In sci-fi movies and tv shows, English happens to be the Lingua Franca of most alien civilisations humans come into contact with. Even upon first contact.

The obvious reason for this is that these movies are largely produced to be shown to English speaking audiences.

Lets assume there are many planets in our galaxy that are inhabited by intelligent beings like our own, but due to the different physical characteristics of these planets, they posses quite different biological characteristics

Lets say various Alien civilisations communicate by: Whistling, grunting, radio-waves, exchanging proteins, exchanging electronic data etc etc...

What would we humans as explorers need to do to establish diplomatic communications with such societies?

Could a lingua franca be possible on a galactic scale?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ To me, that looks like two questions in one: as your title state: the possibility of a lingua franca, and what humans explorers need. Maybe consider editing your post..? $\endgroup$ Jun 5 '15 at 6:56
  • $\begingroup$ Are you assuming faster-than-light travel? $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Jun 5 '15 at 7:40
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ I don't think any but the absolute stupidest movies and TV shows really do show English as the galactic lingua franca on first contact. What they do is either have some explanation about how the aliens have been listening to our broadcasts and really are speaking English, or have some handwavium about a translation machine and then apply a translation convention. (tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TranslationConvention) $\endgroup$ Jun 5 '15 at 8:46
  • $\begingroup$ Telepathy... no need for visual or sonic cues what a convenient an electronic version is universal communicator/translater in star trek universe. $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Jun 5 '15 at 12:07
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ See also en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uplift_Universe#Languages --- but David Brin's Uplift Universe has the advantage of a common ancestor, so the basic logical aspect of language are common. $\endgroup$
    – Rmano
    Jun 5 '15 at 15:36

There are two interlinked problems to a lingua franca that works for multiple sentient species. One is, as you have said, that the lingua franca would have to work for species whose means of speech varied between "Whistling, grunting, radio-waves, exchanging proteins, exchanging electronic data etc etc..." The other problem is deeper and more difficult.

Problem number one could be dealt with by having the common part of the lingua franca be at the level of conceptual structures; the part of grammar dealing with basic classification of nouns and verbs and adjectives - or something even more universal than these divisions. Then on top of that there would be the actual means of speech, which might vary between species but could probably be translated by computers or people given that the grammar was already the same.

There is a real life example of this sort of thing now. As you probably know, the various sign languages used by the deaf, such as British Sign Language and American Sign Language, are languages with a grammar very different from the spoken language (English) in the same territories. For instance sign languages, being received visually, often use the fact that information can be relayed from the face and the position of the hands simultaneously. However when people go deaf later in life they often find it hard to pick up a whole new language such as BSL or ASL, so they use Signed English, when each word is signed in the order that it would be spoken in English. It is "clunky" compared to the true sign language because the necessarily sequential nature of a spoken language adapts badly to the more "parallel" nature of a gestural language. But it is easy to learn for a native English speaker and works as a sort of lingua franca.

Problem number two is more profound - what if the thought of aliens is so, well, alien that we simply cannot find common concepts?

We could only establish whether an alien species shared enough common concepts to build a lingua franca between them and us by trial and error. We might be spared the bother if other established spacefaring species interacting with each other had already done most of the work for us. All we would need to do was add the specific English / Mandarin / Hindi or other local surface layer to the off-the-shelf translation machine that comes with the Galactic Federation welcome pack.


If faster-than-light travel is possible, then a galactic lingua franca is possible.

Consider written and spoken English: the language is the same, despite being encoded using two very different sets of symbols (marks on paper vs. variations in air pressure). A galactic lingua franca simply requires that your species establish a transformation between a set of symbols that you understand, and a set of symbols that some other party uses.

If faster-than-light travel is impossible, then a lingua franca is, at best, highly improbable. Languages evolve, even trade languages that nobody uses as a first language. Given a minimum edge-to-edge travel time of 100,000 years, the language will have shifted so much that effectively each contact will be a first contact, at least from a linguistic standpoint.

