# Is there a way to translate a language that includes words for things we don't know?

I saw some ideas of translating an alien language, like in the movie Arrival. The steps make sense, but I thought of another scenario:

Imagine you meet aliens in space. They speak, but you can't understand them. Tthe normal way to learn their language is to point at things and try to get what they are called. But what happens when the things they point at are things we don't even know or understand? What if they see things in another perspective (maybe they have just one word for, light, fire, energy because in their eyes it's the same thing)?

Is it possible to learn their language in these cases?

Edit: Just want to add an example so people understand my point, imagine the aliens would see and travel through the fourth dimension, could we ever learn about it as human just by talking? Other example, the aliens have more colors than we have, our eyes don't see everything but their might see more, what would be it like if they try to explain us an additional color? We can't imagine it in our heads so it would just be random words right?

• Your light/fire/energy example reminds me of the fact that most languages divide the visible spectrum differently, e.g. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… or than French has three words for what English usually calls 'brown' Mar 8, 2017 at 17:17
• Obligatory link to the Star Trek episode Darmok. The case presented there is a bit different, but it would seem to be related. And of course, that episode is just that good. Mar 8, 2017 at 17:18
• No there isn't. It is called a Qualia! Mar 8, 2017 at 18:54
• The theory that which concepts our languages give words to and which concepts they don’t constrains how we think and makes other languages untranslateable is called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, by the way. Not many people currently believe it in any strong form. But there has been a study that people who use the same word for what another language calls different colors (such as using the same word for blue and green) does affect people’s ability to perform color-matching tasks. A natural experiment might be, since women use more color-words than men, men and women talking about decorating. Mar 8, 2017 at 21:09
• In English, we just borrow the word and add it to our vocabulary. In Bantu languages, it's much tougher because the proper article is a part of the noun conjugation. However, we see the same problem with the suru suffix used in Japanese. We often give partial translations like "teacher" for "-sensei", and "Mister" or "Miss" for "-san", but what about -kun, -chan, -sama, and a number of other conjugations of the suffix that are critical to japanese? Mar 8, 2017 at 21:31

It is absolutely possible for a trivial reason: everyone does it.

When we are young, and learning our first language, we absolutely don't understand the perspective of the adults speaking around us. Yet 100% of us learn to speak our native tongue.

The trick is that you have to actually learn the language. In school, we often kinda-sorta learn a language. We learn to map it to the way we think, word by word. As you point out, that can fail when we try to learn a language that groups things differently.

To learn such a language, you have to learn it as it's own entity, and slowly develop your own translation over time. One place I've had to learn this is in learning Chinese martial arts as an American. I'd say some of their concepts don't map 1:1 to English, but I'd be lying. Of the important concepts, almost all of them don't map. They simply view the nature of life (and thus combat) differently. It is almost completely impossible to learn concepts like Yin, and Yang, with their proper constantly-entwined-opposite nature just through lecture, much less pointing at things. Concepts like Chi are even harder; Shen may be hardest of all. (disclaimer: still trying to get a handle on that last word, myself!)

Such difficult terms are taught through interaction, not just one way communication. Not only will the teacher use terms like "chi" in their instruction, but they also observe your actions and strive to identify moments where their terms may be more meaningful to you. You may be struggling with tension at some point in a posture, and the teacher realizes that you "know" what to do, you just need a nudge. They might, in a commanding tone say "use the chi!" and that tone alone nudges you into doing what your body knew to do all along, you just weren't doing it. You then start to associate "chi" with the particular correction you just made.

Over years of practice, you eventually will develop your own understanding of the word and tie it back into your life. I, myself, have concepts of what "chi" is which stem from my scientific background, but that's only because that's a convenient way for me to think about it. I prefer to think of it as its own concept, and not translate it into scientific thinking if possible. That way I can continue to understand the nuances which I might miss if I assume that my scientific definition of chi is the definition of chi.

SO I would say the solution to this problem is interaction and persistence. Not only should one be trying to learn the language, but you should try to let them help you find situations which make it easier to understand their language. As they say in language classes, you'll know you've got it when you start dreaming in their language.

The hardest words to capture in this way would be those related to the warrior spirit or the fundamental essence of a society. The former is tricky because you must be put in stressing situations to uncover it, and the latter is tricky because you aren't them.

