SPACE.com Columnist Leonard David

Will we ever be able to communicate with aliens?

spot-lit satellite dishes on an arid landscape point skyward ere the backdrop of a starry night
The Allen Telescope Array in Northern California, which researchers use to search for possible signals from intelligent aliens. (Image credit: Seth Shostak/SETI Institute)

It's called xenolinguistics: Looking at the science of extraterrestrial language. 

Biologists, anthropologists, linguists and other experts specializing in language and communication have begun to explore what non-human, off-Earth language might look like. 

Arguably, such thinking sparks thought about the fabricated Klingon language, the cosmic "Klingonese" chatter spoken by one the alien species on "Star Trek." There's even a thriving Klingon Language Institute, which was founded in 1992.

But you can put sci-fi aside, for scientists in the real world are investigating the possible forms that alien languages might take — and whether we might be able to understand them.

Related: The search for alien life

Off-Earth intelligence

Astrobiologist Douglas Vakoch is president of Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI International) in San Francisco. He's co-editor with Jeffrey Punske of a new volume, "Xenolinguistics: Towards a Science of Extraterrestrial Language" (Routledge Taylor & Francis Group (2023).

The book is anchored in what is known about human language and animal communication systems, but it offers suggestions about what we may find if we encounter non-Earth intelligence.

For over six decades, researchers have been engaged in the search for extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), listening for signals with radio telescopes — and they could succeed tomorrow, Vakoch told Space.com. (METI, as its name suggests, concerns the possibility of communicating with alien intelligence — making meaningful contact.)

"We might be faced with understanding a message from an unknown civilization, and linguists could provide the key to cracking the code," said Vakoch. "The recommendations coming out of our new book are directly shaping how we will say 'Hello, universe.'"

Vakoch highlighted the importance of communicating our intentions as the hallmark and rationale for METI messages. "Another key question is whether universal grammar of the sort we see across languages on Earth will also hold true more broadly in the universe," he says.

As noted in the volume, one major point is that communication involves more than getting across the content of your message. "You also want to communicate your intention," said Vakoch.

Related: If aliens have visited the solar system, here's how to find clues they left

Start a conversation

One of the common objections to METI, Vakoch pointed out, is that we may alert hostile extraterrestrials to our existence and provoke an alien invasion

"In reality, any civilization with the capacity to travel between the stars also has the technology to pick up the accidental radio and television signals that have been leaking off into space for the past century," Vakoch said. 

So any aliens picking up our targeted messages won't be surprised to know we exist, Vakoch added. "But what will surprise them is that we're attempting to start a conversation. That's the whole point of METI — to get across our intention of making first contact."

What is our response and responsibility in establishing contact with extraterrestrials? (Image credit: UCLA SETI)

Universal principles

Vakoch said that the aliens he is most interested in are the ones we can make contact with. 

"Those are the aliens who have developed the technology to transmit and receive radio signals. In the past, when scientists have sent interstellar messages, this shared technology has provided the foundation for crafting the messages." 

The messages we've sent into space so far have relied on possibly universal principles of math and science as a starting point, said Vakoch. "But maybe there's something more basic. Long before humans had math and science, we had language. Maybe the same is true on planets orbiting other stars."

In the end, Vakoch thinks, the idea that we must choose between either math and science, on one hand, or language, on the other, is itself too simplistic.

Core of language

Co-editor of the new xenolinguistics book is Jeffrey Punske, an associate professor and the director of undergraduate studies in linguistics at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. 

What we define as the core of language may be fundamentally constrained by external considerations. If so, then it is almost certain that a linguistic, non-human intelligence would have the same core of language, Punske suggests. 

"However, there are many aspects of language that are universal to human language that cannot solely be attributed to such externals," he said. "Those aspects are likely products of the structure of human cognition. There is certainly no guarantee that a non-human intelligence would share our cognitive systems. Thus, while the underlying structure of language might be the same, the message might not be interpretable."

New perspective

Excited that scientists are beginning to think seriously about xenolinguistics is Bridget Samuels of the University of Southern California (USC). 

Samuels is conducting research in two areas that address where universal grammar may fit in the universe: How did language arise in our species, and what are the limits of variation in human language? 

"The study of animal communication has exploded in recent years, and it's given us a new perspective on how human language is, and isn't, unique," Samuels, the project director at USC's Center for Craniofacial Molecular Biology, told Space.com. "Also, how communication systems are shaped by the unique cognitive abilities of the organisms that use them, as well as by the environmental niches they inhabit." 

Invariant laws of physics

Those lines of inquiry, combined with a "third factor" in language design — factors that shape language beyond our genetic endowment and experience — have set the stage for theorizing in entirely new ways about universal grammar, Samuels said.

That theorizing has helped Samuels shape and share a prediction with Punske: "Some aspects of language syntax and externalization may even be shared by extraterrestrial languages, as they are constrained by invariant laws of physics."

By pondering language and animal communication in a cosmic context, Vakoch said, we are forced to rethink just how unique language is, even on our own planet — whether or not we ever make contact with extraterrestrials. 

"Xenolinguistics shows that human language may not have the privileged position we've always assumed," he said.

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as Space.com's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He was received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.

  • rod
    "One of the common objections to METI, Vakoch pointed out, is that we may alert hostile extraterrestrials to our existence and provoke an alien invasion. "In reality, any civilization with the capacity to travel between the stars also has the technology to pick up the accidental radio and television signals that have been leaking off into space for the past century," Vakoch said. So any aliens picking up our targeted messages won't be surprised to know we exist, Vakoch added. "But what will surprise them is that we're attempting to start a conversation. That's the whole point of METI — to get across our intention of making first contact."