  • $\begingroup$ Excellent point that we already have an example of the same language being "translated" into completely different physical forms of communication in the written and spoken versions of Earth languages. This is so familiar that it's easy to forget about it, as I did. $\endgroup$ Jun 5 '15 at 8:33
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Bookeater, the problem with a slower-than-light lingua franca is that there are no forces promoting large-scale coherency. You know the language as used by your local trading group, but if you travel to the far side of the galaxy, all you know is what the language was 200,000 or more years ago; with that sort of delay, there's no practical difference between "remind" and "learn from scratch". In contrast, FTL lets you find out what the language was far more recently. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Jun 5 '15 at 9:36
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Pretty much agree with the reasoning, but I think the first premise should be inverted.. for the lingua franca to be possible, FTL must be possible. But FTL alone would not make the lingua franca possible (again, translation is not the same than a lingua franca) $\endgroup$
    – SJuan76
    Jun 5 '15 at 13:50
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I like the idea of the captain of a transport ship in a non-FTL galactic society, where every time he lands at his destination he has to re-learn a new language, even though the people there insist it's the same one they were using when he left. $\endgroup$ Jun 5 '15 at 15:33
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ FTL travel is not necessarily required (though it would certainly increase the desirability of a lingua franca as trade would probably be more prolific). What is really required is FTL communication. (For an example, I'd offer the Ender's Game universe- travel is limited to sub-light and has all the inconveniences of relativity, but the Ansible network allows instantaneous communication via quantum entanglement.) $\endgroup$
    – jmbpiano
    May 30 '18 at 21:22

There is a lot of philosophy involved here, so you could start out by reading Wittgenstein to get the basics, but that's a lot of work and I don't know that I understand most of it myself, so I'm not going to get too deeply involved on that side of things, so I'm going to talk about my day job instead:

Assumption 1: We might expect that spacefaring races would develop machine computation or something like it.

Assumption 2: We might expect that early communication avenues between alien species to be related to scientific enquiry and trade.

Obviously, both are open to challenge, but starting with them offers the interesting proposition that rather than a language as such, the starting point for communication might be a standard data interchange format rather than something equivalent to our spoken languages. This could begin from universal mathematical concepts so that newcomers to it would be able to decode it in a simple way and then allow data interchange in more sophisticated but fundamentally literal ways - quantities, images and so on.

This interchange language could then be adapted to allow translation via whatever type of interface the users of the language needed, so we might put it on screen or turn it into sound, the Xanziklargians will convert it into pheromones while the Mn''z' will convert the data into gamma ray pulses and the Aeiazima Windwraiths turn it into fine threads of warm and cold nitrogen. Everyone's translation software is different but the data they are translating is standard.

The language may develop extensions that allow more detailed communication between species which have concepts and ideas in common, but the basic interchange format will need to be limited if it is to be universal. The conflict between universality and detail makes this a very interesting area to contemplate.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ You must have the most exotic day job in the world if you deal with interspecies languages while doing it. :) $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Jun 5 '15 at 12:08
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Do you work for the Men in Black? $\endgroup$
    – Marv Mills
    Jun 5 '15 at 13:09
  • $\begingroup$ I work for some men, certainly, but they wear a variety of colours. Also my job may relate more to data interchange than interspecies language translation :( ... though I guess my main hobby is about interspecies languages :) $\endgroup$
    – glenatron
    Jun 5 '15 at 13:11

If contact is possible, a Lingua Franca is inevitable. Historically speaking this happened whenever more than 2-3 different cultures were able to communicate. Trade, exchange of information, many reasons drive the need for contact.

A single communal language is the common answer.

Step one in diplomatic contact is to learn to communicate and to build trust.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ But that does not address the OP's point that some aliens may communicate through means undetectable by others. For example, an alien race that communicates by changing color in the infrared spectre, or releasing certains chemicals. How would an human understand that? $\endgroup$
    – SJuan76
    Jun 5 '15 at 7:36
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @SJuan76 irrelevant: either you can communicate, or you can't. If you can communicate (somehow!), then a lingua franca is inevitable. If you can't communicate at all, then the point is moot (but it doesn't make sense anyway to assume you can't communicate: two intelligent species will inevitably find a way, somehow). $\endgroup$
    – o0'.
    Jun 5 '15 at 8:51
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @Lohoris but the communication of two species does not mean a lingua franca; if you have a common language/way of communication between species A and B, a different one between B and C, a different one between A and C there is no lingua franca. And communication can be achieved through traduction, which is a concept that does not involve lingua franca at all (the fact that you can translate English to Russian does not mean that there is an English-Russian lingua franca, does it?) $\endgroup$
    – SJuan76
    Jun 5 '15 at 11:48
  • $\begingroup$ Even without FTL, as long as enough generation ships and civilisations are around long enough this whole galaxy will thrum with signals. SETI will bounce! As long as enough time has passed since the first signal I expect most will involve teaching and applying the Lingua Franca. $\endgroup$
    – Bookeater
    Jun 5 '15 at 16:31

It is hard to imagine a space faring race not being able to see or have a written language. So while they may have some means of communication we are not able to see/hear etc., it should be possible to be able to communicate using some sort of visual written set.

