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If I want to have multiple intelligent species (with different languages for each), how can they exchange each other?

Some species may not have eyes, legs, hands, ears, ... so is there a way for a "universal language"?

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    $\begingroup$ If you like the question enough to answer it or to upvote an answer, remember to upvote the question too! Without good questions there would be no wbstack. $\endgroup$ – Willk Aug 22 at 18:59

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Teletubbies

I suspect that this is the true function of teletubbies. Not only do they have antennae for receiving and transmitting electromagnetic and electrochemical (see note) communication, but they also have a screen that can show pictorially what is being discussed. The ones in the TV program are clearly youngsters and their speech is immature. The adults receive full training in all modes of communication. They can receive in one medium and transmit in another.

Teletubby in action. Note the glowing antenna and the tummy screen.

enter image description here


Note

Electrochemical communication is done by ants when they touch feelers.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Aug 22 at 13:17
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    $\begingroup$ Yea this is ... original I guess? 😂 Brilliant indeed! $\endgroup$ – rphii Aug 23 at 0:34
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    $\begingroup$ Fun fact: the actress who played Po in the Tellytubbies later went on to star in the Channel 4 series "Metrosexuality", where she had a lesbian sex scene. Try and work THAT into your story... $\endgroup$ – Nzall Aug 24 at 11:44
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David Brin, in his Uplift Universe, used a set of standard languages.

The variety meant that most inhabitants had the physical capability to express themselves in one (sometimes more than one). Many could understand several, even if they lacked the physical ability to respond in the same language.

Just as importantly, most folks correctly assumed that any intelligent being they met spoke one of these known languages, even if they didn't quite recognize which one immediately.

Gal One: Purely mathematical and similar to Morse code. Extremely slow.

Gal Two: Bridging language.

Gal Three: Squeaks and honks. Favored by the Gubru.

Gal Four: Sonar based.

Gal Five: Grunts and growls. Used by the T'4Lek.

Gal Six: Hisses. Synthians and Thennanins.

Gal Seven: Tone language. Tymbrimi.

Gal Eight: Hoots and honks. Jophur and Rosh.

Gal Nine: Chiming, syncopated. Kanten, Linten, Siqul.

Gal Ten: Fluting, sonar-like. Brothers of the Night.

Gal Eleven: Bridging language. Cautious, often redundant. Used between different Orders of life.

Gal Twelve: Throaty, used by the Soro. 2 billion years old.

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    $\begingroup$ This sounds very interesting. I got to incorporate this somewhere. Maybe mix that with @Willk's thought, "Symbiote creature", where there are creatures "more qualified" than others (you gotta start to learn somewere, my thought). $\endgroup$ – rphii Aug 23 at 0:42
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    $\begingroup$ I would have expected more variety in the languages. All of these are based on sound. Even human communication is more varied, like sign language, flashes of light or flags. $\endgroup$ – Florian F Aug 24 at 6:39
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    $\begingroup$ The OP said some species might have no ears. I don't think this set of languages is a solution to the problem. $\endgroup$ – Florian F Aug 24 at 14:24
  • $\begingroup$ @FlorianF feel free to use this as a base for your own better answer. This is merely a reference to what another author did in the past. Nobody claims that it's perfect, and I'm not going to put words in his mouth. It worked well for his world, and kept the story moving. In addition to visual symbolism (text, flags, sign language), you can include smells, telepathy, posture/body-shape representation, tactile, electric, bubbles, smoke signals, communicating with machines, etc., using the same basic concept of speak-one/understand-many. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Aug 24 at 14:38
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Yes

If you learn Dutch, you don't just learn to speak. You also learn to read and write. Extrapolate that to each form. Universal talk, write, sign, smell, touch. It might be that not everyone can do the same. Some might talk and some might wistle. So you have the universal standard for both.

It might be possible that people don't understand all parts of the universal communicator, but if everyone is learning it, they will likely have a common universal communication. It's already helping everyone has the same words and more or less grammar.

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    $\begingroup$ Nope. One can speak without knowing how to read and write. It was common practice until mandatory education became the norm, even for native speakers. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Aug 22 at 10:05
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch-ReinstateMonica Could you read a bit better? I mention it to show that a language can translate to multiple communication forms. So the education in his universe could have these as standard, like speaking and writing is for us now. $\endgroup$ – Trioxidane Aug 22 at 12:28
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    $\begingroup$ I read it: "If you learn Dutch, you don't just learn to speak. You also learn to read and write." And I repeat: nope. For the reasons I already exposed $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Aug 22 at 12:29
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch-ReinstateMonica so instead of a helpful comment to improve an answer you decide to bash it? I'll assist you. Would it help if I changed it to "You often learn to read and write"? Reason I didn't incude it is that it's general practice today to learn to speak as well as write a language for the majority of people. And all that is besides the point of the answer. $\endgroup$ – Trioxidane Aug 22 at 13:35
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    $\begingroup$ The title says Universal Language but the actual question is more about how can different beings communicate. A poorly worded question gives rise to disagreements over how it should be answered. You are simply disagreeing over what the question really asks. $\endgroup$ – barbecue Aug 23 at 17:54
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The way to do it would be to have a universal language that every other language could translate to. For example, you could do:

Dutch -> English -> Spanish

Hallo wereld! -> Hello world! -> Hola Mundo!

