Futuristic Human Language

Many science fiction novels have noted how difficult, illogical, unscientific, and inefficient the English language is (did you know that "ghoti" should be pronounced "fish?"). It is certainly a burden for people to learn as a second language, and even more so to try and teach to an alien race. SF novels postulate some ultra-logical "universal" language with names like "League Latin", "Anglic", "Basic", "Interlac", and "Triplanetarian."

There is a good overview of the topic here.

Mind Amplifying Languages

In some SF stories there are languages that actually help the users think faster and better. These include Speedtalk from Robert Heinlein's "Gulf", Babel-17 from the novel of the same name by Samuel R. Delany, Tenno Glyphs from the Exordium Series by Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge, and the real-world language "Lojban."

Many of the novel of Harry Harrison promote the language "Esperanto." However, Esperanto as a language has many flaws.


In my opinion, a much better choice is the language Lojban. The language has many advantages. The grammar is based on Boolean algebra (it is possible to use a subset of Lojban as a computer programming language).

The letters in Lojban each denote a single phoneme, instead of the multiple phonemes English uses. For example: "gh" is pronounced "f" at the end of rough, but pronounced "g" at the start of ghost. The "n" is silent in sign but not silent in signature. "ea" is pronounced two different ways in mean and meant. "s" is an s-sound in ticks but a z-sound in pigs.

What is worse is in English there are some different word sounds that share the exact same letter coding and there are no alternatives. For example then and thin both use "th" even though they are two different word sounds, and there are no other letters that can be used distinguish the voiced and unvoiced "th" sound.

Lojban has none of this mess, there are no silent letters and each letter has one and only one sound.

Lojban also has an interesting intonation and word structure. It is created in such a way that even if one speaks a Lojban sentence with no spaces between the words, you can parse the sentence unambiguously in your mind (the technical term is "lack of word boundary ambiguity"). This is not possible for, say, English, if you remove the spaces between the words in the following sentences, all the sentences sound the identical:

  • It’s not easy to wreck a nice beach.
  • It’s not easy to recognize speech.
  • It’s not easy to wreck an ice beach.

Lojban forces completeness. The Lojban word for "make" literally means "x makes y using material z" (e.g., "Thomas makes a blowgun using bamboo"). Unless you fill in the words for x, y, and z you do not have a complete sentence. Lojban's grammar was validated with the help of YACC, which is a software tool used to validate computer programming languages.

Since Lojban's grammar is based upon Boolean algebra, it is remarkably unambiguous. Consider the English sentence "A pretty little girls' school". Horribly ambiguous. There are no less than sixteen possible interpretations of that sentence.

  1. A pretty (little (girls' school)) = An attractive small school for girls
  2. A pretty ((little girls') school) = An attractive school for small girls
  3. A (pretty little) (girls' school) = A fairly small school for girls
  4. A ((pretty little) girls') school = A school for fairly small girls
  5. A (pretty (little girls')) school = A school for attractive small girls

and so on.

In Lojban, it is impossible to create such an ambiguous sentence. Instead, there are sixteen sentences one can make, each one unambiguously expressing one of the sixteen possibilities.

Robert Heinlein promoted this language's predecessor "Loglan" in his novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.

By then Mike had voder-vocoder circuits supplementing his read-outs, print-outs, and decision-action boxes, and could understand not only classic programming but also Loglan and English, and could accept other languages and was doing technical translating -- and reading endlessly. But in giving him instructions was safer to use Loglan. If you spoke English, results might be whimsical; multi-valued nature of English gave option circuits too much leeway.