Now off topic SETI has been listening for some time now and has heard nothing. That means that there has been nothing in range that has some sort of communication we would understand and that means no alien races that are close by to us. There may be other intelligent life in the universe but nothing close. If faster-than-light travel is possible is it FAR more likely that someone would just show up or we would find them long before SETI would hear anything.

  • $\begingroup$ I've got no trouble imagining one that doesn't have a written language: they've shifted over to video recordings for all transmission of knowledge. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Jun 8 '15 at 8:26

First of all,Aliens will probably have diffrent vocal cords and eyes(most of them,i believe)so the idea that English could be a Lingua Franca is kinda naive..I'm almost certain (and i have reasons to believe it) that there are diffrent "inteligences",not just human inteligence.And diffrent instincts,so what follows:diffrent kind of logic.

There are two solutions to your problem:


I'm not talking about any mumbo jumbo or Jedi Knights,but mind reading technology that is theoretically possible.A device could read your brain waves and transmit it (like a phone call of sorts)to another device of alien lifeforms.This way you could "see" or "feel" what they want to communicate.There are two diffrent versions:

1.Translation of brainwaves into words/sounds of an alien,something like a speaker that will tell an Alien what you thought of.It may be problematic:remember,aliens may be asexual,have diffrent genders,or just completely diffrent set of instincts,so it may still sound nonsensical for them.I guess it also depend on the translation devices.Would they be able to translate everything into another laungage ?The answer is yes when the type of species is similar to humans.We may use similar things here on Earth in 100-200 years or so.

2.Translations of "feelings".This is probably far-fetched,and i cannot see how it would work from the scientific/Engineering perspective.However,when this mind reading or "telepathic" technology is perfected,someone's thoughts could be "translated" into visions or feelings.You could suddenly underrstand what an alien wants and feels like about particular subject.If you want to make it cooler and more mysterious,it could work like a VR of sorts.You would be taken to a virtual world where you could experience the same senses,smells,pain etc.This way you could really understand other species.

Lets call those devices "telephators".Also,note that this all assumes that FTL travel is possible.Without it,it is impossible to keep track of the telephator technology,as those devices need to be compatible with each other.But with FTL a common system could be used.You could think of a fancy name for it and it would work like a "telephatic internet"of sorts.

Prothean Laungage

Inspired by a videogame called "Mass Effect".Imagine an ancient civilisation that has spread all over the galaxy and has left structures with a written laungage(or something else)in many star systems.Because it is a dead laungage,it never changes,it is used in interspecies communication and it is "standarized"for this purpose,and no one uses it in daily life.You get the picture.

This version assumes that Alien species are at least remotely similar to homo sapiens,and even when they have 6 hands or tentacles ,they can at least see a writing system.Note that an Alphabet, Sylabic Alphabet or Abjad is a poor choice:it has to be an iconographic/logographic system like Egyptian hieroglyphs or Chinese Hanzi,where every symbol has a meaning.Memorizing like 100 000 diffrent symbols poses no chalenge for human-like civilization,as you have computers everywhere and they will be able to upload new knowledge straight into their brain implants (or AR glasses or whatever).

If you want your laungage to be spoken,this complicated things.Inn this situation i would go for a Japanese-inspired way of writing.In Japanese,you can write everything in two diffrent versions of "Kana".In essence,they are syllabic Alpabets (one symbol,one syllable)Katakana is used for loan words ,foreign names,countries,plants and animals.Hiragana is used for everything that cant be written with Kanji (Chinese symbols used for Japanese).So majority of words that you see in this laungage are written with kanji,but in the same line you see a lot of Kana as well.

For our purposes,Kanji-like system could be used for species that want/must communicate only through written laungage (they could call those symbols in their own respective laungages,like Chinese read kanji diffrently than Japanese).And kana-like system for sounds....However,it still leaves the problem of deciphering those sounds when we first see them.An recording or some "biological scheme"(a plan of their bodies/genes that would show us how their communication worked)is needed.

In theory,other ways of communication can be found in those "prothean ruins".If a lot of these "dicitionaires"were spread across the Milky Way,they would be seen as the best standarized Lingua Franca (or a set of Lingua francas).

Later if i have more time i will review this answer in case i made some spelling mistakes,and maybe i will add an idea or two.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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