Worldbuilding Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for writers/artists using science, geography and culture to construct imaginary worlds and settings. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

This question already has an answer here:

While working on the world I talked about here, I decided to tweak one thing. Instead of having the group of aliens terraforming a planet be of the same species, I decided to have them be different species, from different planets and stellar systems, working together on the same giant groundbreaking project.

The problem then becomes one of communication.

Given that there are hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way, many of which have planets, many of which have life, many of which . . . you get the idea. There are going to be a lot of species in the galaxy, and many of them will be working together on this project. Chances are very good that their native languages will be completely different. Therefore, I need to have a lingua franca, as it were, a language that everyone in the galaxy can speak (this assumes that there are too many languages in the galaxy for a portable translator to understand, and that there’s no Babel fish to help).

However, part of me doubts that this is going to be possible.

  • Beings may only hear or see at different wavelengths.
  • Beings may have different vocal chords, and might have no overlapping range of frequencies.
  • Sign language isn’t too convenient, in part because you have to be directly looking at the person who's using it to communicate. The same goes for any other visual type of language I can think of.

So, is a galaxy-wide language possible at all? I’m not asking for details about what one might be like, just if these hurdles aren’t enough to knock the whole idea down.

As I stated in a comment, there is no faster-than-light travel, which, fortunately, some answers picked up on.

share|improve this question

marked as duplicate by Mark, Frostfyre, HDE 226868 Mar 31 at 17:04

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

Looks like you've seen this, but I'd like to link to this somewhat related question: Is mathematics a truly universal language? – DaaaahWhoosh Mar 29 at 16:47
If there were a Common language, portable/personal translators would not need to know EVERY language in the galaxy, only the owner's language and Common. The translators could communicate the Common language between each other, and then translate to their owner. – DSKekaha Mar 29 at 18:18
If they're all working on one project located on a single planet, does it truly need to be a galactic language, or just a language that every species can use to communicate? Designing a language that could be used as a lingua franca is far simpler than implementing one on a truly galactic scale. – ckersch Mar 29 at 18:26
There seems to be some flaws in the question. If there is no FTL travel, then how many species could really be taking part in this build that you are referring to in the other question? Realistically, the lack of speed would put a cap on the number of species involved. Secondly, not all sci-fi universal translators require libraries of translations to be held in them in order for them to be used. Star Trek: Enterprise shows that the UT in that series is a learning machine that can pick up a new language over time just by gaining enough input. – Prof. Bear Mar 29 at 20:28
Sign language isn’t too convenient. I wish you would expand on this more; obviously there are similar obstacles here as there are with spoken language (different species will have a different sight apparatus and different anatomy to produce signs with, just like they have different hearing and vocal production), but I don't see why sign language is inherently less convenient. – Peter Olson Mar 30 at 1:57

16 Answers 16

up vote 33 down vote accepted

Is a galaxy wide language possible?

I would say that this is not really possible unless faster-than-light communication is possible. We currently know of no way to do this, so barring some breakthrough in physics a galactic language is highly unlikely. This is even the case if the galaxy is populated by a single species.

Why? The milky way galaxy is about 100,000 light years wide.

Consider the following - in an attempt to establish a galactic language, a galactic radio station is set up somewhere near the center of the galaxy and broadcasts to the entire galaxy. However, the broadcast is going to take 50,000 years to reach the edges of the galaxy.

So in order to have a truly galactic language, language is going to have to be static across the galaxy. However, language shifts with culture, so culture would have to be mostly stagnant. A stagnant culture isn't good for stability though - the people on the bottom are going to want to move to the top, and the social convectional currents caused by that movement stirs things up enough to cause cultural changes. So in order to have a stagnant culture the people on the bottom need to stay on the bottom, and there's little chance that could last 50,000 without revolts.

What about a non-constant galactic language?