From The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein (1966)

Dennis Pejcha proves that my understanding of Lojban is imperfect:

I have done some reading about Lojban and I just wanted to comment that you seem to have misunderstood a bit of how the language works. There is nothing in the language that forces you to be unambiguous, but the speaker and listener would always be completely aware of precisely where the ambiguities are. The language certainly allows "Make!" as a complete sentence - there is nothing grammatically incorrect about that at all. However the excruciatingly correct translation of a sentence consisting of just the word for "make" would actually be something like:

<unspecified> makes/made/is making <unspecified> using <unspecified>

A person or computer fluent in Lojban understands that the word for make has a "place structure" of three variables essentially, and in this case the speaker or writer has chosen to omit values for these variables either because they are unknown, unimportant, or understood from context. If I have already given you an order to make blowguns from the local bamboo equivalent and later came back to find you instead puttering around trying to design an atomic rocket, I might bark at you "Make!" - I am obviously barking at you as the one who is supposed to be doing the making, and I am expecting you to remember what it is you are supposed to be making and what I asked you to make them out of. Actually, perhaps I never even specified what you are to make them out of - you might be the weapons specialist and obviously much better suited than I to decide what the appropriate materials are, so I might have just told you to make blowguns and omitted what to use because I don't know.

Lojban allows for such ambiguities, the key is that there is a rigid logical structure within which these ambiguities exist, so the speaker and listener should both be aware of exactly what the speaker is being ambiguous about and the listener can ask for clarification on any of those pieces of information if they so choose.

So, no, a language like Lojban will probably not, in and of itself, lead to an ultra-logical, Vulcan-like race that is over-precise and excruciatingly pedantic (although it would probably be just the sort of language they would choose to use), but it might lead to a race that shakes its collective heads at other races and their frequent miscommunications.

Dennis Pejcha

Jon Brase points out a pitfall with Lojban:

The concept of a logical language (such as Lobjan or Speedtalk) is quite intriguing, but it might be good to let people know that a bit of a handwave is required to make it work as an actual spoken language for a culture. It's not a very drastic handwave though.

Basically, the problem is that such a language can exist as a scholarly language, but as soon as people (even the scholars that are already using it as a scholarly language) start speaking it in everyday life, the logicality of the language goes down the drain. The human brain has the tendency to mercilessly hack away from any sentence whatever information is not needed. If we know that the only material in the area that could be used for making blowguns is bamboo, we are unlikely to specify that bamboo was used in the manufacture of a given blowgun, no matter how much our Lobjan teachers scream in frustration.

However, if you are of the opinion that design-a-baby Genetic Engineering and/or Strong AI are possible, it should be easy to hardwire Billy's Concise Grammar of Lobjan into the brain of your new strain of super-logicians (Could this be the origin of the Vulcans?), or into the CPU of your Real People Personality Robot. That could make for an interesting plot: Tensions between Genetically Engineered Super-Brains who are always over-precise and pedantic and the average run of the mill Homo-Sap who can never finish.

Jon Brase


The Nevians being as eager as the Terrestrials to establish communication, Nerado kept the newly devised frequency changer in constant use. There is no need of describing at length the details of that interchange of languages. Suffice it to say that starting at the very bottom they learned as babies learn, but with the great advantage over babies of possessing fully developed and capable brains. And while the human beings were learning the tongue of Nevia, several of the amphibians (and incidentally Clio Marsden) were learning Triplanetarian; the two officers knowing well that it would be much easier for the Nevians to learn the logically-built common language of the Three Planets than to master the senseless intricacies of English.

From Triplanetary by E.E."Doc" Smith (1934)


In their underground classroom Gail had available several types of apparatus to record and manipulate light and sound. She commenced throwing groups of figures on a screen, in flashes. "What was it, Joe?"

"Nine-six-oh-seven-two-That was as far as I got."

"It was up there a full thousandth of a second. Why did you get only the left hand side of the group?"

"That's all the farther I had read."

"Look at all of it. Don't make an effort of will; just look at it." She flashed another number.

Joe's memory was naturally good; his intelligence was high-just how high he did not yet know. Un- convinced that the drill was useful, he relaxed and played along. Soon he was beginning to grasp a nine-digit array as a single gestalt; Gail reduced the flash time.

"What is this magic lantern gimmick?" he inquired.

"It's a Renshaw tachistoscope. Back to work."

Around World War II Dr. Samuel Renshaw at the Ohio State University was proving that most people are about one-fifth efficient in using their capacities to see, hear, taste, feel and remember. His research was swallowed in the morass of communist pseudoscience that obtained after World War III, but, after his death, his findings were preserved underground...

