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For the sake of making things much, much simpler, most worlds I'm familiar with have a defining feature of language: there is a common language. This allows for universal communication and overcomes what would otherwise be time-limiting obstacles for one species (or race) to communicate with another.

However - my question here revolves around the fact that we can't always be so lucky. What if there was no universal language? What if the biology of the two species was different enough that they had defining phonetic differences (which, I think, should be the more likely scenario whenever there are two intelligent species coming into contact with one another). Imagine if you were to introduce to a human species an intelligent species with all the defining characteristics of the human phonetic biology (esophagus of relative length, vocal chords, lips, teeth, shape of mouth) but they were missing a tongue. The time to develop a universal language would take time - and that's given that humans with tongues can talk like humans without tongues.

I'm looking for the best example of how this might have occurred historically (among new civilizations meeting and who had no idea how to translate each other's language) or fantasy-historically (a permanent language-replacement which shows the best example of massively reducing the time taken for written translations). I am not looking for any example of a "Universal Translator" type answers, as that answer is the equivalent of everyone being able to inherently speak the same language, unless it's a well established methodology which has been taken into serious consideration.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Ash, Mołot, Frostfyre, Trish, ArtificialSoul Sep 24 '18 at 13:36

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ Hello J. Please remember that SE's Q&A model is one-specific-question/one-best-answer. SE is not a discussion forum and open-ended questions tend to get closed as POB unless you explain your criteria for judging the best answer. You can find this all in the help center. $\endgroup$ – JBH Sep 24 '18 at 6:19
  • $\begingroup$ How many Worlds are you familiar with? $\endgroup$ – Kilisi Sep 24 '18 at 10:13
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH I did end up making a modification to attempt to clarify the answer that I was looking for. Let me know if further modifications to the question are necessary. $\endgroup$ – J Stubblefield Sep 24 '18 at 12:54
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure why this is on hold. I can't offer an answer because of that, but what he's looking for is a pidgin language: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pidgin $\endgroup$ – Adam Miller Sep 24 '18 at 14:49
  • $\begingroup$ OK. I'm much happier with the question. It's no longer open-ended. Please note that while languages can be hard to learn, given two living languages you can always work out communication. If your neighbor points to a chair and says "snibberflibit" you have a good chance of it meaning "chair" or "sit down." As British PM Desraeli is purported to have said, the difference between a fool and a genius is a pencil and a piece of paper. It's the dead languages that are a pain, because nobody's pointing at the proverbial chair when you encounter "snibberflibit." $\endgroup$ – JBH Sep 24 '18 at 15:27
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The most common solution the real world is the development of a trade language or lingua franca. Remember, language doesn't need to be verbal, especially if there are key anatomical differences. It could be a sign language or written one or if the technology exists, a translator.

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  • $\begingroup$ I've not heard of a Lingua Franca until now. Looks like I have some research to do! $\endgroup$ – J Stubblefield Sep 24 '18 at 5:17
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    $\begingroup$ Note that there are "lingua franca(s)", like English; and then there is actual Lingua Franca, what was itself a trade language spoken in the Mediterranean area up to perhaps the 19th century. $\endgroup$ – elemtilas Sep 24 '18 at 6:05
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    $\begingroup$ Check out the Plains Indian sign language (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plains_Indian_Sign_Language). If people can benefit from trade (and we almost always do), they will need some way to communicate. With time, that system will grow increasingly complex and full if no other means of communication present themselves. I wouldn't think it would take long for two non-verbal humanoids to generate a rich system of sign language, especially over trade. $\endgroup$ – ColonelPanic Sep 24 '18 at 10:38
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If I remember correctly, humans and aliens in the movie District 9 express themselves in their respective languages—they have learnt the other species's language without being able to vocalize it themselves. Douglas Adam's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has the babel fish. Farscape has translator microbes.

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    $\begingroup$ The babel fish is pretty much just a universal translator, except it's biological, not technological. It serves exactly the same purpose as, say, the universal translator in Star Trek. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Sep 24 '18 at 7:15
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The problem is a lot broader than you may suspect. Different biology for vocalisations is one thing, but what about species that communicate by pheromone? Lighting up thinly covered bone plate in different sequences by flushing blood into their membrane coverings? These are just some of the possibilites; communicating with each other is hard enough when we belong to the same species. With aliens we haven't even begun to scratch the surface.

So how would we learn to communicate? Here are just 2 possible options;

1) Science & Math
The periodic table of the elements should be the same for all of us, no matter species of origin. This is a good representational place to start. We can then also teach math - hydrogen has 1 proton, helium 2, etc. Then we can teach true / false or yes / no concepts with 1+1=2 is true, 1+1=3 is false, etc.

There are going to be some massive differences in psychology to conquer and other misunderstandings based on how we all represent our science, but it's generally thought that math and science make useful 'rosetta stones' for other potential species out there.

2) Measure of Actions
In the first instance, we have to make an assumption that aliens will want to talk about the things that they care about. This may very well not be the case, but if we at least assume that they want to communicate with us, they'll try to make it easy for us just as we'll try to make it easy for them. Pointing to chairs and saying their equivalent of 'chair' for instance. Aggressive stances against us may well represent offence or anger, whereas less dominant posturing may indicate agreement. This approach is less scientific and relies on many assumptions about their intent and psychology that will ultimately prove wrong many times, but if it is two 'enlightened' species trying to communicate with mutual intent, all you really need is patience.

