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Let's suppose we intercepted a message in an unknown language. We were not able to decipher it, but we were able to decode it. Meaning we know the letters but not the meaning of the words in the text. Assuming the text is sufficiently long, we now know every single letter of this language.

Can we say that based on the fact that the language uses just a few letters, it is probably simplistic and hard to use for passing complex thoughts? And if so, can we assume that the civilization using this language is probably primitive?

Or more generally, can a number of letters in alphabet suggest how advance the civilization is? Also, is there a practical limit to how little characters can alphabet have to allow for some possibility of scientific progress? For example, is it OK to assume that civilization using only 10 letters is capable of space travel?

Edit:

Thanks for all the great answers! My conclusion is, that I can't assume anything about level of civilization based on their language. To address those pointing out to binary encoding of message we use, I'm aware of this and for my question I assumed that the message was decoded from binary to actual character representation. In our world it would mean I decoded binary message and got it's ASCII representation. I don't know how the characters look, how they sound or what they mean but I can distinguish between them.

Thanks for your answers, I'm not sure which to pick as accepted they are all great.

EDIT2:

I chose to accept answer which gave me something to think about but if you are interested in this topic, please read through all the answers as they are all great and some are very in-depth.

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    $\begingroup$ Civilisation communicating in binary (1's and 0 only like most of the world across the internet for example) as opposed to one communicating in Chinese ideograms (2000 + different characters), but the chinese communicate in binary online too - are we to conclude that they do that for the benefit of the less advanced rest of the world? Some cultures (like Chinese) don't have alphabets at all. $\endgroup$ – Hoyle's ghost Feb 2 at 21:42
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    $\begingroup$ @FaySuggers: some theories of language define the collection of all symbols in it as an alphabet, no matter how large. If we take an alien Chinese-like text, we still can make a list of all logographs in it, compare to more conventional alphabets and see that it's huge. Still can't deduce they civilization level from that, of course. $\endgroup$ – avek Feb 2 at 21:55
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    $\begingroup$ Although I'm sure you have gathered the answer is no from the many responses underneath. Just a counter thought you might be interested in, a language of only ten characters used as letters like in English might indicate that the species only recognizes 10 separate sounds worth writing. On the other hand, they might have many more sounds that arise from letter combinations, such as CH and SH in English. $\endgroup$ – TitaniumTurtle Feb 3 at 1:43
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    $\begingroup$ A better example is French, they have the same letters, but they have so many variants of sounds that they often combine several letters to distinguish them. That's how you end up with word endings like -eaux, -ieu, -ough. So more with few letters you would more likely have longer words. Like how the two characters used in binary turn the 3 letter word "cat" into 01100011 01100001 01110100. $\endgroup$ – TitaniumTurtle Feb 3 at 1:45
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    $\begingroup$ Fun fact: If aliens would judge us based on language complexity, they would aproach whales first! $\endgroup$ – Martijn Feb 4 at 8:37

17 Answers 17

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There's practically no correlation between the complexity of a given language and the complexity of the writing system used to represent it. Japanese and Korean are both very complex languages, able to convey a wide range of meaning and context. Yet, Japanese uses thousands of characters to represent it in writing, and Korean uses 24.

Also, when talking about alien languages, consider that their writing system could be completely, well, alien. Just as an example, what if it were more like musical notation? Or what if it were something akin to DNA? (Just 4 "letters" to code for any protein) I don't think any knowledgeable person would say that DNA isn't complex because it uses only C, G, A, and T for encoding purposes.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Feb 6 at 14:05
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can a number of letters in alphabet suggest how advance the civilization is?

There is no correlation between the technological advancement of a civilization and the number of symbols in its alphabet. Do you want some counterexamples?

The Roman Empire (and the shepherd founding it) used the same alphabet we use today, yet we are way more advanced then them

Some Asian languages use thousands of symbols in their writing (think of Chinese or Japanese), yet the civilization using them are not more advanced than we are.

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    $\begingroup$ To be fair, Classical Latin alphabet had only 23 letters. So, our 2000 years of technological advancement had resulted in 3 new letters :) $\endgroup$ – Alexander Feb 3 at 3:38
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    $\begingroup$ @Alexander On the other hand, the emperor Claudius did add three new letters (for a short period), and many Latin inscriptions have Á É Í Ó Ú contrasting with A E I O U. (That's just me being contrary though.) $\endgroup$ – Draconis Feb 3 at 5:19
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    $\begingroup$ Around here in the continental Nordics we also have å, ä/æ and ö/ø, so we are even more advanced. $\endgroup$ – Tommi Brander Feb 3 at 7:06
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    $\begingroup$ Not to mention the fact that in English we're actually dropping letters - even the Æ was dropped in my lifetime (Æsops Fables anyone?) - so we're less advanced than a generation ago ;-) $\endgroup$ – Rycochet Feb 4 at 6:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Alexander well i have 4 more :D the Ä, Ü, Ö and ß $\endgroup$ – user55267 Feb 4 at 11:25
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No.

