The biggest challenge if we find intelligent life on other planets will be to understand their language: Lincos could be a solution

The biggest challenge if we find intelligent life on other planets will be to understand their language: Lincos could be a solution

Most of the current strategies assume a language with a structure based on sound units. When linguists address an unfamiliar language, dividing spoken phrases into repeating sound units is the first step in spotting patterns that could indicate meaning .

In the absence of such sound units, a written language can be analyzed for linguistic structures of similar meaning, called morphemes, but this often requires too vast a body of data.


This is what we see, for example, in the movie The Arrival, focused almost exclusively on the challenge of understanding a language constructed under totally different psychological rules (even that they assume more spatial dimensions than those assumed by our brain).

The problem is that to create a method to decode an unknown language without relying on parallels with the languages ​​of the Earth seems an insurmountable obstacle. It’s entirely possible that an alien language has no sound or, alternatively, lacks a written component, so these traditionally reliable methods would be useless if we are presented with such a strange language.

In fact, we also see a wide range of forms of communication on Earth. Beyond gestural and vocal communication, we also see communication through dance in honey bees, for example. How could we communicate with such an intelligent extraterrestrial species?

What this makes clear is that human biases permeate all efforts to classify both non-human communication and to develop a reliable translation methodology for extraterrestrial languages.

Still, scientists have tried to tackle this problem on the premise that mathematics and physics are a kind of universal language . But the search for a mathematical or physical solution is not without its drawbacks. Not only does it exclude the possibility of a radically different approach to physics (another element in many science fiction narratives), it also lacks the inclusion of sociocultural data – an intrinsic element in any comprehensive linguistic analysis .

Mathematician Hans Freudenthal has attempted to design a language for use in extraterrestrial communication with beings who had no knowledge of Earth’s culture, languages, or people. Fundamentally rooted in mathematics, Lincos , an abbreviation for the Latin phrase lingua cosmica , meaning cosmic language, teaches the basics of numbers, arithmetic, set theory, and mathematical logic.

In any attempt to communicate with someone who uses a different language, it is essential to bridge the gap between the languages ​​of the two interlocutors. Lincos intends to do this by using mathematics and physics as the common ground or linguistic bridge between Earth and an extraterrestrial civilization. However, it also makes the potentially wrong assumption that mathematics is a universal concept.

The union of linguistics and computer science, known as computational linguistics, provides another variety of translation procedures, but also has similar difficulties as a mathematical / physical strategy. It takes on the problematic assumption that extraterrestrial civilizations would produce messages in the same way as humans.

So finding intelligent life will be a challenge. Getting along with her could be an even bigger challenge .