...Speedtalk was a structurally different speech from any the race had ever used. Long before, Ogden and Richards had shown that eight hundred and fifty words were sufficient vocabulary to express anything that could be expressed by "normal" human vocabularies, with the aid of a handful of special words -- a hundred odd -- for each special field, such as horse racing or ballistics. About the same time phoneticians had analyzed all human tongues into about a hundred-odd sounds, represented by the letters of a general phonetic alphabet.

On these two propositions Speedtalk was based.

To be sure, the phonetic alphabet was much less in number than the words in Basic English. But the letters representing sound in the phonetic alphabet were each capable of variation several different ways -- length, stress, pitch, rising, falling. The more trained an ear was the larger the number of possible variations; there was no limit to variations, but, without much refinement of accepted phonetic practice, it was possible to establish a one-to-one relationship with Basic English so that one phonetic symbol was equivalent to an entire word in a "normal" language, one Speedtalk word was equal to an entire sentence. The language consequently was learned by letter units rather than by word units -- but each word was spoken and listened to as a single structured gestalt.

But Speedtalk was not "shorthand" Basic English. "Normal" languages, having their roots in days of superstition and ignorance, have in them inherently and unescapably wrong structures of mistaken ideas about the universe. One can think logically in English only by extreme effort so bad it is as a mental tool. For example, the verb "to be" in English has twenty-one distinct meanings, every single one of which is false-to-fact.

A symbolic structure, invented instead of accepted without question, can be made similar in structure to the real world to which it refers. The structure of Speedtalk did not contain the hidden errors of English; it was structured as much like the real world as the New Men could make it. For example, it did not contain the unreal distinction between nouns and verbs found in most other languages. The world -- the continuum known to science and including all human activity -- does not contain "noun things" and "verb things"; it contains space-time events and relationships between them. The advantage for achieving truth, or something more nearly like truth, was similar to the advantage of keeping account books in Arabic numerals rather than Roman. (ed note: try doing long division with Roman numerals sometime)

All other languages made scientific, multi-valued logic almost impossible to achieve; in Speedtalk it was as difficult not to be logical. Compare the pellucid Boolean logic with the obscurities of the Aristotelian logic it supplanted.

Paradoxes are verbal, do not exist in the real world -- and Speedtalk did not have such built into it. Who shaves the Spanish Barber? Answer: follow him around and see. In the syntax of Speedtalk the paradox of the Spanish Barber could not even be expressed, save as a self-evident error... (ed note: old pardox, A Spanish Barber shaves all the men in his town who do not shave themselves. Does the barber shave himself?)

...An economical language cannot be limited to a thousand words; although almost every idea can be expressed somehow in a short vocabulary, higher orders of abstraction are convenient. For technical words Speedtalk employed an open expansion of sixty of the thousand-odd phonetic letters. They were the letters ordinarily used as numerals; by preceding a number with a letter used for no other purpose, the symbol was designated as having a word value.

New Men numbered to the base sixty-three times four times five, a convenient, easily factored system, most economical, i.e., the symbol "100" identified the number described in English as thirty-six hundred -- yet permitting quick, in-the-head translation from common notation to Speedtalk figures and vice versa.

By using these figures, each prefaced by the indicator -- a voiceless Welsh or Burmese "I" - a pool of 215,999 words (one less than the cube of sixty) were available for specialized meaning without using more than four letters including the indicator. Most of them could be pronounced as one syllable. These had not the stark simplicity of basic Speedtalk; nevertheless words such as "ichthyophagous" and "constitutionality" were thus compressed to monosyllables. Such shortcuts can best be appreciated by anyone who has heard a long speech in Cantonese translated into a short speech in English. Yet English is not the most terse of "normal" languages -- and expanded Speedtalk is many times more economical than the briefest of "normal" tongues.

By adding one more letter (sixty to the fourth power) just short of thirteen million words could be added if needed -- and most of them could still be pronounced as one syllable...

...The ability to learn Speedtalk at all is proof of supernormal intelligence; the use of it by such intelligence renders that mind efficient. Even before World War II Alfred Korzybski had shown that human thought was performed, when done efficiently, only in symbols; the notion of "pure" thought, free of abstracted speech symbols, was merely fantasy. The brain was so constructed as to work without symbols only on the animal level; to speak of "reasoning" without symbols was to speak nonsense.

