Consider this:

A fallen spaceship is approached by a person of very high intelligence. Think of someone really really smart, like top 50 in the world.

How long would take for such a person to grasp another culture´s language and how their technology works? Would it even be possible? Or what would take to make it possible?

Even if we consider that the person making the analysis comes from the same planet, would be possible to crack the language? I live in the same planet as you guys and I cant read or understand any other language than the ones I already know.

Narrowing it down:

The person that makes the analysis has "immortal" lifespan. Comes from highly advanced culture, like elders, or the first ones in the universe. Member of a society extremely advanced that in the past was responsible for seeding other civilizations into existence.

Now he must analyze one artifact (the spaceship) that was made from a civilization formed by descendants (not directly) of his own.

Both civilizations didn't have any previous contact. But the beings are basically the same, lets go with essentially humans.

Is it cheating saying that the elder has super-intelligence and therefore can crack the language and linguistic systems and symbology of the newer civilization?

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    $\begingroup$ It depends on how such race communicates. If it is intelligent insects which use chemical signals, it would hard. I believe this is unanswerable. $\endgroup$ Dec 16, 2014 at 13:46
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    $\begingroup$ Also the probability of success is strongly linked to the ability of the investigator to work out how to recognise "self destruct" very quickly. $\endgroup$ Dec 16, 2014 at 13:53
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    $\begingroup$ Not only that the 'brilliant' person in question could depend very highly on the training they've had. $\endgroup$
    – bowlturner
    Dec 16, 2014 at 13:57
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    $\begingroup$ "Is it cheating saying that the elder has superintelligence" -- that depends. If he just has extremely good memory and reasoning ability, so he learns faster than a normal human being could, I don't think it's a problem. If the ability is essentially magical -- he has never seen Chinese writing before, but can pick up a book in Chinese and immediately know how to read it -- then yes, I think it's cheating. $\endgroup$ Dec 16, 2014 at 15:17
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    $\begingroup$ FWIW...the 'very high intelligence' is likely a hindrance here, outside of 'quick to learn'. Language (culture) tend to be related to perception, creativity, and intuition...which some of the most intelligent people in the world tend to struggle with (fiction, but Sheldon in 'the Big Bang Theory' is an obvious example, Russel Crowe in a beautiful mind). I would give an intuitive person better odds here when it comes to language. We are social beings, a group of people would be able to put this together far far quicker (assuming it was possible). ANy reason you are stuck to one? $\endgroup$
    – Twelfth
    Dec 16, 2014 at 17:54

5 Answers 5


It may be impossible. For example, consider the ancient Minoan script known as Linear A, which we have been unable to decipher. We know the ancient Minoans were human beings and quite a lot about how they lived. They must have had words for things like "house", "farm", "mother", "child", and so on, but this has been no help in understanding their written language. For an alien species, even the most basic concepts about life and communication might be completely different, so we could be even worse off than with Linear A.

There are a couple of ways in which it might be plausible for an intelligent human to learn the alien language:

  • There is a lot of material to work with. The spacecraft might have a massive archive that includes audio and video as well as text. If a sufficiently intelligent alien had access to the complete library of Netflix, it could probably learn to speak English even if it had no other contact with us. (In the process, it might get some highly misleading impressions of our culture...)
  • The archive is intended to be understood. There might be a non-intelligent computer system which is designed to teach aliens the concepts of their language, using pictures and (hopefully) universal concepts such as mathematics.

It has been estimated that it takes 1765 hours for an adult to learn fluent English from scratch. (Children learn much more quickly.) At 8 hours a day, 7 days a week, it would take about 8 months. So this would be the minimum length of time to learn fluent alien-language, given a sophisticated and cooperative teaching system.

If we were trying to analyse recordings the aliens had made for themselves and reverse-engineer the rules of their language, it might take much longer -- years or decades would be plausible.