With no FTL travel possible, not being able to have a true galactic language doesn't actually matter. Suppose it's accepted that the language of the galactic radio station is the common language to use. Then you can tune into the galactic radio while you are traveling to another planet. Given that star systems are on the scale of a couple light-years apart, it's going to take you at least a couple years to get there. That's plenty of time to pick up the galactic language even if you hadn't known it before.

Even if the galactic language were naturally changing, there wouldn't be enough change to matter in a local setting. The language near the center of the galaxy would likely be very different from what it is around the edge of the galaxy, but if an immortal or long-lived being were to travel from the edge of the galaxy to the center of the galaxy it would take 100,000 years in a very fast space ship (traveling at half the speed of light). As they listened to the radio over the course of the 100,000 years, they would hear the language go through 150,000 years of evolution (remember that the edge starts of 50,000 years behind the center). I'm sure you could keep up with the evolution of a language that changes only 50% faster than normal.

What about relativistic effects? If you're traveling fast enough that reaching the center of the galaxy will only take a few years from your reference frame, you'll still need to accelerate and slow down. The time you take decelerating would be a perfect opportunity to catch up on the changes in the galactic language.

What about different species?

Our galactic radio station actually suggests a rather simple solution for this! A radio turns electromagnetic waves into sound waves that we can hear, so why wouldn't we expect it to be able to do the same for other species‐it turns electromagnetic waves into signals they can understand. So all you need to communicate with someone is basically a walkie-talkie—your device knows how to convert your sounds into the proper electromagnetic waves and vice versa, and their device know how to do the same for their sounds.

In this sense, neither you nor the being you'd be talking to would be speaking the galactic language. The true galactic language would be the electromagnetic one broadcast by the galactic radio station.

share|improve this answer
Exactly! Maybe a simple enough dead language could settle though. But even settling on that would take way too much time and no one would bother. – PatJ Mar 29 at 15:56
You forget that if this aliens are on the move, they could be undergoing server time dilation. 100,000 years could seem like 1 to them if their lorentz factor is 100,000. – PyRulez Mar 29 at 17:33
@PyRulez I already addressed this - "you'll still need to accelerate and slow down. The time you take decelerating would be a perfect opportunity to catch up on the changes in the galactic language." – Rob Watts Mar 29 at 17:35
@RobWatts If all alien races are constantly travelling, the problem is entirely avoided. For everyone, you can communicate with anyone else and it only take a year or so (still quite slow, but enough to have a consistent language). If anyone isn't moving fast, they will quickly (compared to you) die out. – PyRulez Mar 29 at 17:37
@PyRulez you can think of anyone doing that as removing themselves from galactic civilization. Whenever they decide to rejoin, they can tune in as they decelerate. – Rob Watts Mar 29 at 18:24

Without FTL, no universal language can be developed on a galactic scale because the time it takes to negotiate a universal language takes longer than the life time of a civilization.

Given the size of the Milky Way, 100,000 light years, it will take at least 100,000 years for a symbol set developed then transmitted from an extreme edge planet to reach a planet on the other side of the galaxy. Assuming perfect comprehension on the part of the distant receiver, it will take 200,000 years to get a response. Without extreme life spans, communicating with distant portions of the galaxy doesn't make sense.

share|improve this answer
I believe it may make sense for these communications in some cases, but yes, 100,000 years is a very long time to wait (way past our lifetimes at least)! – Jonathan Mar 30 at 18:18

EDT: sorry missed your claim that there is 'no translator' or 'babel fish'. It is still MUCH more likely even in a small part than a single language.

The simplest and most likely situation would be a universal translator. Everyone has one. We already have some technology that can do a reasonable job for our human languages, and by the time you have the tech to do interstellar travel you these should be available.

Now of course not all translators are equal! Also there is no way that any one translator will have all languages in the universe. On top of that the translation apps for different translations could be sub par.

English might translate well to Vulcan but be horrendous with Forengi. Since it will be unlikely that every single language will be translated to every other language, there will be a lot of short cuts. If one language has been translated into 5000 other languages, then translating that one to yours will sort of give you those 5000 other languages, at least roughly. So some might become a lingua franca, at least as far as translation goes.