Speedtalk did not merely speed up communication -- by its structures it made thought more logical; by its economy it made thought processes enormously fester, since it takes almost as long to think a word as it does to speak it...

... Any man capable of learning Speedtalk had an association time at least three times as fast as an ordinary man. Speedtalk itself enabled him to manipulate symbols approximately seven times as fast as English symbols could be manipulated.

(ed note: I will mention that back in the early 1960's when I was in grade school, I was among the students who scored high enough (color code purple) on the SRA Reading Kit to be allowed some training with a weird gizmo that I now know was a tachistoscope. I am now a fast reader, and do tend to notice things that flash by quickly. However, correlation does not imply causation, so I do not know if my tachistoscope training created my speed reading, or if I was just born a fast reader and the tachistoscope did absolutely nothing.)

From "Gulf by Robert Heinlein (1949)

Jon Brase points out a flaw with Speedtalk:

It bears noting that languages like Speedtalk would probably not work well because of signal-to-noise ratios. One of the reasons that languages tend to be so trigger-happy about cutting away unneeded information is so that they can make needed information multiply redundant.

Yx cxn xndxrstxnd Xnglxsh fxxrlx wxll wxth xll thx vxwxls x'xd xxt.

Y cn vn ndrstnd t frl wll wth th vwls cmpltl rmvd.

Try doing that with Speedtalk.

And it's not just "noise" that we need to be redundant against, it's stuff like inattention and the speaker being cut off.

Jon Brase

Concensual Two

Xorialle sighed. "Even your primitive tongue would be endurable if you used it correctly. You have complete knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, and syntax now. Why not make use of it?"

"Habit, I guess," Dammy said indifferently. "Or maybe I just don't want to sound like a nance."

"I know a solution," Xorialle said grimly. "You'll learn Concensual Two, a simple form of speed-speak."

"Hold it, Doc," Dammy demurred. "You said human skills, remember? I don't want any weird alien kind of stuff pumped into my brain."

"Nonsense. C-2 is designed for interspecies communication and is as free of specialized bias as the concept of language permits. It won't warp your personality any more than a knowledge of Navajo would."

"What's it sound like?" Danny asked anxiously as his tutor settled the catalyzer in place.

Xorialle made a scraping noise with his tongue and hard palate. "That was Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. I confess it loses something in translation."

From The Ultimax Man by Keith Laumer (1987)

Brain Wave

In Poul Anderson's novel, Brain Wave, a cosmic accident raises the IQ of everybody on Earth by a factor of four.

Language: The men of the Institute, who knew each other, were involuntarily developing a new set of communication symbols, a subtle and powerful thing in which every gesture had meaning and the speeding brain of the listener, without conscious effort, filled in the gaps and grasped the many-leveled meaning. It was almost too efficient, you gave your inmost self away. The man of the future would likely go naked in soul as well as in body, and Corinth wasn't sure he liked the prospect...

...Lewis was in his laboratory, waiting for him. "Late," he grunted.

"Sheila," replied Corinth.

The conversation here was rapidly becoming a new language. When your mind was of quadrupled capability, a single word, a gesture of hand, a flicker of expression, could convey more to one who knew you and your mannerisms than whole paragraphs of grammatical English.

"You're late this morning," Lewis had meant. "Have any trouble?"

"I got started late because of Sheila," Corinth had told him. "She's not taking this well at all, Nat, frankly, I'm worried about her. Only what can I do? I don't understand human psychology any more, it's changing too much and too fast. Nobody does. We're all becoming strangers to each other - to ourselves - and it's frightening." ...

..."Hullo, Pete," she said. The smile that twitched her mouth was tired, but it had warmth. "How've you been?"

Corinth spoke two words and made three gestures; she filled in his intention from logic and her knowledge of his old speech habits: (Oh - all right. But you - I thought you'd been co-opted by Felix to help whip his new government into shape.)

(I have,) she implied. (But I feel more at home here, and it's just as good a place to do some of my work. Who've you got on my old job, by the way?)