  • $\begingroup$ Or, if they left a type of Rosetta Stone with at least one current Earth-based language and a mapping to their own. $\endgroup$
    – phyrfox
    Dec 16, 2014 at 16:40
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    $\begingroup$ I disagree that "Children learn much more quickly" - it took me (as a child) about two years to learn English, even while working 12 hours a day, and ended up with the vocabulary of a two-year-old. $\endgroup$
    – abcde
    Dec 16, 2014 at 17:31
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    $\begingroup$ Physical science gives universal values that don't change by culture - Hydrogen is hydrogen. If we found their version of the Periodic Table we would get quite a jump start on decoding. The Classic SF story "Omnilingual" by H Beam Piper is a good example of this. Hogan's Inherit the Stars is another. $\endgroup$
    – Oldcat
    Dec 16, 2014 at 18:38
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    $\begingroup$ @Aurast: meh. I have reasonably high IQ (or used to when I was a kid) and I am (and was) fairly poor at languages. IQ is somewhat correlated with being good at various mental tasks it doesn't directly test, just as they're somewhat correlated with each other, see much psychology literature. Some people are much faster than the average at learning languages, of course, I just doubt how well IQ predicts this. $\endgroup$ Dec 16, 2014 at 20:30
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    $\begingroup$ @abcde yeah, I wouldn't say I know any 8 month olds who are fluent in English ^_^ $\endgroup$
    – DLeh
    Dec 16, 2014 at 20:43

Depends: Take the Voynich manuscript as an example. While we know it was not written by aliens, we (as in, humanity) started trying to crack it in the early 1900s and just recently we may found out how to crack it.

Language is hard and using a different language is always a good idea as a cipher (see link at beginning).

Being Czech, I can assure you that if that alien language is really different from the language the "elder" speaks, it could give him/her/it a hard time cracking it. Just as a joke:

Příliš žluťoučký kůň úpěl ďábelské ódy

That sentence above is a pangram in Czech, featuring all the diacritic symbols in Czech. And talk about luck, my language uses the same alphabet as English language does. If we switch to Russian, a language from the same family as Czech, the fun increases:

Эх, чужак, общий съём цен шляп (юфть) – вдрызг!

To return to the subject, I was talking about living languages the whole time. The alien language will be even harder — at the level of the manuscript I linked to above. You will naturally make the assumption that if there is picture of monkey with some text below, the text will be about... monkeys. But you could be wrong:
The cover of the movie *The Hangover: Part II*. There is a monkey prominently shown in the centre of the image, with no surrounding text mentioning monkeys.
Image source

That's why you need a Rosetta stone to be found at the place. Otherwise, the cracking might take you forever.

  • $\begingroup$ Very good! I know about the manuscript and the rosetta stone. I agree that cracking a language without context seems impossible. I´m just fishing for different views or how it could be done in ways that dont sound too much like "how convenient for him"... $\endgroup$
    – mcbecker
    Dec 16, 2014 at 14:31
  • $\begingroup$ I would not describe neither Voynich or Egypt hieroglyphs cracking was "convenient". But without finding text clearly about some content, or something like Rosetta stone is almost impossible $\endgroup$ Dec 16, 2014 at 14:34
  • $\begingroup$ When I used convenient, I was referring to the fact that I dont want to give the person doing the analysis a solution that would clearly show how the odds are being pushed in his favor. You know, like the author helping the main character survive some dire situation that no one survived before without a good enough reason. That is why I considered making him a savant, because it could perhaps allow for an unprecedented ability. $\endgroup$
    – mcbecker
    Dec 16, 2014 at 14:51
  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking about the same setup for my story (it also requires cracking of alien language). To me, the story would be more believable if you replace "elder" by group of scientists and let them make several incorrect guesses about the language (like the one with monkey) $\endgroup$ Dec 16, 2014 at 15:00
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    $\begingroup$ @mcbecker If you want a plausible way for him to learn the language - he could always stumble upon some learning-program for alien babies. Something trivial which teaches a small child the basics of language and culture via simple games and conditioning... This could be universal enough to be as understandable for a human as an alien baby $\endgroup$
    – Falco
    Dec 16, 2014 at 16:28

Language might well be impossible because there isn't enough information.

Technology is probably doable — in principle an artifact contains enough information to understand what and how it does. There are 2 conditions:

  1. You don't accidentally destroy the ship and/or kill yourself. If you have no idea how a spaceship works (or what the warning signs say), accidentally turning on its nuclear/blackhole engines is a non-negligible risk. Thing get worse if it has weapons or anti-intrusion self-destruct mechanisms. Even a peaceful pro-safety life-support ship might do surprising things like violently ejecting lifeboats as soon as the hull is breached...

    OTOH an elder race probably does have full understanding of laws of physics and possible power sources, and non-invasive scanning techniques. Best scenario is atom-resolution scanning then safely playing with it inside a simulation.