    Comments like this in the space.com article suggest ET would need to be about 35 pc or less distance from Earth to hear our broadcast across the Milky Way that has been taking place for about 100 years now. Using 35 pc distance and this exoplanet site, https://exoplanet.eu/home/, 627 exoplanets are known. 528 exoplanets are listed within 35 pc at this site, https://exoplanetarchive.ipac.caltech.edu/index.html
    Apparently no verified ET phoning home within 35 pc of Earth presently.
    Reply
  • Dave
    We have only scratched the surface in knowing how many planets are truly out there. Our technology improves every day, but the truth is we don't know. Communication is a 2 way process. There is also the assumption that someone wishes to contact us. Intelligent lifeforms in our galaxy may not wish contact. They may be like the intelligent lifeforms that observe us, and do wish contact or discovery. Having said this, it is possible another species may wish communication with us. In addition we may observe evidence of another civilization, but again we have only observed the tip of the iceberg.

    Any intelligent species in our galaxy that has achieved star travel have likely achieved unity as a species as well, evolving pass the need for social aggression. Humans have not yet come together as a species. We are warlike and still too primitive. An alliance with another species is simple common sense. Both parties have so much to gain by working together.
    Reply
  • Classical Motion
    Only when we can modulate a star. But the effort is useless if nobody is out there. Our present and past signals go under the static in short order. No range.
    Reply
  • Classical Motion
    And there might just be a way to modulate a star........at least in one direction. Sounds impossible doesn't it.

    In the past few years I have read about materials that can stop and block EM fields. Can be applied as a film. This film and filter can be switched with a small current. A patch of this material.....might blink star light in one direction. Star code. CQ CQ de Earth. Anybody out there? Can you hear me now?
    Reply
  • billslugg
    I saw a discussion of "leaky radio waves" years ago. None of our AM/FM stations can make it even as far at Jupiter before they are buried in the noise. Military, high power, narrow bandwidth, narrow beam radar can get at least to the nearest star but only if they had a 1000' dish aimed at us.
    Reply
  • LBAMM
    We have to start thinking like we are the two year child in the middle of a MIT physics discussion. We could be in the middle of a multi- planet discussion and be totally unaware. I believe it was Max Plank who said that.. We know that faster than light communication is theoretically possible. A Type 3 civilization won't be using radio. They won't leave pollution in their atmosphere for us to detect. When we do detect alien communications, it will be a used and abused undergrad who ignores everything he/she/they were taught and goes ahead with their crazy experiment.
    Ready - steady - go!
    Reply
  • LBAMM
    LBAMM said:
    We have to start thinking like we are the two year child in the middle of a MIT physics discussion. We could be in the middle of a multi- planet discussion and be totally unaware. I believe it was Max Plank who said that.. We know that faster than light communication is theoretically possible. A Type 3 civilization won't be using radio. They won't leave pollution in their atmosphere for us to detect. When we do detect alien communications, it will be a used and abused undergrad who ignores everything he/she/they were taught and goes ahead with their crazy experiment.
    Ready - steady - go!
    Sorry y'all. MAX TEGMARK!
    Max Planck was stuck in my alien head 😆
    Reply
  • George²
    LBAMM said:
    We have to start thinking like we are the two year child in the middle of a MIT physics discussion. We could be in the middle of a multi- planet discussion and be totally unaware. I believe it was Max Plank who said that.. We know that faster than light communication is theoretically possible. A Type 3 civilization won't be using radio. They won't leave pollution in their atmosphere for us to detect. When we do detect alien communications, it will be a used and abused undergrad who ignores everything he/she/they were taught and goes ahead with their crazy experiment.
    Ready - steady - go!
    We expect a foreign civilization to behave according to what we humans imagine it should behave if it is at a higher level, and the corresponding levels are our human ideas. It's not hard to be wrong about that.
    Reply
  • CENProject
    Many people communicate with aliens now and then, and these aliens are their dead relatives. Often, the aliens that visit our planet are dead humans, who are ancestors or relatives of modern-day humans.

    When anyone dies on Earth, they become alien to this planet. But they still reach out to their loved ones and relatives if those ones are perceptive enough to hear them. When you die, your consciousness doesn't cease to exist like many people think, and this is simply due to the law of conservation of energy.

    This is explored objectively (scientifically) using new Physics and Mathematics explained below.

    Communicating with such aliens is called conwave communication in CENProject. CEN is an acronym for Consciousness-Energy.

    Conwaves are consciousness waves, which are waves emitted by our brains. These waves are electromagnetic (EM) in nature occupying regions around the radio wave segment of the EM spectrum.

    There are tons of alien races in the Universe, but the aliens that often visit our planet are humans who had lived on Earth in the past and are now dead.

    So, they visit the planet hiding in segments of the EM spectrum, which humans and our instruments cannot see as of yet. When we build consciousness sensors/detectors and consciousness telescopes in the coming years that can pick up EM waves of extremely low frequencies and extremely high frequencies, we'd be able to communicate with aliens that visit the Earth stealthily and on other planets.

    Conwave communication works in many ways like radio communication as superposition and coherence underlie both. To communicate with aliens, a solid understanding of consciousness and the human brain is required.

    This is the purpose of CENProject, a research project where new Physics and Mathematics have been developed to explore consciousness objectively: Consciousness Physics and Consciousness Mechanics. Communication with aliens, conwave communication, is one of the many exciting applications of Consciousness Physics.
    Reply
  • Coinneach
    I'd love to know what the orcas are saying
    Reply