(Billy Saunders - ten years of age, but a sharp kid. Maybe we should get a moron, though. The physical strain may be too much for a child.)

(I doubt it. There isn't much to do now, really. You boys co-operate pretty smoothly since the change - unlike the rest of the world!)...

..."Wife," said Rossman with a note of gentle reproach. It could be rendered as: (I still don't see why you wouldn't tell your wife of this, and be with her tonight. It may be the last night of your lives.)

"Work, city, time," and the immemorial shrug and the wistful tone: (We both have our work to do, she at the relief center and I here at the defense hub. We haven't told the city either, you and I and the few others who know. It's best not to do so, eh?) We couldn't have evacuated them, there would have been no place for them to go and the fact of our attempting it would've been a tip-off to the enemy, an invitation to send the rockets immediately. Either we can save the city or we can't; at the moment, there's nothing anyone can do but wait and see if the defense works. (I wouldn't worry my Liebchen - she'd worry on my account and the kids' and grandchildren's. No, let it happen, one way or the other. Still I do wish we could be together now, Sarah and I, the whole family-)

From Brain Wave by Poul Anderson (1954)


We deal here with psychologists - and not merely psychologists. Let us say, rather, scientists with a psychological orientation. That is, men whose fundamental conception of scientific philosophy is pointed in an entirely different direction from all of the orientations we know. The "psychology" of scientists brought up among the axioms deduced from the observational habits of physical science has only the vaguest relationship to PSYCHOLOGY.

Which is about as far as I can go in explaining color to a blind man - with myself as blind as the audience.

The point being made is that the minds assembled understood thoroughly the workings of each other, not only by general theory but by the specific application over a long period of these theories to particular individuals. Speech as known to us was unnecessary. A fragment of a sentence amounted almost to long-winded redundancy. A gesture, a grunt, the curve of a facial line - even a significantly timed pause yielded informational juice....

...The Student smiled shyly, and the First Speaker responded by saying, "First, I must tell you why you are here."

They faced each other now, across the desk. Neither was speaking in any way that could be recognized as such by any man in the Galaxy who was not himself a member of the Second Foundation.

Speech, originally, was the device whereby Man learned, imperfectly, to transmit the thoughts and emotions of his mind. By setting up arbitrary sounds and combinations of sounds to represent certain mental nuances, be developed a method of communication - but one which in its clumsiness and thick-thumbed inadequacy degenerated all the delicacy of the mind into gross and guttural signaling.

Down- down- the results can be followed; and all the suffering that humanity ever knew can be traced to the one fact that no man in the history of the Galaxy, until Hari Seldon, and very few men thereafter, could really understand one another. Every human being lived behind an impenetrable wall of choking mist within which no other but he existed. Occasionally there were the dim signals from deep within the cavern in which another man was located - so that each might grope toward the other. Yet because they did not know one another, and could not understand one another, and dared not trust one another, and felt from infancy the terrors and insecurity of that ultimate isolation - there was the hunted fear of man for man, the savage rapacity of man toward man.

Feet, for tens of thousands of years, had clogged and shuffled in the mud - and held down the minds which, for an equal time, had been fit for the companionship of the stars.

Grimly, Man had instinctively sought to circumvent the prison bars of ordinary speech. Semantics, symbolic logic, psychoanalysis - they had all been devices whereby speech could either be refined or by-passed...

...The same basic developments of mental science that had brought about the development of the Seldon Plan, thus made it also unnecessary for the First Speaker to use words in addressing the Student.

Every reaction to a stimulus, however slight, was completely indicative of all the trifling changes, of all the flickering currents that went on in another's mind. The First Speaker could not sense the emotional content of the Student's instinctively, as the Mule would have been able to do - since the Mule was a mutant with powers not ever likely to become completely comprehensible to any ordinary man, even a Second Foundationer - rather he deduced them, as the result of intensive training.

Since, however, it is inherently impossible in a society based on speech to indicate truly the method of communication of Second Foundationers among themselves, the whole matter will be hereafter ignored. The First Speaker will be represented as speaking in ordinary fashion, and if the translation is not always entirely valid, it is at least the best that can be done under the circumstances.

