The limit of my language means the limits of my world.
There is no aspect of a culture more pervasive and more influential than language. Language is a reflection of thought, and in turn influences thought. It separates us and unites us. And for writers exploring new species and new cultures, it ultimately defines what is alien.
Sci-fi franchises tend to ignore the impact of language on culture, giving it the Jedi hand wave with universal translators, translator microbes, Babel fish, or a universal language. When writers do focus on differences in language, they tend to deal with extreme differences rooted in biology: the telepathic species, the species that communicates by exchanging protein sequences, the species that communicates by smell.
These are intriguing stories, but they put the spotlight on the alien biology, and that’s often an easy, superficial way to paint something as strange. In doing so, writers miss out on an entire dimension of cultural depth and the friction that arises when different cultures collide.
If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.
If you’ve ever studied another language, you’ve no doubt been frustrated by its seemingly irrational quirks of conjugation and idiom. Even on our own tiny blue marble, concepts don’t translate smoothly:
- Kummerspeck is a German word that translates to “grief bacon”; it refers to the weight gained when one overeats after an emotional trauma.
- The French l’esprit de l’escalier (“stairway wit”) refers to the perfect retort that comes to mind too late to be useful.
- Saudade is a Portuguese word with no precise English equivalent, meaning a yearning for something lost that leaves one feeling sad and incomplete.
These differences in language are not merely differences in the way we encode meaning. They tap into the way its people think.
Stanford professor Lera Boroditsky notes that about one third of the world’s languages communicate spatial concepts in absolute terms instead of relative ones. For example, the Aboriginals of Pormpuraaw, Australia might say “your southwest leg” instead of “left” or “right”. This linguistic structure forces speakers to remain constantly aware of their orientation, which in turn allows them to perform profound feats of unaided navigation in unfamiliar environments.
Cross-cultural studies show that our ability to distinguish colors may be tied to our language. The Zuni language doesn’t differentiate between yellow and orange, and speakers of Zuni have more trouble identifying those hues than English speakers.
The biology is the same, but our language affects the way we perceive the world with those organs. And while these differences may seem minor, consider how they might be magnified when communicating with alien species — even species with similar, humanoid biology.
Star Trek’s Tamarians speak a language built on metaphor and mythological references: “Darmok and Jalad, at Tanagra.” The Tamarians could be expected to have a rich history of storytelling and myth that permeates every aspect of their lives; their thought processes would be heavily skewed towards analogies. This constant training to see connections might allow them to make shocking leaps of intuition. At the same time, the veneration of ancient stories suggests a highly ritualistic, conservative society that values tradition. Their language and their culture are inextricable.
In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the alien civilization communicates to us through music. Human computers communicate with the alien ship through a form of Solresol, a tonal language, teaching each other a basic vocabulary of mathematical concepts.
It’s unclear whether the alien language is truly tonal, visual, mathematical, gestural, or if these are just a form of pidgin used to communicate with the hairy primates of Earth. Each possibility suggests a distinct mode of thinking and a different course of evolution:
A tonal language in which speech is encoded as music would require brains capable of distinguishing subtle nuances of pitch, timbre, harmonics, tempo, and rhythm. These beings would be gifted mimics, able to reproduce complex melodies more easily than we recite the Pledge of Allegiance or our favorite Monty Python skit. And just as a trained musician can distinguish between the different voices in a composition, these aliens may be able to process the sounds of multiple speakers; individuals might speak simultaneously, in a sort of chorus, blending their voices in (literal) harmony or dissonance.
A mind that communicates in mathematical concepts would be trained from birth to perform complex calculations in a blink, and their technology would reflect that. The idea of a healthy, sentient being using a pocket calculator to calculate simple equations would be mystifying to that species. Their thought processes might be expressed in probabilities and proofs; given the same information, a group of individuals might quickly arrive at the same conclusions based on the underlying calculus of their language, leading to a homogeneous culture where dissent is rare.
- A purely visual-gestural language is limited to line of sight communication. One might assume that aliens who rely on gestural content would have evolved to prefer wide, open spaces that don’t restrict visibility. And if that species is born and raised in a spacious environment, our heavily compartmentalized architecture of rooms and hallways might cause them unbearable claustrophobia. A claustrophobic civilization would eventually be faced with two choices: limit their population growth, or expand beyond their increasingly crowded planet to new worlds.
When you design your alien species, keep in mind that strangeness is not merely a matter of bumpy foreheads or writhing tentacles. To create a truly alien culture, look to the way they communicate.
Our language is the reflection of ourselves. A language is an exact reflection of the character and growth of its speakers.