The setting of this world is a galactic zoo in which numerous species of sentient aliens coexist at a primitive tech level. Each species can be assumed to have their own language and therefore understand symbolic representations of meaning along with the basics of logic and mathematics. Assume as well that they are at least as generally intelligent and adaptable as humans and are capable of using tools. However, the biology of these organisms differs radically between species. While they are all carbon-based and capable of surviving in an earth-like environment most will not be capable of making vocalizations in overlapping ranges or even vocalizing at all so a simple spoken language is out of the question. Some species may be blind and others deaf. Some species may lack appendages useful for signing or at least have different enough appendages that translating movements directly would be challenging.

How do you construct a universal language agnostic to biological differences between its users?

As each species mostly keeps to itself the lingua franca is primarily used for bartering and negotiating between groups so it’s acceptable if it is clunky and slow. Importantly this question is different from previous, similar questions due to the primitive tech requirement. There are no computers to automate any translations.

Edit: To address concerns about "commonality of sensorium" and to narrow the scope of the question and make it a little less "neat" let's establish some senses the aliens will have in common:

  1. An ability to, at range, determine the shape of their surroundings. This could take the form of sight, echolocation, radar, or any other technique that permits a fine, three-dimensional understanding of their environs.

  2. A sense of touch that permits the aliens to differentiate between solid and gas and therefore feel the shapes and sizes of their immediate surroundings.


closed as too broad by Aify, Ash, L.Dutch, Culyx, sphennings Jul 17 '18 at 18:05

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't think we can help you all that much with this question but the Constructed Language team might be able to help. $\endgroup$ – Ash Jul 17 '18 at 17:34
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    $\begingroup$ Related: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/q/18581/627, worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/q/39117/627. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Jul 17 '18 at 17:39
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    $\begingroup$ If you can't guarantee some sort of commonality of sensorium, there's no real way you can devise an interlang that's "agnostic to biological differences...". $\endgroup$ – Jeff Zeitlin Jul 17 '18 at 17:50
  • $\begingroup$ I think this is a really neat world buliding problem to solve, but it may be too neat. It gets to some very deep philosophical questions (which are generally accepted to have no answers), and layers on some of the most demanding physical constraints possible. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jul 17 '18 at 17:58
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    $\begingroup$ Since you've given them sight (or sight-analogue) and touch, two possibilities present themselves immediately: one is a written or visual modality, the other is a touch modality. Pen on paper might not work for the echolocators, but visual braille would work for sighted folks, echolocators and touch folks alike. Something akin to the Gripping Language might do for everyone as well and not require "writing". $\endgroup$ – elemtilas Jul 18 '18 at 2:54

If it's mostly for bartering or trading, you could use the method from Citizen of the Galaxy - one party makes a pile of what they want to give, the other a pile of what they want to sell. When the buying party is satisfied with the exchange, they take the other pile.

Link to referenced passage on Archive.org Apparently this method originated with traders long ago.

  • $\begingroup$ For barter, the mechanism seen in Hal Clement's Iceworld is also possible; this extends the idea here to one-for-one; one alien potrzebie is worth one human framistam. The physical mechanism is a series of double-boxes; you can't open the box to take the alien product unless you've filled the box on your side with a product of "equivalent" value. $\endgroup$ – Jeff Zeitlin Jul 17 '18 at 17:47

Device Drivers for Inter-Species Communication

Think Google Translate plus ADA (that's Aliens with Disabilities Act) compliant input/output methods:

Input methods including:

  • Keyboards
  • Mice
  • Touchscreen Tablets
  • Voice Recognition
  • Eye-Tracking

Output methods including:

  • Displays including various wavelengths (from infrared to ultraviolet) and formats
  • Printed output
  • Tactile feedback like Braille
  • Audio, at a wide range of frequencies, dog whistles down to low frequency vibrations

I am not suggesting a handwaved Universal Translator. This would instead be a method of handling different species with appropriate technology linked together.

After First Contact, a team composed of language and communications experts from each species would get together to work on a device driver to handle input/output as needed for the newest species. The end result is like a device driver for a new printer or scanner or camera or whatever for a computer - once it is done, the next being that needs it just downloads it and connects whatever hardware is needed and they're ready to go.


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