But as much as language changes even here on Earth from one region to another, it will be almost required to have translators, and a large database (to hold languages in reserve should you meet new aliens and need a quick download) and maybe some minor ai to help sort regional changes and idioms.

As requested, expanding on the db for the languages: It is unlikely (read almost impossible) for any one personal device to handle translations from millions of different languages. So much more likely there would be databases out there that have translations. Say a ship that travels frequently between a limited number of star systems will likely have high quality translations between those most common passengers. It will also have ones for any passenger that has traveled on the ship and uploaded their translation programs in order for others to communicate back with them. Ships might also share these as well.

An individual will have varying size of languages available in their personal unit, with the ability to download new languages from either an open source db, or pay for it somehow like an app store. Maybe the most basic is free, but the high quality ones cost more. With miniaturization we might be able to carry around a few thousand languages with us with millions more available through a db.

A world like Coruscant would like have a large number of languages available and many free, since they need to communicate, some backwater might need to go through a dozen languages to translate between two individuals. and do it poorly.

share|improve this answer
I agree with your point that translators would be the simple and likely solution, but I don't think the implementation would be as difficult as you make it out to be. It could be as simple as everyone's translator only knowing their own language and an abstraction of that. The translators then wirelessly synchronize their abstractions and communicate via that. The abstractions would then essentially become the "Common" language, but it is only spoken by translators, as a (probably ad-hoc) protocol. – Amani Kilumanga Mar 30 at 2:10

Two factors are of primary importance here: one, the ratio of travel time to language change, and two, what you count as a distinct language.

First, I'm guessing that if you have multiple species in close proximity that you either have some form of FTL in your story or that you're restricting your focus to a fairly small segment of the galaxy, because otherwise the answer is a flat "no": you might end up with multiple different lingua francas for different areas of space, in analogous fashion to how written Chinese is used to match up the otherwise mutually unintelligible spoken dialects... but that's not what you're asking for.

New generations of lifeforms, assuming that they're not going to get implanted with carbon copies of the postulated galactic language (as this would in effect be the "universal translator" you're trying to avoid), are not going to have identical understanding of the language - they're going to make up new terms for contemporary circumstances, and fail to learn terms corresponding to obsolete situations. Given forty generations or so, you're likely to get the difference between Latin and Spanish - but possibly less, depending on how literate your species are: durable communication media (like the Rosetta Stone, books, and certain sections of the Internet) drastically slow the rate of change/divergence of a language (though it doesn't stop it - else Old English would be readable to modern speakers). I disagree with Radovan's answer, incidentally, that it has to be written - any durable communication medium will do (though that may be what he means by "written" in the first place).

Mutual intelligibility, however, need not be confined to a single language. Dogs, for instance, communicate a variety of things to us despite having no physical aptitudes for speech or writing (wrong tongue and "hand" shape) - and it's reasonable to say that most humans who encounter dogs don't bother to learn a new language to communicate with those dogs.

share|improve this answer

First of all, I want to suggest that the structure of a universal language is probably something you can't come up with a priori; in war, they say that no plan survives first contact with the enemy, in this case I'd say that no universal language survives first contact with another language.

With this in mind, I'd think that the lingua franca would be like it is in human history, just the main language of the most powerful people. So let's say humans are the first ones to reach the stars, that upon their empire the multispecies cooperation was built, and let's assume for convenience that the main language of humanity is still English. I'd suggest that the common galactic language in this scenario would be English, or a slightly modified version of it (much like some high-level programming languages resemble a slightly modified version of English, but without all the inconsistencies that make English so hard to learn/understand).

Once you define one language as the main language, universal translators become easy. That is, as long as you realize that it's not the translators that are universal, but the translations. If you're an alien from Europa and you speak Europese (which sounds like a baby eating noodles), then all you should need to talk to everyone else in the galaxy is a device that converts Europese to English, and English to Europese. If the people you're talking to can speak English, then they don't even need a translator.