Of course, the central "language" would be some computer code for easier translation. Everyone would have some translation device that could hook up to the main language, the others translation device would then translate it to whatever they're used to.

The upside of this is that any new species can join this system no matter what. All they have to do is develop a device capable of translating their language to the central language and back. Individuals would not need to learn any skills and others wouldn't have to worry about new species being added to the group.

Any barriers in the form of mechanisms through which each specie communicates (for example smell vs sound) would be taken away because it's up to each species themselves to make their technology work.

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    $\begingroup$ Fun fact, this is actually how most computer translation systems actually work. Google Translate, for example, uses a binarized derivative of Esperanto for this (or at least, they did years ago, not sure if they still do). $\endgroup$ – Austin Hemmelgarn Aug 22 at 21:49
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    $\begingroup$ Actually, translation is mostly statistics AFAIK, so you're likely to lose context doing this. $\endgroup$ – bytepusher Aug 22 at 22:15
  • $\begingroup$ @bytepusher Context/framework/library should be specified in a programming language. $\endgroup$ – Cees Timmerman Aug 23 at 22:51
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    $\begingroup$ @AustinHemmelgarn Google Translate is now using a deep learning model: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_Neural_Machine_Translation . As far as I recall, they have a vector space representation for words, and complete sentences. Basically as you represent position with x, y, z coordinates, you can represent words and concepts with x1, x2... x128 coordinates. The cool thing is you can simply add concepts up, so adding "queen" + "male" would bring you quite close to "king". $\endgroup$ – csiz Aug 24 at 1:32
  • $\begingroup$ @bytepusher It's not really stats other than a level of confidence in terms of preservation of meaning. And quite often, you can in fact do this without losing functional meaning provided you don't get into untranslatable stuff like humor (or linguistic quirks like the verb indirection conjugations in languages like Finnish or Hindi). $\endgroup$ – Austin Hemmelgarn Aug 24 at 1:58
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Symbiote creature.

There is a life form that can speak them all. It is semi-telepathic and uses that to learn new languages and refine the ones it knows. In its home world it is a prey species that has adapted its telepathic abilities to become symbiotic with the large and formidable animals of its world. It rides around on these and so stays safe.

The language symbiotes are much in demand in the wider intergalactic world. They ride on intelligent species and augment their communication. They are themselves semi-intelligent. Having one of these with you allows you to communicate with nearly anything. They can also facilitate communication intraspecies. The symbiotic creatures are capable of more still, including modulating the mood of their hosts and possibly other functions. Some of these functions are considered unwelcome or possibly unethical by certain intelligent species. In some species the symbiotes are feared but considered a necessary evil, and one individual is designated to carry a symbiote and serve as translator with other intelligences.

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    $\begingroup$ This! Haven't thought of that, I'll keep that in mind... (I like the sound of that and kinda fits into my whole concept I got going on) $\endgroup$ – rphii Aug 23 at 0:28
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    $\begingroup$ This reminds me of 'Children of Ruin' by Adrian Tchaikovsky (amazon.com/gp/product/B07H29P76R) $\endgroup$ – Otkin Aug 23 at 10:59
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    $\begingroup$ Reminds me of Babel Fish from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. $\endgroup$ – Damian Yerrick Aug 23 at 14:05
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    $\begingroup$ Ooh, the Dnyarri slaver empire arises. $\endgroup$ – Corey Aug 24 at 4:21
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    $\begingroup$ It's a Babel Fish....... $\endgroup$ – Thorne Aug 28 at 6:37
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For the sake of argument let's take two representatives of species who cannot communicate due to incompatibility between their available communication modes and their sensory faculties.

Let's take humans (or a close approximation) and a hypothetical insectoid race for starters.

The bugs communicate natively with chemical signals that can encode extremely complex concepts. While they can hear quite well the range of hearing is outside the frequencies that humans can produce unaided. Their sight is sufficient for detecting medium-sized objects but for fine detail they rely on direct contact with small touch pads on their antennae, with an extremely well-developed kinesthetic sense filling in for body movement purposes. For some inexplicable reason they have almost exactly the same accuity in their sense of balance as humans do, but much more accute sense of tase.