An inverse relation is more likely.

  • Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs: around 1000 symbols.
  • Modern English: 26 symbols + 10 digits + punctuation.
  • Communication between artificial intelligences: not yet known, but probably will be 2.

According to the science of semiotics, signs used in the language are arbitrary. They are only loosely related to their meaning. To know if the culture is advanced or not, count meanings in their language, not signs. In an indo-european language, you often can do it by counting words in a complete enough dictionary. But with your aliens we don't even know if they have words or not. So you can't tell what goes into the dictionary, and how large it will be.

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    $\begingroup$ Why would you say 2 (the number of possible bits) rather than 256 (the number of possible bytes) or 2^64 (the number of possible machine words on modern processors)? $\endgroup$ – Draconis Feb 3 at 5:20
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    $\begingroup$ Because machine words (and a byte is a sort of machine word) are not the primitive constituents that you see when examine the wires, electrical signal levels are, and those usually form bits. Just like in an unknown human writing with no spaces you don't see human words. $\endgroup$ – avek Feb 3 at 6:48
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    $\begingroup$ Number of words is also not a very good measure; English, for example, has a huge vocabulary because the language tends to take words from other languages, whereas many other languages combine the words they already have. It is also the result of a quite recent combination of a germanic and a romance language and still has much of the vocabulary of both. $\endgroup$ – Tommi Brander Feb 3 at 7:10
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    $\begingroup$ @TommiBrander, it's not just that; you also have to think about questions like "What's a word?" Someone speaking Inuktitut, a polysynthetic agglutinizing language, might say one long word that translated into English represents an entire phrase or sentence. The example in Wikipedia is "qangatasuukkuvimmuuriaqalaaqtunga", I'll have to go to the airport. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Feb 3 at 7:36
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    $\begingroup$ @avek: But that's like saying the primiitive constituents of letters are drops of ink, or pixels on a screen. Or at an even lower level, electrons flitting around... $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Feb 3 at 17:11
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The number of letters merely indicates the cultural representation of phonemes.

Phonemes tell a bit about what sounds can be made, and which of those sounds a listener might find important. But those say nothing about the concepts transmitted by groups of phonemes that we call words, nor the grammar, conjugations, and other shaping tools that provide clarity and context.

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    $\begingroup$ Letters and phonemes are not 1:1. Latin script has several versions for /k/. Traditionally, /f/ in Latin is written as either 'f' or 'ph'. 'Th' in English may mean one of two sounds. Latin 'H' is pronounced in some languages, but mute in others (like Spanish). Cyrillic (Russian variant) has the unprononceable ъ and ь that only modify how their neightbors sound. And it's only a few examples. By looking at an alien text, it's not possible to know their phonemes. We don't even know if they use sounds to communicate. $\endgroup$ – avek Feb 2 at 22:13
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    $\begingroup$ Agreed. That's why the answer says cultural representation $\endgroup$ – user535733 Feb 2 at 22:20
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    $\begingroup$ Doesn't this answer ignores Chinese/Japanese characters, who represent semantics rather than sounds in general, which is why there's so many of them? $\endgroup$ – Matthieu M. Feb 3 at 12:51
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, the answer does ignore logograms...because the Question does. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Feb 3 at 13:44
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Generally speaking, the more symbols used, the more compact the message can be. The fewer symbols used, the longer the message will have to be.

In the introduction to Teach Yourself Sinhalese, a book on the Sinhala language (Sinhalese is the old name in English, Sinhala is the new name), it says:

[...] One of the very striking and significant features of the Sinhalese language is that when a randomly chosen news item is translated into Sinhalese and several other major languages including English with the same size printed letters, the Sinhalese text will occupy the least printing space in most of the cases, which means the least number of words and letters; and the use of the present infinitive form (see 3.4) to indicate the present tense and the future tense by any grammatical person of any gender or number; and the use of the past infinitive form (see 4.2) to indicate the past tense by any grammatical person of any gender or number.

(emphasis by the author)

This is not as amazing as the author makes out. For instance, the word නම (nama, rhymes with the English word "mama") means "name" and is spelt with two letters: න (na) and ම (ma). Hang on, isn't that cheating though? In English we generally use one letter per sound, but in Sinhala they mostly use one letter per two sounds (a consonant and a vowel). So, very roughly, we can say that a Sinhala word will be half as long as the equivalent English word. English and Sinhala are both descended from Proto-Indo-European, so many words are still related, although the majority bare no resemblance to each other any more.