This system should be infinitely extensible, all a new species has to do is make a translator for their own species' languages. If a species has a language very different from English, they may decide to make a sort of middle language, something that they can learn to speak that makes it easier for their translators to turn into English. This could work much like programming languages, with higher-level languages being easier to learn but harder to optimize, and lower-level languages that are difficult to master but allow the user to fine-tune their commands.

share|improve this answer

Obviously, it will be a written language, assuming any species capable of developing technology are dexterous and intelligent enough. Of course, uplifted species might not be, but they have their own set of problems anyway.

The logical way would be to base the language on a set of abstract symbols, not unlike Blissymbols. Letters corresponding to phonemes are not the best choice. However, given experiences with international auxiliary languages on Earth, I'd expect the language to be not the most logical or easy one, but the one of historically dominating culture.

There might be even some spoken "local redactions" of the language between species whose vocal cords are capable of producing mutually intelligible sounds (e.g. many corvids manage to approximate human speech quite well).

You have to carry writing instruments to communicate, but that's a minor point. Some problems might stem from species that do not share language universals, but they should still be capable of learning the language up to acceptable levels, if not using it properly and fluently.

share|improve this answer

David Brin's Uplift series handles this problem with several standardized Galactic languages (Galactic Two, Galactic Three, etc.), each adapted to different methods of communication (audible clicks, visual blinks, etc.).

You may wish to explore the idea of a common language (grammar, vocabulary) transcribed in different ways for different species.

share|improve this answer

If there is a will to communicate, then it is possible. What form the communication will take is a better question. Universal translator is my bet. A map of languages compiled by explorers.

Also, faster than light travel is a prerequisite to pretty much anything spanning a galaxy

share|improve this answer

Not likely. Can you make a perfect elephant sound? What about whale?

There's a reason why dogs, no matter their intelligence, could never "speak". Biologically, you'd need the same structure of the vocal folds (cords) across all species to make the necessary sounds. Such a common evolution is highly unlikely to develop across all sentient species of any galaxy (let alone universe). Sure, you may find a handful of species from different planets that have enough of a similar biological structure of the throat to make the sounds necessary to speak the other species' language, but all species across an entire galaxy? Highly unlikely.

If you want more insight into the science, check out the following resource:

share|improve this answer
Right, I gave this logic in the second bullet point in my question. Aren't there ways around this, though? After all, languages don't have to involve sonic communication. – HDE 226868 Mar 29 at 17:57
Think inside your head. Are you thinking without use of your native tongue? – 8protons Mar 29 at 17:57
I would argue that at best the use of writing may provide the middle ground you're looking for. – 8protons Mar 29 at 17:59
Isn't thinking a bit different? Besides, I know of some people who think in sounds, some in letters, and some in pictures. – HDE 226868 Mar 29 at 18:00
@8protons Nitpick: yes, actually, I personally most often think without use of my native tongue (since I live outside the country where my native tongue is spoken and I speak the language of the country where I live and work well enough). – Law29 Mar 29 at 20:22

Conjure up the use of principles similar to that of our EEG, FMRI, and Brain-Computer Interfaces that would be capable of harnessing and representing the [electrical] energy produced by brain activity [or the allusions thereof]. This would provide the foundation for recognition of rudimentary albeit discrete patterns which would be present when cued by concepts associated with the project and therefore common to a representative sample of the workforce.The resulting system would be ad-hoc, and standard operations and combinations thereof would then be used to manipulate these axioms to produce a "universally understood" idea —or specifically: suggestions and responses (assuming the problem statement has been identified) within the scope of the project.
The task, in a manner of speaking, is to : identify the "thought-quanta" of the problem being tackled. Project delimiters would attenuate the labour of decomposing some crore languages. It would imply a great undertaking in general —that which some [hyper]intelligent species might reduce in an instant, if one considers something akin to time constriction.

share|improve this answer

If all of your aliens experience light and sound in different ways than each other, then you have a serious mechanics problem. How can a human being communicate with a blob that has no eyes or ears? How does that blob communicate with us? Writing isn't good enough; both parties would still need to be able to see the same wavelengths of light.