It will be pretended therefore, that the First Speaker did actually say, "First, I must tell you why you are here," instead of smiling just so and lifting a finger exactly thus.

From Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1953)

Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis

Lojban's predecessor Loglan had as one of the motives for its creation a possible test for the controversial Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. The hope was that speaking and thinking in Lojban would amplify ones effective intelligence. The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis has been explored in several SF novels.

In the SF story "Gulf" by Robert Heinlein (mentioned above), the Speedtalk language allows the user to manipulate symbols about seven times as faster than an English thinker.

David Freiberg brought my attention to the constructed language called Ithkuil. It apparently is more logical than Loglan, has a speed approaching the fictional Speedtalk, and also was intented to leverage the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis.

In George Orwell's novel 1984, the language Newspeak was invented as yet another tool for the totalitarian government to oppress the people. After all, it is difficult to even think about a revolution, much less plot one with co-conspirators, if you do not even have a word for revolution.

In Samuel R. Delany's novel Babel-17 the synthetic language allows the enemy nation to think faster and more effectively. But the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis is used to add a booby trap to the language to ensnare Our Heroes. To say more would be a spoiler, refer to the link for more details.

Other examples of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis in SF include Jack Vance's The Languages of Pao, Iain M. Banks's The Culture series (Marain), Fred Hoyle's novel The Black Cloud, Ayn Rand's novel Anthem, Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash (Sumerian), and Robert A. Heinlein's novel Stranger in a Strange Land (Martian).

In the real world, the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis has fallen out of favor. Jon Brase puts it this way:

The problem with Sapir–Worf is that it is simultaneously mindnumbingly obvious (a great part of what goes on inside our heads is verbal, and thus our language will affect every process of thought that relies on it for a source of symbols), and utter bilge (A useful human language probably has to be Turing complete, and not everything that goes on inside our heads is verbal. Some of our thoughts take the form of simply imagining an image). In other words, the Sapir–Worf hypothesis is such a broad and ill-defined concept that you can essentially prove or disprove it from whatever data you please.

A Newspeak type language where a revolution cannot occur because there is no word for revolution is... bilge. You can formulate the concept of a revolution from words whose primary use is for, say, computer programming. "I don't like this program. The source code is ill maintained spaghetti code, and still supports features that were dropped 3 versions ago. Let's delete it and write a new one."

"I don't like this government. The constitution is ill-maintained spaghetti code (and buggy too!), and still has provisions for things that haven't mattered for three centuries. Let's delete the government and write a new consitution."

Jon Brase

'You haven't a real appreciation of Newspeak, Winston,' he said almost sadly. 'Even when you write it you're still thinking in Oldspeak. I've read some of those pieces that you write in the Times occasionally. They're good enough, but they're translations. In your heart you'd prefer to stick to Oldspeak, with all its vagueness and its useless shades of meaning. You don't grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?'...

'Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make Thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. Already, in the Eleventh Edition, we're not far from that point. But the process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller.'

From 1984 by George Orwell (1948)

(The "cloud" is an intelligent alien creature whose body is a small space nebula. It has to leave the solar system soon on a pressing errand, but it wants to leave us humans on Terra a bit of its wisdom)

"...But there's another question that I want to ask." Kingsley then asked (the cloud) his question:

"You will have noticed that we have made no attempt to ask for information concerning physical theories and facts that are not known to us. This omission was not due to any lack of interest, but because we felt ample opportunities would present themselves at a later stage. Now it appears that the opportunities will not present themselves. Have you any suggestions as to how we may occupy what little time remains to the best advantage?"

The answer came:

"This is a matter to which I have also given some attention. There is a crucial difficulty here. Our discussions have been carried out in your language. We have therefore been limited to ideas that can be understood in terms of your language, which is to say that we have been essentially limited to the things you know already. No rapid communication of radically new knowledge is possible unless you learn something of my language.

"This raises two points, one of practice and the other the vital issue of whether the human brain possesses an adequate neurological capacity. To the latter question I know no certain answer, but there seems to be some evidence that justifies a measure of optimism...