  2. It's not too advanced compared to your level. Being a genius in an elder race helps, but a descendant race might be even more advanced...

    This wouldn't make it strictly impossible but the research can take unbounded time.

    I think the best example we have for how advanced technology can be "indistinguishable from magic" is our biology.

    • If you are Aristotle you're a genius in your time but won't even figure out how blood is pumped around by the heart...

    • With current instruments and knowledge we have a great overall picture, productively study numerous low-level mechanisms and can develop interventions. It did take observation on millions of functioning humans to get here. (=> Having 1 spaceship might not be enough. Chances are way worse if no longer works.)

      By now the principles of most biological "design" don't feel alien to us: pneumatics, electrical/chemical pathways, organs & subsystems with clear purpose — we can't build like that (esp. chemistry) but we feel the purpose of it all.

    • DNA is harder. We're progressing steadily with reverse-engineering it but we have no idea how to develop it. Unlike human software, it seems to be a big tangle of randomness that happened to work together — we have no idea how to approach a big modification (e.g. produce healthy humans with wings), except by horrendous trial-and-error for millions of years and trillions of victims... For all we know, there may be no better way!

    • The brain is even harder. Having instruments and low-level understanding is not enough. We did reverse-engineer some fixed neural networks e.g. vision quite but we deeply have no idea how high-level cognition works. At some point a lot of signals flow, "magic chaos" happens, and it works... If you gave us perfect neural scans, even ones that we could simulate, we'd surely advance a lot on the low level but there is no guarantee we'll understand it. That's what "designed by aliens" feels like.


In James P Hogan's early novel Inherit the Stars, people find a lone individual in a space suit with some carrable equipment. They start to figure out reading from technical labels: figure out what voltage the thing was designed to use, and you have a guess as to what the label at the power connector states. The dimensions of items are biased to the units of measurement.

In another famous story, a library of technical journals is found. The use a wall hangings in the classrooms as a Rosetta Stone: the periodic table, illustrations of elementary mechanics, etc. The point of the story is that even with no common point to relate to culture, science and engineering form a universal common area of understanding.

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    $\begingroup$ That second story is "Omnilingual" by H. Beam Piper. $\endgroup$
    – Oldcat
    Dec 16, 2014 at 23:38
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    $\begingroup$ H.Beam Piper should be on everyone's reading list. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Dec 17, 2014 at 3:32

do you want to understand their language, or their technology? learning the technology could be easier then the language. If you put me down in front of a switch board made by someone with a different language I can still hit switches to see what happens. Even if you give me a complex system I can still dissect it and analyze it using my understanding of physics, which is universal, to translate it. Learning the technology without the language is a far more achievable goal.

As to how long it takes, that depends on how advanced the two are, and what technology/knowledge gap may exist between them.

  • $\begingroup$ "I wonder what does this red button do..." AUTO-DESTRUCT IN TEN MINUTES "wow I wish I could understand that..." But anyway, +1 for pointing out that it would be faster to learn the tech by trial and error than the language $\endgroup$ Dec 16, 2014 at 19:33
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    $\begingroup$ as a rule of thumb I NEVER hit the big red buttons. Unless their really pretty, or big...or tempting..or..I must..not..press....oh what harm could it do? excuse me one second I'm just going to try this one.. BOOOM $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Dec 16, 2014 at 19:35
  • $\begingroup$ But what if to the aliens, small silver switches scream danger instead of big red buttons? You'd still be dead in seconds. $\endgroup$ Dec 16, 2014 at 20:34
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    $\begingroup$ When I reverse engineer suspicious code I don't just hit buttons. There are things one can do to protect themselves while experimenting. For code that's running in a sandbox, mocking dangerious systems etc. For hardware it may mean disconnecting the control panel from the hardware before you hit buttons and making sure the fuel is all emptied out before playing with the engine. However, there are ways to explore and reverse engineer hardware intelligently without making things go boom. so long as I don't press that pretty...pretty...button......... $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Dec 16, 2014 at 21:16
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    $\begingroup$ Buttons: I have a power button on a drive swap cage that is small and flush with the panel. It is difficult to press with the tip of my little finger, and is usually operated with a pen or somesuch. A different species might find different things easy vs hard, so think the normal srart button is an emergency switch and the fuse reset and calebration controls are the things to press. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Mar 16, 2015 at 4:50

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