On talking to aliens
A correspondent writes to ask what my thoughts are on alien languages. So I suppose I should begin this post with Kaltxi – ‘Hello’, or ‘Greetings’, in Na’vi, the language of the humanoids who live on the moon Pandora, explored in the 2009 film Avatar. Na’vi joins a family of invented languages created to add linguistic verisimilitude to science fiction films. Gone are the days when every alien, from Martians to Daleks, gave the impression of being a native speaker of English.
How do you invent an alien language? It isn’t as easy as you might think. It’s not enough just to take some words from a well-known modern language and twist them a bit. If these beings look really alien, and behave in an alien way, then they should sound alien too – and their writing system, if they have one, should also look alien. So their speech shouldn’t remind you of a human language – and especially not a world language like English. On the other hand, one has to be practical. The language mustn’t be so different that it can’t be learned or pronounced by the human characters with whom the aliens are in contact. So alien language inventors usually base their creation on existing human languages, choosing the less common sounds and combining them in novel ways. The Ewok language in Star Wars, for example, was based on Tibetan; and if you listen carefully to scenes where aliens congregate you’ll hear bits of Quechua, Haya, Finnish, and other languages in the babble of conversation.
Film directors have to think about other issues, when creating an alien language. Are the aliens ‘good guys’? If so, the director will want the language to sound pleasant to human ears, which will mean using softer sounds (such as m’s, l’s and r’s), as in Na’vi. Are they ‘bad guys’? Then a harsher sounding language will be likely, full of sharp-sounding guttural consonants, as in Klingon. That’s where linguists come in. The most sophisticated alien languages have been devised by professional linguists – notably Paul Frommer for Na’vi and Marc Okrand for Klingon.
Of course, film directors are also aware that aliens may not use anything remotely like the human system of speaking and writing. Astrolinguists, as they’re sometimes called, speculate about the possibilities of cosmic communication. If and when the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence receives evidence of intelligent life, the alien system of communication may be quite unlike anything used by humans on earth. It might use the infra-red scale. It might use musical tones, as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It might use mathematical symbols, as in Contact. Or consider the range of behaviours used by animals, which include colour-change (as in chameleons), pheromones (as in ants), and dance movements (as in bees). Any of these could be the basis of an alien system. The Wookies of Star Wars sound as if they’re growling. Droids such as R2-D2 use a complex system of beeps and whistles.
Alien sounds aren’t the only features to be created. There has to be alien vocabulary and alien grammar too. Klingon has the word order Object + Verb + Subject, the reverse of English (though this pattern is found in a few human languages, such as Tamil). Yoda speaks English but with an unusual word order too: ‘Your father he is… Strong am I with the Force.’ Na’vi has singulars and plural nouns, as all human languages do, but also has special forms for expressing ‘two of’ a thing and ‘three of’ a thing, which are possible but uncommon in human languages. And humans would have trouble counting in Huttese (as spoken by Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars), as Hutts have only eight fingers, so their method of counting uses base 8.
Some alien languages have been developed by their authors well beyond the level achieved in the films. Klingon has the greatest following. So’wl’ yIchu’. DoS yIbuS. yaSpu’ tIHoH. That is: ‘Engage the cloaking device! Concentrate on the target! Kill the officers!’ These commands are taken from Marc Okrand’s Klingon Dictionary (1992), a helpful guide to the official language of the Klingon Empire. The letters are close to English values, apart from the following:
capital D is a d sound with the tongue curled back (a ‘retroflex’ consonant)
capital S is halfway between s and sh
capital H is the ch sound in loch or Bach
the apostrophe represents a glottal stop
The author apologises for the phonetic approximation. As he rightly says, following notions of best practice in foreign language learning: ‘The best way to learn to pronounce Klingon with no trace of a Terran or other accent is to become friends with a group of Klingons and spend a great deal of time socializing with them.’
There are now many works written entirely in t’hIngan Hol’ (Klingon). In September 2010, an opera premiered in The Hague written entirely in Klingon: ‘u’. Later that year, a Chicago theatre staged a Klingon production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It told the story of a warrior called SQuja’ (Scrooge), who is visited by three ghosts to help him regain his lost honour and save Tiny Tim. As the publicity said: ‘Performed in the Original Klingon with English Supertitles, and narrative analysis from The Vulcan Institute of Cultural Anthropology.’
Knowing a good thing when it sees it, and possibly anticipating an alien invasion one day, Google already has one alien interface: go to Google’s Language Tools and there in the long list of languages you will find Klingon. I expect Na’vi will join it, one day, as Paul Frommer is continuing to work on the language as earthly interest grows.
Invented languages form quite a large family now. Superman (DC Comics) has Kryptonese. The giants in the Japanese Macross anime series have Zentradi. Of course, if you want to avoid the problem of creating a new language, you can simply invent a universal translation device, such as the Babel Fish of Douglas Adams’ A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or use your Tardis to do it for you. Or go in for telepathy, as the Vulcans do in Star Trek or the Ood in Dr Who. Or simply employ a being who speaks all of them, such as C3P0 in Star Wars, who can handle six million languages.
Evidently, alien languages provide linguistics with a new and expanding field of study. What should it be called? Some writers have opted for xenolinguistics, based on xeno-, meaning ‘foreign’ or ‘strange’. Exolinguistics has been suggested too, from exo- meaning ‘outside’ or ‘without’. Either way, it’s probably the branch of linguistics with the greatest potential for development if, as they say, we are not alone.