It's a fair assumption that all aliens, regardless of other senses, would need to sense the shape of their environment and the things in it. This would make a tactile medium of communication, such as Braille, the most widely effective. Parties would "write" by physically altering some object, and would "read" by sensing those changes, just as blind people do with refreshable Braille displays. Note that it's not obligatory to touch Braille in order to read it, since a non-blind reader can see the bumps. Your aliens might also have some alternate method of sensing it, depending on their biology.

At that point the language itself is irrelevant, although your aliens might have some difficulty understanding the meaning of words that rely on certain senses. For example, if your lingua franca is English, our blind and deaf blobby friends would have no idea what colors are, and might have a hard time interpreting all of their associations such as moods, etc.

share|improve this answer

Think about this: Quichua language expanded for 500 years among different regions, and was intended to be the same and unify the whole Tawantinsuyu (South American region involving Ecuador, Peru, South of Colombia, Bolivia, and north of Argentina).

In 500 years and a strict effort to have it unified, we can distinguish right now at least 9 distinct dialects. In a small region. In a relatively small period. With a unified and controlled effort to adapt civilization to use that language (first by Pachacuteq and his heirs, and then by Spanish conquerors).

What do you expect involving...

  1. Not only different cultures and species but also different, independent, worlds.
  2. Separated by many light years apart.
  3. With different concept of times (planetary orbits).
  4. Different concept of primitive elements, perhaps.


The answer is: highly unlikely. Take an example: Do you think that there was a word among quichua people which could they use for reading, writing when no actions like that existed (except in zones where tawa was used as alphabet)? Do you think that there is a word for calliper there, denoting two limbs on arthropods like the ones under scholopendromorpha order? Names, actions, adjectives... they will vary with the world you live in, and you will rarely be able to keep a common denominator language across an entire galaxy, specially when communication cannot surpass lightspeed.

(unless the needs covered by the interstellar communication can be expressed in actually decidable problems and algorirthms, in which case I suggest using Turing Machines as their lingua franca)

share|improve this answer

Yes it is! Kind of.. I tried to come up with a sollution.. :) Dont know if there is posibility to have some magic/mystic in your world, but what about some language that would be somehow special. Well not really a language, better a communication system.

  • It would be not created by someone. The origin can be unknown or it can be universal all-time present essence as the universe itself. Can be connected with the universe creation.
  • It can not be learned in a classic way of talking to others, just adopted or acquired as ability at some level of intelligence/brain controll/mental strength or similar condition. Beings can train to achieve this condition. Therefore it cannot change as you just adopt it as is. That would solve the FTL problem.
  • It would differentiate classic beings from almost god-likes. (this is not really neccessary)
  • It does not need to be visual or sound based - maybe it can be telepathic. If you achieve some degree of knowledge of the language, you can unlock new possesions. Become a master or the creator itself. :)
share|improve this answer
It is like talking about God. You are not describing how it could be possible, but just saying "yes". – Luis Masuelli Mar 30 at 21:35
@LuisMasuelli yes, i tried to offer another angle of view than it is in several other (nearly same) answers here :) I know its neither realy science based (altough in sci-fi the science can be fiction and made up) nor it is based on historical facts (we even cannot study interplanetary language evolution and trying to talk abou galaxy-wide) so i released my fantasy a bit. It does not need to be "goddish", just language of some really old beings, ancestor of creatures able to gain the abbility. – Zavael Mar 31 at 7:19

I think the concept of a Universal Translator holds the answer to this question. In order to facilitate a true universal translator you would need a base language. By that I mean the translator would need an all inclusive core language that all other languages could be translated into. As such it would contain more detail than any single language would have.