However, later in the book is listed the letters commonly used in modern Sinhala, of which there are 24 variants just for the letter ක (ka). The base alphabet without variants is about 60 different letters (the exact number varies by inclusion/exclusion of certain rarer letters). In total, the number of letter variants is somewhere around 400 or higher. Compare this with English, which has just 52 basic letters (26 of each upper and lower case) plus some rarely used ones.

One of the first example words in the book is ‌ෆෑන් (fan), a loan word from English. Again, it only uses two letters, this time ෆෑ (fǣ) and න් (n). Note that "n" is the same letter as "na" above, but now it has a little mark to remove the "a" sound. "fa" also has a mark to turn "a" into "ǣ". Some of these marks might look like separate letters to you, but they are more like the accent marks used by many European languages. So Sinhala writing encodes more information per symbol than English does. This is not unique or remarkable: many or most scripts for Indian languages are based on an ancient writing system called Brahmi which had the same consonant+vowel combined letters, and Sinhala script is also based on Brahmi.

Consider that you can translate all thoughts into every language. That suggests that all languages and all writing systems are equally advanced, regardless of how many sounds are in the language, or how many symbols are used to write that language down. Often, we communicate more information than strictly necessary for the purpose of redundancy. Compare English simple past tense to simple present tense:

  • I ate
  • he ate
  • I eat
  • he eats

It would be perfectly understandable without the "s" in "eats" (he eat), the same way there is no "s" in the past tense, but it redundantly tells us that the subject is third person singular.

In French there can be even greater redundancy:

  • trois grandes chattes noires (three big black [female] cats)

We already know from "trois" (three) that it's plural, yet a redundant "s" must be added to each of the other words in that example. In English, the redundant "s" only appears in "cats". The feminine form of "cats" (chattes) has been used, so the two adjectives must also be feminine, marked with an "e".

Redundancy helps you catch mistakes, and make sense of the message if part of it is missing or distorted. Removing redundancy simplifies communication, at the expense of a smaller margin of error. For instance, we have many ways of writing the "k" sound. "c", "k", "q" (kw), and "x" (ks). We could simplify our alphabet by only ever using "k" (kat, kettle, kween, boks), but we would lose some information along the way, mostly to do with etymology (the ancestry of words).

English has a simpler script than Sinhala, and less grammatical agreement than French, yet English is the lingua franca for business and science these days. In summary, the number of distinct symbols used in a writing system tells you nothing about the complexity of a civilisation.

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  • $\begingroup$ How fast can you reasonably type Sinhala? $\endgroup$ – Sherwood Botsford Feb 6 at 14:09
  • $\begingroup$ @SherwoodBotsford Me personally, not that fast. A skilled Sinhala typist should have roughly the same words per minute as an English typist as it takes two keystrokes per letter on average. The script is unicameral (a single case) whereas the Latin alphabet is bicameral (two cases: upper and lower). This shouldn't make a significant difference. $\endgroup$ – CJ Dennis Feb 6 at 21:35
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You decipher this:

0X00X0XX 0XX0X00X 0XXX00XX 0XXX00XX 00X00000 0XX0XX0X 0XXXX00X 00X00000 0XXX0000 0XXX00X0 0XX0X00X 0XX0XX0X 0XX0X00X 0XXX0X00 0XX0X00X 0XXX0XX0 0XX00X0X 00X00000 0XX000X0 0XXX0X0X 0XXX0X00 0XXX0X00 00X0000X

Just two letters. What is this, kisses and hugs? Those freaking primitives. Maybe we should send back a message teaching them about fire, or toilet paper.

I do not think one can extrapolate the sophistication of a society from the complexity of their alphabet. The most complex messages our society now produces are produced using an alphabet of 2 symbols.