...The Cloud resumed its message:

"All this suggests that the human brain is inherently capable of a far improved performance, provided learning is always induced in the best way. And this is what I would propose to do. I propose that one or more of you should attempt to learn my method of thinking and that this be induced as profitably as possible. Quite evidently the learning process must lie outside your language, so that communication will have to proceed in a very different fashion. Of your sense organs, the best suited to the receiving of complex information is your eyes. It is true that you scarcely use the eyes in ordinary language, but it is mainly through the eyes that a child builds up his picture of the intricate world around him. And it is through the eyes that I intend to open up a new world to you.

"My requirements will be comparatively simple. I will now describe them." Then followed technical details that were carefully noted by Leicester. When the Cloud had finished Leicester remarked:

"Well, this isn't going to be too difficult. A number of filter circuits and a whole bank of cathode ray tubes."

"But how are we to get the information?" asked Marlowe.

"Well, of course primarily by radio, then through the discriminating circuits which filter different bits of the messages to the various tubes."

"There are codes for the various filters."

"That's right. So some sort of an ordered pattern can be put on the tubes, although it beats me as to what we shall be able to make of it."...

..."If everybody else is too bashful, I guess I'm willing to be first guinea pig." McNeil gave him a long look.

"There's just one point, Weichart. You realise that this business may carry with it an element of danger? You're quite clear on that, I suppose?" Weichart laughed.

"Don't worry about that. This won't be the first time I've spent a few hours watching cathode ray tubes."

"Very well, then. If you're willing to try, by all means take the chair."

Shortly after this, lights began to flash on the tubes...

..."How's it going, Dave?" No answer.

"Hey, Dave, what's going on?"

Still no answer.


Marlowe and McNeil came one to each side of Weichart's chair.

"Dave, why don't you answer?"

McNeil touched him on the shoulder, but there was still no response. They watched his eyes, fixed on first one group of tubes, then flicking quickly to another.

"What is it, John?" asked Kingsley.

"I think he's in some hypnotic state. He doesn't seem to be noticing any sense data except from the eyes, and they seem to be directed only at the tubes."...

..."I don't like the position, Chris. His temperature is rising rapidly. There isn't much point in your going in to see him. He's not in a coherent state, and not likely to be with a temperature at 104°."

"Have you any idea what's wrong?"

"I obviously can't be sure, because I've never encountered a case like this before. But if I didn't know what had happened, I'd have said Weichart was suffering from an inflammation of brain tissue."

"That's very serious, isn't it?"

"Extremely so. There's very little that any of us can do for him, but I thought you'd like to know."

"Yes, of course. Have you any idea what may have caused it?"

"Well, I'd say too high a rate of working, too great a demand of the neurological system on all the supporting tissues. But again it's only an opinion." Weichart's temperature continued to rise during the day and in the late afternoon he died...

..."He's gone" announced the Irishman.

"My God, what a dreadful tragedy, an unnecessary tragedy."

"Aye, man, a bigger tragedy than you realise."

"What d'you mean?"

"I mean it was touch and go whether he saved himself. In the afternoon he was sane for nearly an hour. He told me what the trouble was. He fought it down and as the minutes passed I thought he was going to win out. But it wasn't to be. He got into another attack and it killed him."

"But what was it?"

"Something obvious, that we ought to have foreseen. What we didn't allow for was the tremendous quantity of new material which the Cloud seems able to impress on the brain. This of course means that there must be widespread changes of the structure of a mass of electrical circuits in the brain, changes of synaptic resistances on a big scale, and so on."

"You mean it was a sort of gigantic brain-washing?"

"No, it wasn't. That's just the point. There was no washing. The old methods of operation of the brain were not washed out. They were left unimpaired. The new was established alongside the old, so that both were capable of working simultaneously."

"You mean that it was as if my knowledge of science were suddenly added to the brain of an ancient Greek."

"Yes, but perhaps in a more extreme form. Can you imagine the fierce contradictions that would arise in the brain of your poor Greek, accustomed to such notions as the Earth being the centre of the Universe and a hundred and one other such anachronisms, suddenly becoming exposed to the blast of your superior knowledge?"

"I suppose it would be pretty bad. After all we get quite seriously upset if just one of our cherished scientific ideas turns out wrong."