• /sigh, OP accepted the answer an hour after asking the question... while I like this answer (I happen to do something like you, and have the same experience regarding Ki), things like this is IMO not what the OP asks about. To take your example: when a teacher tries to teach about Chi/Ki, they point (literally or verbally) to things that we absolutely can see/feel/visualize/experience. Yes, it is "mysterious" at the beginning, but after some time you get around to it. The OP asks about things like the 4th dimension or impossible colors that we can never see/feel/..., so completely different.
– AnoE
Mar 9, 2017 at 16:50
• @AnoE That gets into a philosophic question very quickly, but the answer is still the same. You learn it by interacting and both parties trying to find ways to communicate a concept. The thing we often miss is that language is more than just a static body of words. It's a set of tools with which to paint pictures. What matters are the pictures. The words are just a way to see them. Mar 9, 2017 at 17:05
• 4th dimension or impossible colors are actually not all that hard for us (neither is synesthesia, which is a very interesting topic to discuss). I think what you are thinking of is more along the lines of the Eldritch Horrors of some other questions that are active on WorldBuilding at a moment. I believe, by definition, this approach would not work to communicate with an Eldritch Horror, though it would be interesting to see what would happen if one tried. Mar 9, 2017 at 17:06
• CortAmmon (for some reason SE removes the word if I add "@" to your nick): Yes, something like that. Obviously colors/dimensions is a bad example because we are talking about them right now so their concept is not too bad for us modern humans.
– AnoE
Mar 9, 2017 at 17:24

Interesting concept for sure. I Believe though for your perspective of an Alien pointing out an object we don't know doesn't mean we can't learn that word. Think about the English language. We have words like Croissant that never got "translated" into English but left as their French wording and we adapted to use that word in relation to that food. Through context you would understand that XXX does XXX as you watch that object work/interact. Not everything has a direct translation.

Another example is the Navajo who used their language to talk in WW2. They didn't have words for things like a grenade so they used other words like eggs to represent the object.

In regards to your question about if they have the same word to represent 4 different meanings, though uncommon, we already have this in our own Earth languages. Buffalo for example can be used like 5 different ways depending on context.

It's not impossible to learn any language, but certain words may need to be just accepted as the name of something or the common tongue needs to come up with a nickname for it so they can use it in context.

• Yeah I get what you mean and you are right about the first thing, but I dont meant a word with more then one meaning like Buffalo I meant maybe they have a other concept of things, we see heat or speed sometimes as forms of energy, they could see a lot of things as one big concept, we know life just in a simple form, breathing and stuff like that, that is often life for us, but for them life could be a rock too they could see it total different, have a whole other kind of concept about life, how would you talk about life then with them?
– Xxy
Mar 8, 2017 at 15:41
• @Xxy that becomes a culture thing. If you are able to talk to an Alien species to the point you are able to discuss life and science theory, then you should be able to understand their explanation. You may need to ask them to clarify or reword something but if you are to that point of understanding where you can ask bout science and life, you should be okay. It would be no different than learning Arabic and then asking them about their way of life (which is very different from a Western way of life). Can't ask the deep questions without the basics first. Mar 8, 2017 at 15:45
• Ok I get it, after learing the basics you can try to learn more, and get into things like that, but what would be if the aliens dont have feet or wings, they travel just like teleporting but they are not aware that this is something special it so normal like breathing for us, could you talk with them about different kindes of movement/travel if they dont even know what moving is?
– Xxy
Mar 8, 2017 at 15:49
• @Xxy Not having a good one-to-one mapping of words/concepts in one language to words/concepts in another is the rule, rather than the exception. For example, some languages don't have a distinction between "green" and "blue", anymore so than English speakers distinguish between one shade of green and another. Some languages have finer distinctions: Russian has completely different words for light blue and dark blue, just like English distinguishes between red and pink. -- Translation is hard.
– R.M.
Mar 8, 2017 at 19:24
• FYI: The word "grenade" is the French name for the fruit that we call a pomegranate. I don't know whether it was a Frenchman who threw the first grenade, but somehow their name for it stuck. They called it that because it was about the same size, and because somebody thought that the bits of shrapnel that were mixed in with the explosive filling resembled the seeds of a pomegranate. Mar 8, 2017 at 22:45

This is a hardy perennial of Science Fiction. It’s basically always possible to communicate with the aliens in the end, because otherwise you get an unsatisfying anticlimax. When the humans never do figure out how to communicate, you get a Big Dumb Object story. But even Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and 2001 eventually got sequels where the aliens finally do talk to us and explain what was going on. Someone else already brought up the Star Trek: TNG episode, “Darmok,” which anyone who thinks about questions like this should definitely watch. (I’ll happily poke holes in it afterward, but it’s great.)

Learning alien languages has been handled a number of ways. Suzette Haden Elgin is a linguist whose feminist SF novel, Native Tongue, is written from the premise that this is only possible if you take an innately gifted child and teach her to see the world the alien way while she is still young enough. A major part of the plot of the novel is the invention of a language for the thoughts of women, Láadan. The author really invented this language and taught it to people to see what would happen.

Another, Eliezer Yudkowsky’s short story, “Three Worlds Collide” (originally, “The Babyeating Aliens”) is about first contact with two alien species with very different modes of thought. I’ll give one of the few SFW examples of his approach (the others are more, uh, interesting).