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  • $\begingroup$ On the contrary, computers are not even close to the sophistication of the human brain, therefore we have to convert communication into fewer characters. Although computers can process information much more rapidly than people, they can only do it one value at a time. Humans can process many thousands (possibly millions) of values simultaneously. This is why we convert to binary, because the computer only has to compare each digit once. If it had more characters, it would have to run a new comparison for each new character. $\endgroup$ – TitaniumTurtle Feb 3 at 1:54
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    $\begingroup$ @TitaniumTurtle That doesn't sound right. Computers have been built using decimal (via BCD) or ternary (look at the Setun project) and can still do comparisons in a single machine cycle. Binary is just easy to build electronics for, but it's not even the theoretical optimum: for memory purposes, Knuth suggests that balanced ternary is better (because 3 is closer to Euler's number than 2 is). $\endgroup$ – Draconis Feb 3 at 5:22
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    $\begingroup$ @TitaniumTurtle - I did not mean to imply binary computers were our betters. I meant that one (here, me, the apex of sophistication) can send complex messages using binary. The above message was composed by me, not my computer. $\endgroup$ – Willk Feb 3 at 17:10
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    $\begingroup$ @TitaniumTurtle Do you have any idea, how complex the language is, that allows you to view something as "simple" as a PDF? How much needs to be done to convert the signals on the wire into something displayable? Just a hint: First it needs to be decrypted (HTTPS!), then it needs to be decompressed, then it needs to be interpreted, possibly even some Javascript that's embedded into the document needs to be run, before, finally, your PDF viewer knows which pixels to paint black... This is a much, much more complicated way to express an idea than the way that we humans talk to each other... $\endgroup$ – cmaster Feb 3 at 20:31
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    $\begingroup$ @cmaster Precision and speed don't mean that computer language is superior. True it has to be written so that there isn't any room for error or miscommunication, but if anything I would say that lends towards the complexity of human communication. If we wanted to, we could write very matter-of-factly and never use any figures of speech, but we communicate by much greater means than just written. In speech we ad inflections, emphasis, and tone of voice that can completely change the meaning of a phrase. Body language can take the same a step further and communicate without any words at all. $\endgroup$ – TitaniumTurtle Feb 4 at 15:34
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When you are conveying information using a sequence of letters from an alphabet with n symbols, what's really happening is that you are sending a large number in base n. The question you're asking is, what's a good n? What are the implications of high or low n?

Regardless of how big your alphabet, you must have a good way of distinguishing each letter/digit/symbol from others. The easiest way of ensuring that is to have only 2 digits: That way all you have to do is be sure that the letter you look at isn't the other one. If you have very good resolution transmitter and receiver, then adding more digits will save you bandwidth: You will have to send fewer letters for the same information. So the trade off is bandwidth vs. fidelity.

Let's look at the manual case. Since you said alphabet, you must be talking about writing specifically. Having more letters could mean that it's easy for you to write legibly and tell them apart, and/or that you like shorter messages. Maybe your grammar is very long range, say words that go into the 10th paragraph depend on exactly how the first paragraph was written (this would only make sense if it came about when paper was still used, and then became crystallized). Or maybe whatever you use to record the information is very precious. On the other end, using a very small alphabet could be because you like to have a very easy time of telling letters apart.

The same logic applies to speech as well, however. Language tends to be a stream of sound units that each have a defined meaning. The number of sounds is analogous to the alphabet size. I would say one easy way would be is if your mouth anatomy is not very versatile, or your hearing isn't very good, you would tend to use fewer sounds. But again, if by the time you get to the end of the sentence you have a problem of forgetting how exactly you worded the beginning, it might help to have a complex syllabary, since then you would have to remember a shorter sequence. Although technically, the amount of information your brain has to hold on to is identical, so it comes down to how exactly you assume memory works: General or specialized (ie. not all kinds of information are equally easy to remember).

However, based on the situation on our planet, I would say the above are very minor effects, easily overshadowed by stronger factors. For example, you might almost double the alphabet simply because there happened to be a neighboring culture that had a language with very different letters, and you ended up trading a lot with them so you borrowed many letter as well. Probably brain anatomy has some effect on language architecture, because why wouldn't it, but languages also don't just evolve according to anatomy and stay there. A lot of chaos happens as they interact with each other and the environment. So it would be silly to try and rank species intelligence according to alphabet size.

As for level of civilization, that's wholly hopeless. Even if there were some dumb aliens using a binary alphabet, they could be really advanced simply because they've been around for a million years. Or maybe someone gave the tech to them and disappeared, so now they are the most advanced. But even then, any advanced species would probably invent computers long before trying at space travel, and at that point alphabet size becomes mostly irrelevant.

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Written language and spoken language are not the same thing.

Writing systems can be complex or simple and they do not say anything about the complexity or simplicity of the language. Writing systems sometimes leave out information about how to speak the words (Hebrew leaves out vowels, most tonal languages leave out tones).

The number of sounds a language has may or may not be correlated with the number of letters in the writing system. The number of sounds has zero correlation with the complexity of the grammar. Latin has many times more tenses than English, but English has more complex spelling.

What does any of this say about the intellect of the native speakers? Nothing. The answer is absolutely nothing. Ditto for the technological advancement of the speakers.

Sometimes people inherit a language. Immigrants learn the language of their new home. This doesn't make them smarter or dumb them down. Their children do not more or less technologically advanced based on what language they speak first, it's based on what they're exposed to. Sometimes languages are needlessly complex (cough English cough) because they're really an amalgamation of several different languages with a ton of loan words. Doesn't make those civilizations better faster stronger.

And some languages have great complexity and intelligent users and they have no sounds at all. (And no standard written form either.)

The fact that the civilization your question is based on: 1) has written language and 2) can transmit a message, is a pretty damn big clue that they're intelligent people with a decent level of technology. The method used to transmit the message will tell you worlds more about their abilities than the number of letters you managed to decipher (and somehow think are all the symbols used in their writing system).