In the end, it may all come down to writing, though. We have to assume that a developed species is in essence a species of tool builders, meaning that they probably have some form of representational alphabet or written language which we can work with. It also has the benefit of being still around after they've lost patience.

There are good reasons to write down knowledge, regardless of species. It affords a cheap and effective means of passing information around your community, thus improving it at a far greater rate than having to learn everything from another in verbal repetition. So, for mine, the written language will be (once we've figured out how their language works) the principal method by which we would communicate with alien lifeforms.

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Writing like hieroglyphs or Chinese seems the obvious choice. Lots of ethnic Chinese languages are not mutually comprehensible but use the same symbols.

Linguists can understand some ancient languages via their writing when they don't even really know what they sounded like.

Hearing impaired people can communicate via sign language.

So basically if it's impossible to articulate the correct sound or decipher them hearing them, then swap audio for visual language.

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  • $\begingroup$ Unless the aliens in question cannot 'see', substituting vision for sonar ('bats') or active radar. $\endgroup$ – GretchenV Sep 24 '18 at 12:27
  • $\begingroup$ @GretchenV would expect the OP to have mentioned that, unlikely to have developed any sort of tech without vision anyway. $\endgroup$ – Kilisi Sep 24 '18 at 12:29
  • $\begingroup$ Well, there is the Kdatlyno, one of the species in Laren Niven's Known Space en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Known_Space. Admittedly, the use of the word 'phonetic' suggests audio anyway. $\endgroup$ – GretchenV Sep 24 '18 at 13:06
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I don't see the problem with a Universal Translator. Of course its a go to solution but its one that works. The universal translator converts everything you hear into English with perfect accuracy. Every space faring civilization eventually develops their own one, so as a Human I don't need to speak in bubbles or clicks, the Aliens universal translator converts my language into theirs. You could do it both ways, however that complicates it because you have an echo when talking and that is often undesirable in conversations, games and movies where this is often applied (Like listening to a DUB while the original voice is going and with a few seconds of delay).

The issue is that something simply can't be pronounced due to physical differences and methods of communication. Lets say that dogs developed a language using barks and high pitched whines. But we as humans can't hear the upper range of the whine much less produce it so that entire part of the language is unpronounceable and unhearable to us. We have to rely on some form of technology to translate it, and a universal translator software is simply the easiest choice.

Every time you meet a new species, a bunch of linguists sit down, get some objects, show it to each other and say the words until you have developed a common framework between the two languages. You work together as 2 species to unite your languages and all the intricate features like idioms, similes etc etc and then push the new language update onto all the devices and now 2 entirely separated species can talk to each other.

Now if you want to go into the specifics of a universal translator and making it as realistic as possible, that is a completely different scenario. But if a human can learn to speak more than one language fluently, there is no reason we couldn't teach a computer the same thing.

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    $\begingroup$ The idea of perfect translation is somewhat naive, as words do not translate one-to-one. Their meanings are embedded in the culture ("republican", "sisu", "hygge" and legal concepts are examples of words that are difficult to translate to different languages), and they also have tone and other associations. With poetry or literature it becomes even more difficult, since the form of the language also matters. $\endgroup$ – Tommi Brander Sep 24 '18 at 8:26
  • $\begingroup$ @TommiBrander Sure languages can be difficult to translate, but you have people with native speaking efficiency in multiple languages with different origins. In a simplified view, if someone is capable of speaking and understanding English and Chinese in both a conversation and the corresponding literature, there is no reason it can't be translated. The implied meanings or intricacies may be lost because those can be language dependent but you can translate it. If some words can't be expressed, then add them to your language. English is pretty good at that. $\endgroup$ – Shadowzee Sep 25 '18 at 0:44
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    $\begingroup$ Things can be translated, but not perfectly, because the meaning of a word or phrase depends on the culture it is embedded in. As a foreigner, my understanding of, say, "republican" is different from that of a native resident, who understands it in a different way than native English speaker from a non-USA country. As an exercise, you can try to take the word explain it and its meanings without using the word itself, even in English. Assume the political system and history of USA are unknown to the target audience. Now do this in another language. $\endgroup$ – Tommi Brander Sep 25 '18 at 8:19
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Universal translators are not going to happen. Things are always getting lost in translation.

So, xenos visiting Earth will have to learn the local language, Chinese.

If I were to learn Chinese I would have an accent. Probably a really bad one. But with a bit of patience and a well-meaning Chinese native, we could communicate.

If a xeno were to learn Chinese, their accent would be horrible beyond comprehension.

Also, their hearing would probably not be tuned to the differences needed to tell Chinese phonemes apart.

What is needed is an automatic accent corrector.

Whenever a Chinese would say (Chinese r) the aliens would say (Xeno phoneme 1), and so on for every phoneme needed. If the xenos has at least the same number of phonemes available, we are done. If not, we need to use combinations of xeno phonemes to represent Chinese ones.

I think we are at the point now where a computer can be programmed to automate this process.

So, a Chinese says something. This is "transphonmed" into something the xeno can hear and recognize. The Xeno answers in their horrible accent. The computer "transphonmes" it into correct Chinese.

Of course, alternatively they could just communicate in writing.

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