtitles because it's clear from the action what they're saying. A similar technique could perhaps be used in a story, having characters chatter in a foreign language when the content doesn't matter--IIRC Tolkein does it this way in LOTR by having some people sing in foreign languages: we know they're singing of the past and if it matters, Tolkein provides a translation somewhere, but often, it really doesn't matter and we just savour the linguistic flavour and move on. OSC does it well in Speaker for the Dead, joining the story after they've learned the fundamentals of the alien language and the aliens ours (and sparing us the details), constantly reminding us of their alien-ness more through what they do and say than their language--subtle, because different ways of being are reflected in language.
There's another aspect too. Language is determined in part by what matters. These days we're always inventing new words for new technolgies and toys--television and radio didn't exist as words prior to their invention. I believe the Eskimos have several different words for snow, delineating differing kinds of snow, because for them, it matters--just as meterologists and airmen have different words for various kinds of clouds, and most of us distinguish between oak, birch and mahogany.
If you want to be really realistic, there's also dialect and slang to consider. Language evolves constantly, and differently if groups of people are isolated, or even a short distance, from others. So American English has diversified from British English, and in both countries there are dialects local to states, counties, even parts of one town. The same would surely happen with "Common."