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No. Look at computers there base level language is binary and all you have is 0 and 1. You don't need anything more complex than that.

Then its just about stringing the 1 and 0 together to make a letters, and letter form words.

Also computers don't even know or care what words are because they use binary machine code. All programming languages designed for humans get translate back to op-codes before the computer executes them.

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  • $\begingroup$ In my question I assumed that the text was decoded from it's binary representation to letters (let's say like binary to ASCII). I might have been more clear so it's on me but I was asking about communication between living beings not computers. Otherwise, your answer would be entirely correct. Thank you anyway, I appreciate it. $\endgroup$ – lsrom Feb 3 at 11:48
  • $\begingroup$ @lsrom Have you forgotten morris code? Dot dash dot dot dash dot? This is a form a binary used by humans. $\endgroup$ – cybernard Feb 3 at 17:40
  • $\begingroup$ @cybernard If you meant Morse code, that's actually a 4 symbol code: short beep (= dot), long beep (= dash), short silence (separates dots and dashes within a letter), and long silence (separates letters). Ok, 4 symbol code is not precise either. It's rather two different 2 symbol codes that are interleaved: Each tone is followed by a silence, and each silence by a tone, but in each instance, the signal (tone/silence) may only be either short or long. Taking short as a 1 and long as a 0, SOS (... --- ...) is encoded as 11-11-10 01-01-00 11-11-10... so, yes, binary. With a stretch. $\endgroup$ – cmaster Feb 3 at 20:13
  • $\begingroup$ @cmaster, actually, Morse code is a 3-symbol code: short beep, long beep and space. The short pause simply separates symbols from each other, and since it follows every symbol—a long pause can be interpreted as a long pause and short pause—it is not a symbol of its own. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Feb 3 at 21:51
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    $\begingroup$ @JanHudec If there is only space, how do you differentiate between "S" and "EEE"? If 110011 is "EE" (using 1 for sound, 0 for silence), what is 11000111? Is it "I", "A", "EE", or "ET"? Better is 1000111: "ET". The duration of a dash is three times the duration of a dot. Each dot or dash within a character is followed by period of signal absence, called a space, equal to the dot duration. The letters of a word are separated by a space of duration equal to three dots, and the words are separated by a space equal to seven dots. $\endgroup$ – CJ Dennis Feb 4 at 2:44
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There's other metrics to judge tech level.

EG: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kardashev_scale

That scale starts pretty grandiose (eg: on the planetary scale).

But, generally, to judge tech, you judge it by... a) inputs ... what fuels it b) outputs .. what can it accomplish

Lets say we got a message from an alien civilization... * if it came over radio waves.. we know they're sort of primitive, because radio waves are not that hard to produce. Obviously they're not banging rocks together. * if it was light pulses, they have some kind of advanced laser device to direct-pulse light at us * if it was some kind of sub-space radiation (Star Trekky stuff we can't think of yet) then they're even more advanced.

Bringing this down another scale... * you see smoke signals on the horizon.. obviously the person knows how to make fire * you see flashing light on the horizon... someone has enough tech to shine up an object to reflect light * you see flashing light at night .. someone has enough tech to make a flashlight * you get a signal on your radio / walkie-talkie.. someone can broadcast "waves" of some type (radio waves, etc).

The assumption of tech goes up and up based on the method of communication.. not what they're communicating. Because the method of communication makes us wonder what input was required (what kind of energy and technology) to create that output.

If we really wanted to get high-tech about this, we could run various cultures alphabets through data science / machine learning algorithms along with variables for what kind of technology they have (or even just flagging them as 1st, 2nd, 3rd world countries), and let the computer tell us if there's enough variation to for-sure say that characters in an alphabet does indeed dictate a certain level of technology. (Because essentially the machine learning algorithm would just do pattern matching and statistics to see if there's enough probability to say for sure.)

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you, your answer is great and generally correct but in my specific use case I can't judge the civilization in question by normal means like Kardashev scale. This civilization possesses extremely little if any of own technology and everything they use they stole from other civilizations and once they got some technology they generally don't bother replacing it. For example let's say they stole our computer tech in 1990 and then some advanced hyperdrive, they would use 1990 like computers to control this hyperdrive. $\endgroup$ – lsrom Feb 3 at 11:55
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    $\begingroup$ @lsrom From that description, that civilization is on the lowest rank of any sensible scale: They don't understand the tech, they just use it like magic rings. It only takes a few individuals that actually understand what they are doing, and they will come up with improvements. Your civilizations seems to lack all of these individuals, and thus cannot develop in any way. $\endgroup$ – cmaster Feb 3 at 19:58
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    $\begingroup$ I think it may be wrong to assume that if a message arrives in radio frequencies, the sender must have radio technology. Maybe they just happen to have naturally evolved capability for radio communication just as we have it for sound waves in air. The same goes for any spectrum and medium you can think of. Maybe that primitive looking smoke signal has high density data in it, and you can read it only by deciphering the complex molecules (assembled by nano-machines) in it with spectral analysis spanning the UVB to X-RAY range. $\endgroup$ – edgerunner Feb 3 at 20:53
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No.

