Recently when pondering the hypothetical scenario of first contact, the alien race we meet may have very different cultures, ethics, technologies, philosophies etc. to the point that whatever they present are phenomena or things that human languages do not have terms to describe, let alone comprehend, yet. (For example: suppose the extreme case where the alien is a Lovecraftian creature)

But like all ambassadorial meetings between two distinct cultures, communication is important and if a misconception is allowed to grew, it can escalate into conflict very quickly.

By focusing this issue in terms of trying to figure out the alien's language based on what behaviours are considered hostile to them, and which of their behaviours are considered hostile to us, it does seem to be a very complex generalisation of the famous True, False, Random puzzle.

Therefore we'll consider that both sides are trying not to screw up communications by trying to make the fewest mistakes possible in learning as much as possible of each other's language and culture:

  • What is the most efficient and reliable way to learn a completely foreign language (and its culture) while minimising the potential for life threatening conflict?
  • Can logic learnt from the True False Random puzzle be generalised to handle such scenarios?

Addenum: Some users might consider that the same type of question could be asked between a developed nation vs an unknown tribe or group, or between humans and another other terrestrial species, or even human communicating with superhuman AI. While the contexts are similar, the degree of tension is very different for the extraterrestrial case as neither side knows the capabilities of the other to harm; whereas in the other cases, there are bases upon which we might guess their capabilities to threaten humans.

  • $\begingroup$ This seems maybe much more appropriate for Worldbuilding SE, which specializes in such hypothetical and counter factual thinking $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 28, 2016 at 15:35
  • $\begingroup$ Hmm ok, how to migrate the question? $\endgroup$
    – Secret
    Commented Nov 28, 2016 at 15:36
  • $\begingroup$ ok nvm, I don't have the reputation to send the migrate command to SE, I guess I have to wait for others to help me on that $\endgroup$
    – Secret
    Commented Nov 28, 2016 at 15:47
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    $\begingroup$ There is a very good discussion of this subject at LanguageLog. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Nov 28, 2016 at 16:15
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    $\begingroup$ your first hurdle is determining what senses the alien has. A problem they would have with us as well. The basic body plan and biology of the alien will give you some hints. But really some math puzzles will go a long way to creating some common communication. It will let you establish things like true and false. Our mathematicians will probably be communicating before we figure out how ti say hello. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Nov 28, 2016 at 16:28

3 Answers 3


There are some things that we assume are going to be true for any species in the universe. $1 + 1 = 2$ will always be true. Large bodies will tend to move toward each other. Any species that has advanced to the point that they can travel through space to reach us will understand these things. They will have the ability to recognize patterns.

Taking inspiration from The Lageos Plaque, it seems reasonable that such a species could determine the pattern shown top and center as a representation of the numbers 1 to 10. If nothing else, it seems like a best bet for bare minimum "first contact" type communication, like electromagnetic pulses.

There may not seem to be much information contained in a message like that, but the aliens could likely deduce that:

  1. We are smart enough to count and transmit information deliberately.
  2. We noticed them.
  3. We want to communicate with them and may be more curious than aggressive.
  4. We have base ten mathematics and base two mathematics.

If they let us actually meet face-to-face, we can trade scientific diagrams of universal physical phenomena, like gravity and electromagnetism, and exchange words (or if they're deaf, written characters) that explain what these concepts are called. These will help us to get a grasp of cultural items like notations, orientation (left means forward, right means backward), and etc, and let us gauge each other's advancement in understanding of the universe. We can also get more personal and express that we are "humans" and that each of us has a name.

From there, regardless of difference in culture, we could advance pretty much like any other language. Go grab a pencil, say "pencil." Maybe we should wait to teach them the word for a blaster until they trust us a little more though...

  • $\begingroup$ Talking about a Lovecraftian creature, could we say that if they recognize distinct numeric representations, series or sucessions, they understand the concept of alphabet or syllabus, therefore word and sound, therefore art and music? is music and film proyection a good idea? $\endgroup$
    – UrielUVD
    Commented Nov 29, 2016 at 6:03
  • $\begingroup$ Math. Prime numbers. simple logic. concepts that are not affected by your number base system. Take a peek at Carl Sagan's "contact" book. (book please not movie!) it goes over this matter in excruciating detail. $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Commented Jan 26, 2021 at 21:04

Taking it back to the undiscovered tribes aspect, the first thing is to try and indicate non-aggression.

Some parts of this will likely be universal - for example, it's very likely that being surrounded will imply more of a threat than staying back and sending an individual or small group forward to communicate. Other aspects will be more difficult and depend on knowledge of each others' weapons and capabilities - for example, all human civilisations will understand the principle of pointy sticks being weapons; hence a pointy stick or similar aimed at someone is an aggressive act, lowering it is less so, and grounding it could be seen as distinct sign of non-aggression. However, with more advanced weapons the equivalents may not be understood; for example slewing turrets towards an enemy would be well-understood by other people, but perhaps not by an alien race.


I think that an efficient communication depends on how aliens and us perceives and process information / data about reality and about they/us. How do they represent themselves? The time? The space? Do they have / have not thoughts? Do they have/have not ideas about individuality? They can/can't perceive and process environment data as individuals? We are visiting their environment?, we are visited? (Only from technological / scientific / economical perspectives this has powerful implications on how we / they can communicate data / information, how we / they can understand and build systems of communications).

I think that as long as you have a more precise idea about the scenario, this will give you better ideas about the efficient/safest way to communicate for that specific scenario.

I have a wonderful example. Isaac Asimov and The Gods Themselves (I will refer about the Second part but this is also related with the other parts). He have tried to give us some brilliant ideas about how other beings lives in a different universe, and how they is trying to communicate with us, with different systems of perceptions / representations / communications / transformation of the reality, but in the end, I think for a narrative / understandable purpose, similar to us (I think that for Assimov was a pain to write about beings with different system of to process, to think and to transform reality and themselves, without giving to us similarities of "our" reality, but I am sure that it would have been possible for him, but less understandable for us and maybe less "commercial").

BTW, now is presented the movie Arrival (which is based in the "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang) is another interesting example about the implications, assumptions, problems and misconceptions of communications with aliens.


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