So here we have a pair that quite clearly cannot communicate directly in any meaningful way. Humans can't even detect the majority of the chemicals the bugs use for communication, and the bugs have no idea that humans are even making noise let alone using it to communicate. What little overlap they do have in sensory ability is not useful for encoding real communication. Imaine the bugs' surprise when they discover that those half-perceived motions were humans attempting to get their attention.

If it wasn't for the fact that these bugs are advanced technology users Humans would probably not have even tried to communicate with them. How are we supposed to know that this silent, smelly monstrosity is even intelligent?

Now shift your gaze to the right a little to that odd-looking igneous rock formation. The one wearing the utility belt, yes. That's a senior member of a silicate species that communicates via dense bursts of radio, has no reaction at all to the visible spectrum, doesn't even understand what you mean by smell, taste, hear... and quite frankly was appaled to discover that carbon-based life was even a thing. If you thought the human and bug representatives had a hard time communicating, let's see them get started on a dialog with that one.

Clearly then there isn't going to be one method for communicating that will work for all of them. You're going to need a translation system that they can all interface to in their own way in order to get started.

But that's just mechanics. Take samples of their technologies and build a machine for each of them that will handle the input/output problem. Now we can get down to the real work.

Once you have a way to translate the mechanical aspects of communication the question about a universal language becomes more a question about a universal code. Assign code points to concepts as they are identified, build the code over time.

Of course no creature is going to be able to understand everything about another. There's a codepoint that means "ionic enrichment of the metagalvic organ" that is as meaningless to you as "petrichor" is to a life form with no chemical receptors to perceive it. You might understand what the words mean (let's assume) but you can't comprehend the context. And no matter how hard you try you're never going to get a four foot tall cockroach to understand dad jokes. They just don't seem to get it.

And inevitably you're going to run across something so alien that even the basics of logic don't make sense. It's hard enough to get two humans to agree on very simple logic, try it with a race that can't wrap their minds around a two-valued logic system.

So no, there's never going to be a universal language that all people can understand and use to communicate effectively. But there might be a way to build a code that at least minimizes the understanding gap.


One other point that I didn't touch on before is the encoding of syntax, something that is both extremely important potentially tricky.

In the original example of Human and Bug I mentioned that the Bug communication method encoded concepts into complex chemicals. Rather than stringing together a sentence composed of discrete components, as human speech does, the entire meaning of the communication is encoded and intended to be interpreted in gestalt. Attempting to unravel the gestalt to its component symbol equivalents will lose potentially important nuance. It might be equivalent to the difference between experiencing eating a bowl of ice cream vs hearing the words "eating a bowl of ice cream."

Now turn it around and try to see it from the Bug's perspective. A human says "eating a bowl of ice cream" and what you get is a series of essentially disconnected concepts that make no sense, there's no gestalt to allow you to understand what is being transmitted. Your brain just isn't configured to process language as a series of discrete components, you get meaning directly from the state changed in the communications centers of your brain when they encounter the chemicals your race emits.

There may be some problems like this that are just too difficult to overcome for any specific pairing. You might need to enlist the aid of an interpreter who can handle both modes of communication.

We have enough trouble with this when translating between human languages. That's why round-trip translations on Google Translate can come out looking very very strange.

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  • $\begingroup$ An interesting answer, viewing the topic from what we already know and figuring out how it may work. Was laughing out loud at dad joke part, that's very thoughtful, thanks! $\endgroup$ – rphii Aug 24 at 20:49
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To communicate, they must have something in common. They share mathematics, physics, and chemistry.

I don't know if much else is guaranteed. I was convinced of this by the Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, who wrote the novel Fiasco about first contact with an alien species. They had high technology, but nothing to say to us.

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  • $\begingroup$ Cool thought, thanks for sharing! $\endgroup$ – rphii Aug 23 at 0:37
  • $\begingroup$ Possibly also theology and cosmology. $\endgroup$ – elemtilas Aug 23 at 19:13
  • $\begingroup$ Fiasco's aliens sound socially inept like Skynet and the Matrix, resorting to human brains for creativity. $\endgroup$ – Cees Timmerman Aug 23 at 22:55
  • $\begingroup$ A concept like "socially inept" assumes they are social. I don't see why that must be. Maybe they reproduce by fission, inherit knowledge, and do not need anything from others. I guess they no longer can be called "a society." $\endgroup$ – user78956 Aug 24 at 15:41
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I'm unsure exactly how bizarre or outlandish your various species' methods of communications will be, but I imagine a morse-code style rhythmic language would cover all but the most extreme.
Tapping a surface in a particular rhythm with enough force that it would create both audible and tangible vibrations would cover those without sight and without hearing, and the binary nature of it could account for any species that communicates in a more technological/mathematical way devoid of visual or auditory input.
It could be entirely possible that if you have species who communicate in more extreme ways that they simply can't speak the same base language without additional assistance. For example, personal handheld pads (or, hell, apps on smartphones) that would release chemicals in response to the aforementioned tapping to communicate with a species that communicates by scent. The same device could be placed on the ground to vibrate through the floor for species that uses vibrations traveling through a solid medium rather than a gaseous one. It could light up in various colors in response to the pattern of tapping for a species that utilizes specific wavelengths of light rather than pitches of sound.
You could honestly go nuts with this idea, and the handicap of requiring a physical medium for some but not all different species to work with could create a variety of interesting situations. Sort of similar to Star Trek's universal translator, but less handwave-y and more mechanical in nature. You still need to know the morse-code-esque language (and presumably everyone would take a year or two of it in school or some such), but even if you know it, you simply can't get the ideas across in every method of communication without a device to act as an intermediary.