We can see some examples in our present day society.

A very simple language would be Coorgi-Cox. Coorgi-Cox Table

However a very complicated language that has tons of symbols would be mandarin Chinese. Chinese

There is no way you can tell how advanced a civilization is just by looking at the number of characters.

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  • $\begingroup$ The Coorgi-Cox alphabet looks a lot like a Brahmi script, so I looked it up, and lo and behold, it is for one of India's many languages! $\endgroup$ – CJ Dennis Feb 4 at 1:12
  • $\begingroup$ I demur. A small alphabet is indicative of doing more with less, a sure sign of advancing technology. If you're about to try reduction ab adsurdum with a mention of binary, my response is that there's a sweet spot determined by economics, convenience, versatility and the characteristics of media. $\endgroup$ – Peter Wone Feb 4 at 9:31
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A better way to judge, based solely on these messages, is counting how many distinct words there are. You don't need to know what these words mean, only how many there are. The size of a culture's vocabulary does correlate with how advanced they are. You can't discuss a topic you don't have the words for, after all.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a great point, thank you. This of course depends on the size of dataset, you can't judge number of words from two pages worth of text but that's not a problem. Only problem I see is that the language in question can have some grammatical rules that change the word based on its use. $\endgroup$ – lsrom Feb 5 at 7:53
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    $\begingroup$ Another problem is that the messages may only be about one subject. This would mean the words would not be an effectively random sample from their vocabulary. Maybe the message is just a bunch of greetings, we've sent similar things before. How much do you know about our vocabulary from a message like "Hello! We are Earthlings, nice to meet you!" $\endgroup$ – Ryan_L Feb 5 at 16:29
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No is indeed the answer. There is no real relation that can be drawn between the number of glyphs a society has, and its sophistication or tech level. Let's look at written human languages.

There lots of variants of writing systems, but there are really two basic kinds of writing systems in common use: Logographic and Phonographic.

Logographic systems use glyphs to stand in for words (or phrases). Every different word gets its own glyph. This means in theory you need a different one for each word or concept in the language, which for most languages would number at least in the 10's of thousands at the absolute least. There is one Chinese dictionary with over 100,0000 different glyphs in it.

Phonographic systems instead use their glyphs to represent spoken sounds. This has a huge advantage for new learners in that there aren't nearly as many of those. English is on the high side with over 10,000 syllables, but that beats the heck out of its vocabulary of 200,000 words. With the further innovation of splitting tongue positions (vowels) from consonants, we can get that down to something we can represent with only 26 glyphs. Alphabets the world over are roughly this size. In fact, Archeologists can make a pretty good guess at the encoding scheme used by untranslated works just by cataloging the number of glyphs used. That's all it tells us. Not their sophistication, just the kind of scheme they used.

The drawback to a phonographic system with their small number of glyphs is that the writing really only tells you what the words sound like, not what they mean. You have to rely on spoken language knowledge to get over that final hump. This means Phonographic systems aren't very good for dealing with situations where the two parties can't understand each other's spoken language very well. This is why China with all its different languages"dialects" has stuck with a logographic system to the present day.


Now let's think about aliens. Suppose they, like most humans, decide to go with a phonographic system for encoding their language. How many glyphs would that use? The answer is, we have no clue. That would depend on how they vocalize, and what all the various options there are. Without knowing that, we couldn't even begin to guess what their encoding scheme was. A human language with 100 glyphs we can fairly confidently place as a (phonographic) syllabary. For an alien, for all we know their vocalization mechanisms are so complex that we are looking at a simplified alphabet. Or more likely, they don't have a tongue at all, and we just simply don't know.

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Ok. Alphabetical symbols is one thing. Decoding them and understanding its meaning either in phonetics or in math is another. Combination of those as a possibility is another. Combination of those with communicational and common understanding between two parties is something else.

Question 1: If the language uses just a few letters, it is probably simplistic and hard to use for passing complex thoughts? And if so, can we assume that the civilization using this language is probably primitive? or Can a number of letters in alphabet suggest how advance the civilization is?

If the language can communicate with just a few letters complete thoughts (thoughts are always complex) then yes, for the person who is learning the 10 letters and their combinations with the possible meanings, then one can communicate through that language. The answer is hidden behind the word "combination" which as a symbol can stand alone or in combination with another can create a new symbol. An then the combination of the combined symbols can create a word or a new symbol. If you want to communicate the new symbols there must be logic hidden behind them - common to all as of the rules for making new symbols which have a meaning and thus can be translated to thought. Or we can decide that grammatical symbols can have mathematical representation/understanding as well. Complicated? Not, if you speak Greek. Example: There is a saying in ancient greek which is a prayer of a mother to her son and it is written in simple vowels, and only vowels - 7 of them.