Since different cultures need different words to describe things such as multiple words for ice that an Eskimo might use, it would be unlikely that the entire universe would share the same lexicon of words never mind expressions. It would also be very unlikely that the universal translator would have the ability to translate its entire core language into any one other language as well.

Similarly no one individual or group would ever speak in the core language however that does not discount the fact that it would exist. So, in answer to the question, a galaxy-wide language would be possible but not in the way you probably intended your question to be answered.

share|improve this answer

An idea I've worked on in the past is to have an artificial language for commerce/legal interactions, largely used for general use as well by having more "chatty" extensions that are not part of the core standard but maintained separately by formal enthusiasts.

The grammar is designed to be simple and approachable by all. Details don't matter here, but think pretty mundane by our standards, with linear list of words and noun/verb concepts etc.

So, those who normally communicate with 2D matrices or deep stacks will have to use this "simple" system.

Words have "aspects" that are like an alphabet when written, but have a large variety of representations. Specifically, the representation of the aspect is distict from the aspect itself, as is the way of combining them to form a word.

The aspects are categorized into a structure of groups that allow for organizing in several different ways, with the rules for forming words designed to apply restrictions of each of these. So, you might use a set of 2 groups that are treated as consonants and vowels, as they alternate between the groups in a word, and choosing phonems this way allows them to be pronounced. A being that communicates with tenticle postures would use the same two groups with looping vs height meaning, so each pair of adjecent aspects forms a single pose of one tenticle, and he gestures up to 7 such pairs at once (a whole word) as a single simultaneous pose.

Beings can choose from several categoization systems with different number of categories and sequencing rules to map nicely to his preferred modality. With a few odd cases to take care of (multiple representations of the same aspect, order flipping) the legal words fit any of these systems.

Mechanical translation need only recognise the different ways each being presents the aspects. That is a fixed set without the nuances associated with full communication. Then, the being can fully appreciate the nuanced "speech" (choice of words) with his native linguistic ability, having learned this common interchange language.

Writing is less varied so everyone can directly read (subject to 2D visual input ability). But it is flexible with regards to the orientation of each glyph and the writing direction.

share|improve this answer

Yes! Binary:

Binary is used to transmit practically everything over the internet already, and is (as far as I understand) already used in the probes we have sent to other planets in this solar system as well. Even images, and the very words you read here are encoded in binary! One difficulty would be communicating with other beings how to interpret the binary, however. Some things like mathematical concepts may be pretty easy to encode and decode into a binary message, and perhaps such an encoding (e.g. the primary numbers) could be used as a "key" to the language, which could be broadcast out into space via radio waves. We could at least then communicate "in math". Developing a full blown language like English to be universal would be difficult, but probably doable if the civilizations exist for long enough and keep good enough records. A problem is the huge amount of time for the signal to transfer across a galaxy (e.g. >100,000 years). However, communications could still take place across the galaxy, it would just take a very long time. There may be other ways of communicating (e.g. possibly using quantum entanglement) that might be faster than light that haven't been discovered yet. Each species in that communicates in this "galactic network" would need to have transmitters of some sort, and be listening for radio signals (e.g. as we earthlings do with SETI).

share|improve this answer
Binary is not a language. – JDługosz Mar 30 at 18:19
@JDlugosz It's a computer language, of 0's and 1's, one which underlies everything you see here. Granted, it isn't a "normal language" like English, but English and any other language we know can be transmitted in binary, as I just did here in this comment :-) – Jonathan Mar 30 at 18:21
Is not a "computer language" either. A language is not the same as an alphabet. A coding system will have many layers and one of them may be binary in nature, but saying "It's written in binary" or "written in ASCII" (as if that's a programming language) is actually a joke. – JDługosz Mar 30 at 18:47
Depending on the communication system, the number of symbols may be different than 2. It depends on the modulation system. – JDługosz Mar 30 at 18:49

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.