In the early days of my species there were those who refrained from happiness in order to achieve perfect skill in helping others, using untranslatable 3 to suppress their emotions and acting only on their abstract knowledge of goals. These were forcibly returned to normality by massive untranslatable 4. But I descend from their thought-lineage and in emergency invoke the shadow of their untranslatable 5.

On a side note, having one word where English has three or vice versa isn’t a big obstacle in practice: English has an especially large vocabulary with a lot of synonyms, so this happens often, and most other languages make distinctions somewhere that English doesn’t: Spanish or French have at least four ways to say was, with different verbs for temporary and permanent conditions and different tenses for completed and continuing actions.

• I think I have to watch/read some stuff now ;)
– Xxy
Mar 9, 2017 at 7:03
• English has a bigger vocabulary than any other language [citation needed] Mar 9, 2017 at 8:26
• Expanding the example provided. Was in spanish: (*verbo ser*) era, fui, fue, fuera, fuese, (*verbo estar*) estaba, estuve, estuvo, estuviera, estuviese. Those are 10 different translations, and that's only the simple conjugation, not counting compound forms or other uses of was as a particle. Mar 9, 2017 at 8:35
• Examples of subtleties that could be very difficult to translate: Standard English doesn’t have a distinction between singular and plural you or inclusive and exclusive we, so there’s not a good way to implicitly say that someone is not included. On the other hand, “bureaucratese” and the overuse of the passive voice can come across as weak and mealy-mouthed refusal to assign responsibility. It would be difficult to convey the connotations of “Mistakes were made,” in a language where it’s a lot more common to say things in a passive or reflexive way, not attribute actions to an agent. Mar 9, 2017 at 10:05
• @xDaizu The claim about “a bigger vocabulary” turns out to come down to how you count, and is also not relevant here. Most linguists wouldn’t agree with it. So I reworded it. Thanks for the correction. Mar 9, 2017 at 10:37

It already happened in the past on our planet. Think for example of when the first pioneers explored the present United States territory or some island in the Pacific Ocean and wanted to negotiate with the natives "right of property" or "exclusive usage", concepts that they didn't possess, and for which you can't even "point at things".

Nevertheless natives learned the language (and also the concepts, though through the hard way...).

• Think about explaining aliens some more nuanced issues of property, like "junior tranche of synthetic collateralized debt obligation". (even in good scenario alien may start using using this phrase as a more sophisticated equivalent of word "crap".) ;) Mar 9, 2017 at 8:35

Another story you should read is Omnilingual by H. Beam Piper.

As the story points out, even pictures with captions are not necessarily helpful, giving the example of a picture of a man using a hand saw. The caption could mean anything from "man sawing wood" to "Kaiser Wilhelm in exile".

The story is about discovering that there is common ground after all: natural physical science, and the chemical elements in particular.

In the story I’m working on, the sender doen’t presume anything about the senses of the recipient. Being a message, the recipient will naturally prepare it into a form that can be examined. A 2D diagram or schematic is a picture to us, but could be scent ot tactile or who knows what. Diagrams and maps and charts, in content, should be more universal.

And it’s not some guy on the street trying to spontaniously understand it. It’s a team gathered to ponder and study the project.

And, the two parties want to overcome this communication issue. So don’t point to an everyday object that is not itself known to your counterpart! Instead, start with things they both do know. This isn’t simply pointing, but requires preparing a set of diagrams.

In my story, an annotated map of the solar system (of the recipient) showing mass, periods, distances, etc. and a table of properties of chemical elements and isotopes, are “Rosetta Stones” representing things that the recipient does already know what it is.

But what happens when the things they point at are things we don't even know or understand?

If you meet an alien and you start by pointing to the TV remote control, the dog, a slice of pizza (things immediatly at hand) and trying to share words for those, you are quite simply doing it wrong.

Start by finding things (and “things” may be abstract) they do have in common. Starting with a word for the remote control is silly, but if I opened the entertainment center cabinet door to show him a periodic table of elements I have hanging on the inside of the door, then it might take a little pondering because his culture formats it differently, but he might indeed know what that is.

If it's not a random introduction of two individuals, but teams of people working on the problem (complete with Internetlibrary-computer access), then you bet they can figure out what the periodic table is.