"Οία η Ηώ, Ω Υιέ αεί Ει" in capital letters, "ΟΙΑ H ΗΩ, Ω ΥΙΕ ΑΕΙ ΕΙ"

translation: "Like the Dawn oh my Son always Be".

Here are the 7 vowels of the Greek alphabet: Α, Ε, Η, Ι, Ο, Υ, Ω

Here what follows is a combination of vowels in the greek language (Diphthongs) which represent similar vowel sounds but used for different grammatical reasons:

ΑΙ, ΟΙ, ΕΙ, ΟΥ, ΥΙ, ΑΥ, ΕΥ, ΗΥ

And even though I am not aware if there is a language out there which can create words and sentences with the use of vowels, there is no such a thing as less civilized or more civilized because of that. It describes the plasticity and the logic behind the phonetics and thus it is a language which offers more versatility for the user to create coding. Also, Greek is a language which has accepted few changes in its structure and it is spoken through centuries while people can read ancient greek (not common use as the "koine") and understand the meaning without knowing the meaning of the exact word they read, and that because of its logic behind formation of the words.

Question 2: Also, is there a practical limit to how little characters can alphabet have to allow for some possibility of scientific progress? For example, is it OK to assume that civilization using only 10 letters is capable of space travel?

Because the Greek alphabetical symbols (24) are also mathematical symbols, I believe that it is possible for space travel with ten numbers 0-9 and by the creation of a mathematical language (numerical symbols are universally known) as it allows for unlimited combinations.

Thank you for your contribution. It was a good opportunity to express my thoughts on the matter. I hope it was helpful.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your input! I like the thought about mathematical language. Might use it somewhere.... $\endgroup$ – lsrom Feb 5 at 22:51
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Letters are just a context-sensitive representation of phonemes. There's nothing to suggest an Alien intelligence would communicate with phonemes.

But assuming an alien intelligence where to use phonemes (or their analogs in their alien experience), there's nothing to suggest such an intelligence would choose to represent those phonemes.

As Larry Niven once postulated: "There exist minds that think as well as you do, but differently."

A society might communicate via zeros-and-ones analogs, or by a discrete set of signals: think how cephalopods communicate with their chromatophores. There's nothing that could prevent an alien intelligence from evolving communication with a very limited array of chromatophore changes (say in RGB) with changes flashing rapidly and in multiple locations, each color change (and chromatophore position).

We do not need go to further away from Earth.

The Rotokas language has only 12 sounds and the smallest alphabet. The Pirahã register used by Pirahã women is supposed to contain only 10 phonemes. Aymara, Quechua, has only 3 vowels.

Ubykh has only two vowels, but an insane number of consonants, and the Caucasus region is famous for languages with prodigious sound repertoire.

OTH, consider the aliens in "Arrival" who wrote with complex circular logographs with no relation with how they "spoke" (kind of like cool-looking circular QR codes, hahaha.)

Anyways, yeah, there's no relation between phoneme/letter repertoire and culture complexity/intelligence.

The notion doesn't even need to exist as a requirement for intelligence, unless we limit intelligence to that which we know (which reeks of Anthropocentrism.)

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Ooh, a toothy question, with some good answers already. But I think there's more fat to be chewed here yet.

As you've established from other answers, some "alphabets" encode entire word stems in single characters. Others, single phonemes. Others, single bits of information.

All of these can encode the same words of the same language. They just work at different "transport layers" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OSI_model).

And that's the problem. MEssages, and the alphabets therein, don't come from nothing. You aren't going to get a scientist poring over an "alphabet" without first poring over a whole lot more. Communication is a layered activity, and any scientist will be looking at the communication in terms of those layers.

So exploring the layers here may be informative, though the OSI model assumes bidirectional communication, so isn't ideal here.

At the bottom layer, we have the physical layer. This is the layer that user @blahblah suggested investigating: the "how the data got to Earth" layer. This is the "carrier", perhaps a radio wave, perhaps a metal plate found in a space ship, perhaps a strip of ferrous metal.

Next layer up, we have how that carrier was permuted to have a signal encoded onto it. Radio waves are not, by themselves, any kind of bits, characters, DNA, picture, or anything like that. How did they encode the signal on their carrier? AM? FM? Some other thing? If it was a metal plate, were characters etched into it, scratched, cast, stamped, painted on, glued on...? If it was a ferrous strip, did they reverse the magnetism at set periods in lines and columns (how our magstripes work), or did they arrange the magnetic regions in some other, more complex pattern? All this tells us something about the technology that transmitted it.