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Can they all make some form of sound or other means to communicate that can be understood by all the others?

Then, yes.

It would be fantastically complex language for very simple communications or even, arguably, several languages that just happen to exactly parallel each other in structure, but if each of the beings can express any given word in at least one form that any other being can fathom, they can have conversations in it and so have a language.

Even if you end up with a canary chirping and a dragon engaging in sign language to talk to each other. (Han and Chewbacca's conversations, or R2D2 and C3PO's, are a mild form of this.)

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Neural Networks

No, seriously. Neural. Networks.

A kind of internet where you plug in your conciousness. Your ghostly form can then sit in a cyber-chat room and exchange pure ideas and emotions, which require no language.

What if one species feels differently? Say it does not know the concept of hatred or melancholy? That's where it gets interesting. Be creative.

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That could be a taller order than it looks. There seem to be many more than 5,000 spoken languages here on Earth alone. That suggests you’re going for a Trekky-type universal translator, or weeding out uncountable numbers of non-contenders.

The UN has only six official tongues but the EU and India are drowning in dozens!

Elizabeth Moon’s Paksenarrion series includes an alien always surrounded by odd scents, which turn out to be his method of communication but if sound and light pollution are intrusive, how much more obstructive must scent be to the next words “spoken”?

SeaQuest DSV uses a primitive ancestor of Star Trek’s universal translator to turn dolphin clicks into basic English, spoiling its own effect with a squeaky-clicky accent. Oops!

A current UK TV ad has a lock-down victim bored enough to learn the theremin, used in original Star Trek title music and just a moment! Theremins work by some kind of inductance or interference or some such from the player’s hands and that I’ve heard, their only output has always been that weird music as in Star Trek, hardly above the level of a polyphonic ringtone and who says that’s a necessary restriction, even in the real world?

Almost in reverse, that’s vaguely related to Asimov’s Visi-Sonor, which reads nearly like a variant of Apple’s much later music-generated screen-colour thingy…

One-handed input devices have been around for at least 30 years and would be much more efficient than standard keyboards for phones, tablets and even computers… if only the marketeers could persuade Users to invest a tiny amount of learning time. Like, what makes anyone think Morse or Semaphore is hard, for anyone who wants to learn?

Have you any idea how little time it takes to become a more-than-half-way competent touch typist even on a normal keyboard? A couple of hours a day for less than two weeks; that's all!

Who remembers alpha-waves and more usefully, alpha-wave feed-back? 40-odd years ago any number of brainiac labs rigged electrode helmets to read at least one kind of brain wave and taught subjects to control those “alpha” waves, which were converted into sound and played back to relax the subject. Gosh, wow… but that was 40 years ago.

Alpha waves are one among at least seven types of brain-wave that - perhaps painstakingly - people can be taught to control. That provides at least “Yes” or “No” and prolly “More” or “Less” options on seven different axes.

Translate to musical notes and would you have less, or more than the current scale known on any instrument? At least 2^7, anyway.

Translate to musical chords and how would you even measure the options?

On the gripping hand, what’s wrong with any kind of symbiote, even if its description is no more meaningful than that of the Babel fish?

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LINCOS is the true universal language

How do you send your first message to an inteligent race elsewhere in the cosmos, where the receiver cant speak your language, cant understand your gestures or emotions, and cant reply in useful timeframe?

You start with something everyone has in common, integer counting. Count the number of beeps in each group, and then from counting, introduce comparisons, boolean operations, then maths, then logic, set theory, and work your way up through the sciences, maths (and properties of the signal) to define physics, physics to define chemistry, chemistry to define biology, biology to define sociology, defining everything as you go from its fundamentals up, essentially allowing those who recieved the message to first learn to translate the lincos dictionary into their own language.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lincos_language

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