• Yeah I think you can explain almost everything if you know the basics of a language, but a problem I see is something like: What if the alines see the 4dimension room and can travel in it, we as human cant imagine what 4d would be like? could we ever understand it if they could speak fluint english? Also other example what if they know an extra colour, a new one, try to imagine a new colour, its impossible as human, because we just know our colours so how do you explain that?
– Xxy
Mar 9, 2017 at 7:09
• It sounds like you’re more interested in knowing the experience of another being, rather than just communicating facts and plans. We can certainly describe Ir and UV and X-rays etc even though we don’t see them. Mar 9, 2017 at 7:19
• Hmm you are right with X-rays, but yeah im interested in their knowing, but wanted to know if its possible by language to learn things we dont have words for, so just with basic words learning advanced stuff.
– Xxy
Mar 9, 2017 at 7:23
• «if its possible by language to learn things we dont have words for» if that was your question, it’s not clear at all! Anyway, of course it is. A case in point: I didn’t know (understand the concept of) monad, I read books, I learned it. You’ll find my reflections on “very different concepts” and language to be interesting, I think. And it’s an example you might repeat for yourself. Mar 9, 2017 at 7:32
• Thats cool ty, and I think I got it ;)
– Xxy
Mar 9, 2017 at 7:35

Pointing to objects and naming them works - as long as the aliens are speaking (rather than a multitude of other ways to communicate - posture, gesture, odors, skin tone, hair/skin patterns, emr, etc. etc.) in our audible hearing range - and only in that range. The problem with this is that the aliens must think in terms of "thing-action-result" like our languages. I think a video (YouTube) would be much more effective than one-to-one pointing; at least to start. You've probably seen the movie First Encounters. The language there was colors and tones, and was learned (apparently) by computer-to-computer communication rather than person-to-person. Meaning digital communication would probably be much quicker than the very primitive "Me Tarzan, you Jane" approach. Your question assumes the stuff the aliens talk about is "things". Physics is more about processes and fields than "things" (arguably). So, we have no assurance that what we observe is relevant to the information they are attempting to convey. (I've not seen Arrival, yet). I expect that through repetition, we would eventually be able to understand the patterns which their language is based on. As long as ALL of the information necessary is perceptible to us. (For instance, we are just beginning to (crudely) be able to encode smells into language via computers. If they used smells (or chemical emissions) as an important part of their language, we'd have a real problem understanding them. But even that would eventually be cracked, I think. So, to answer your question. Assuming they communicate vocally in the same frequency range as we do is a real stretch (because even we use gesture and context, as well as the sex, age, and status of the speaker and listener, to determine what words we use). But assuming we can capture their language with our ears/eyes (and they ours)? Then we should be able to eventually understand them, I think. It would, imho, be a really dumb way to solve that problem.

• You've glanced over something significant. If the alien grabs an apple off a nearby tree, holds it out for me and says, "bilkadoo," then what can I conclude from that alone? Not much. "Bilkadoo" could mean apple, fruit, food, red, spherical, organic, and many more things. The point-and-speak thing only works after many, many, many iterations. Mar 8, 2017 at 18:37

The main problem with the movie Arrival is that she's a linguist. So that creates the problem, she knows languages, but not the foundation she can lay it on.

To explain I will use the first anthropologist problem. They think that because "savages" didn't have words for something (like describing history) they don't know how to describe it. In fact they just told the story in form of a dance or carvings.

The second example would be pineapples - which I can guarantee are not called pineapples in native language.

The third example is potatoes - In English this is a word from batatas while in French they are "earth apples".

The fourth is Helen Keller - She didn't see water, she didn't hear it. She had no visual concept of it. Just like aliens with no eyes.

So to answer your question: you learn it as any other languages. They point to energy beam and call it pewpew so you assume energy beams are pewpew but later you learn that pewpew means beam while energy made from cold fusion used in energy beam is called fiu.

• Its not really about things named different in other languages, I thought more about something like this: The aliens dont see colours, how do you talk with them about colours? We maybe cant see different forms of energy how could they talk to us about that?
– Xxy
Mar 9, 2017 at 7:05
• Why do we need to talk with them about color? You want to go all Mondrian on them while you could still talk about universal things like atoms, space travel etc. They can't "see" different kinds of energy. They can know more than us. But kinetic is kinetic, gravitational is gravitational. You start simply: ATOM. Nucleus. Protons. Those are things that are universal. Mar 9, 2017 at 9:41
• Its an example, that they might see and feel things totally different then us, so communication will be hard.
– Xxy
Mar 9, 2017 at 9:45
• Yes but they can't see of feel atoms differently. And you actually don't care about what they feel. They are aliens you want to communicate with, not to talk why your mother is so mean to them. Feels and emotions are at the end of communication path. Because those are abstracts. You don't talk in abstracts. Mar 9, 2017 at 9:59
• “…she's a linguist. So that creates the problem, she knows languages, but not the foundation she can lay it on.” Quite the contrary! A linguist, in the modern academic sense, is exactly someone who studies the foundations of what languages are and how they work. A linguist may not know any languages beyond their native one (they usually do, but it’s not essential) — but they’re exactly the people who study conceptual questions like this one. Mar 9, 2017 at 12:09