And how fine are the details? If they vary over multiple seconds, that tells different things than if they vary over nanoseconds. A microfiche slide is at a very different scale than a rune-carved dolmen; GHz radio comms are very different from manual morse code telegraphy; and data density on a modern hard drive platter is very different from that on a credit card strip. This doesn't give an upper bound to their tech level, but it gives a lower one, and also shows how far they hoped their message to go (in general, you speak slower and louder to be heard further away).

And what data correction did they have in their protocol? Was it just "if we repeat it enough times, it'll get through"? Or were there checksums and other error correction?

Given how they permuted the physical layer, how did they encode the data? Bits, for binary or morse-code type communication? Continuous analog levels, such as we might use for brightness levels in a TV raster image? Unique values, for words or characters?

And there can be many levels of encoding of the signal. Perhaps the signal, once decoded, builds raster images of characters. Perhaps the signal has unique values, each one of which maps to a character. Perhaps the signal is a sequence of commands which, when executed correctly, generate the characters.

Perhaps it's a bunch of bits or trits that need to be assembled according to some pattern into characters, which in turn need to be gathered into words, which in turn need to be gathered into phrases, which in turn need to be decoded as commands, which in turn need to be... you get the idea.

And you see there that the alphabet that was used to encode the words of he phrases of the commands is just another layer of encoding, like all the others.

So perhaps, to judge a language, we should look at a level other than the alphabet. Words, perhaps? The size of their vocabulary? But can even that help us? I do not believe so.

The highest level I think you can get in language is the statement, command or instruction. "Give me all your money". "It is sunny today". That kinda thing. Most human languages contain an infinite number of these.

Now I'm gonna make a logical leap here and say: any language can describe any concept. That's a big idea. You often hear "there's no way in English to say the concept X", where X is something like schadenfreude or whatever. Now, ignoring for the moment the fact that schadenfreude is totally an English word now, you'll note that the dictionary entry for it defines the word in English. So while in some language there may not be a native term for "blue", you can damn well bet there's a native phrase that can be used to describe blue.

Let's look at the field of computing. It has been shown that any system which is Turing complete can do anything that any other computer can do, including evaluate any arbitrary algorithm.

And there is a set of computer languages which have a minimal instruction set, languages such as brainfuck (8 instructions) and JSFuck (6 instructions). These languages have been shown to be Turing complete.

Therefore, any mathematical, logical or algorithmic concept can be imparted using a vocabulary of just 6 instructions. I'm not going to say this is equivalent to a human language, but it distills a truly vast area of human discourse down to 6 commands.

Therefore, I'd argue, vocabulary size won't tell you anything either. Even things like whether it complies with Zipf's Law don't tell you anything like whether it's a constructed or natural language or anything, since that arises from the way the language is used, not from how it was created.

So overall, I think that your scientists are going to be focusing on the information they can get from the "metadata", the "how it was done", rather than the actual message itself.

Note that until/unless the message has been deciphered, the readers of the message cannot tell that this layer was stolen tech. Perhaps not even then, unless the message explicitly says so.

Even then, they have no way of knowing where along the chain of communication layers the "stolen" stuff ends and the "stuff they are doing" starts. Did they steal the radio transmitter? The error correction mechanism? Did they steal the encoding? The alphabet? The language? We have historical examples of all of these on Earth, so we know all are possible.

Even if the stolen parts are clearly marked as such, it still tells the scientists information about the societies that the scavenger-culture has access to, so it's still valuable and will still be studied. Not only that, but it tells the scientists about the sending society that they can use the tech, so again, still useful.

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The alphabet per se doesn't help you, but the quantity of information they exchange might. Essentially there are deep connections between energy and information. In information theory, we measure information using entropy, a term you might previously have associated purely with the laws of thermodynamics.

Where this helps you is that there are theoretical (for now!) lower bounds on the energy required for computation/information processing. Let's assume your protagonists are monitoring the total energy emitted by the alien civilization (thermodynamics again, energy is never created or destroyed, just transformed) as well as reading transmissions: they could then calculate that the aliens are using nearly all their energy for information processing, using computers that function close to the physically-allowed limit (imagine an Earth in which data centers use all resources not absolutely required to keep us humans alive).

This would be a little scary because it means the aliens have computers that reach the limit of what is possible in our universe and dedicate nearly their whole economy to running their ultra-efficient data centers. Of course, this doesn't leave much energy for traditional weapons, but you can imagine what they could do with cyber weapons!

More imaginatively, they are mostly playing some hyper-advanced version of Fortnite, and their strategy - if they even notice you! - will be to let you join their ultra-addictive game, so carefully attuned to your reward system that you'll forget your plans for galactic hegemony and focus on climbing their leaderboard instead.

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