"Yes, think of a religious person who suddenly loses faith, which means of course that he becomes aware of a contradiction between his religious and his non-religious beliefs. Such a person often experiences a severe nervous crisis. And Kingsley's case was a thousand times worse. He was killed by the sheer violence of his nervous activity, in a popular phrase by a serious of unimaginably fierce brain-storms."

"But you said he nearly got over it."

"That's right, he did. He realised what the trouble was and evolved some sort of plan for dealing with it. Probably he decided to accept as rule that the new should always supersede the old whenever there was trouble between them. I watched him for a whole hour systematically going through his ideas along some such lines. As the minutes ticked on I thought the battle was won. Then it happened. Perhaps it was some unexpected conjunction of thought patterns that took him unaware. At first the disturbance seemed small, but then it began to grow. He tried desperately to fight it down. But evidently it gained the upper hand - and that was the end. He died under the sedative I was forced to give him. I think it was a kind of chain reaction in his thoughts that got out of control."...

From The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle (1957)

Roll Your Own Language

Instead of using an existing language, obsessive-compulsive SF authors might create their own languages. Or hire somebody else to do it for you. The most famous example is, of course, when Paramount Pictures hired linguist Marc Okrand to invent the Klingon language. In the realm of fantasy, there is linguist J. R. R. Tolkien and the various languages he created for the various races in Lord of the Rings. Here are some tutorials to get you started:

The last link is more for constructing a language used by an alien species, rather than constructing a futuristic human language.

Roll Your Own Words

If creating an entire language is too daunting a task, one could just invent a few slang words to scatter around for verisimilitude. An extreme case of this was in Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, which required the reader to refer to the glossary every sentence or so. More smooth was John Brunner's Stand On Zanzibar, where the invented words are more sparse, and can generally be inferred from the context (e.g., "WhatintheHole did you think I meant?"). Or just a single word or curse. Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land introduced the world to "Grok", and Battlestar Galactica has such expletives as "oh Frak!" and "you actually understand all this felgercarb?"


As a rule of thumb, curses and expletives make references to subjects that are controversial in a culture. The Norman conquest of Anglo-Saxon England led to the latter being looked down upon. This is the reason that to this day so many vulgarities in the English language are four letter Anglo-Saxon words (e.g., the Norman word "excrement" is acceptable, but the Anglo-Saxon "sh*t" is vulgar). Sex is controversial in the United States, so many curse words refer to sexual topics. However, in the US there seems to be a move towards making curses out of words that are no longer "politically correct," especially racial slurs. Many profanities in Canadian French are a corruption of religious terminology. Many European cultures have expletives based on terms for urine and feces. German and Polish cultures include equating people with animals. In Larry Niven's Known Space series, presumably censorship is an issue, in view of such curses as "censored dammit" and "what the bleep!"


English is the result of Norman soldiers attempting to pick up Anglo-Saxon barmaids, and is no more legitimate than any of the other results.

From Fuzzy Sapiens by H. Beam Piper (1964)

Some words have implications that have been lost. An example is "bastard", as in "you bastard!" In the days of yore in England, a youth got his start in life from his father: an inheritance and either an arranged apprenticeship or taking over the father's profession. A youth who was a bastard had no acknowledged father, and thus no inheritance nor a job. It was very difficult to obtain a job any other way. So a bastard, in order to survive, could not afford the luxury of things like morals or scruples. They had to be ruthless and always looking out for number One or they starved to death. So the insult "bastard" was originally: "you are acting as if you were a bastard", that is, ruthless and unscrupulous.

Then one can elaborate on a curse, making it metaphorical. Instead of calling someone a "bastard", you could say "you son of a sailor!" Sailors were noted for having a girl in every port. If one of the girls became pregnant, well, the sailor could easily vanish. In Isaac Asimov's novel FOUNDATION, he updates this curse: Jaim Twer calls Jorane Sutt a "son of a Spacer."

While not profanity, the words "Lord" and "Lady" also have interesting origins.

With a bit of imagination, an SF author can create a similar lost history to justify the futuristic profanity for his stories.

Other words get eroded from use. Henry Ford's horseless carriage was called an "auto-mobile" or "automobile." Four syllables are too many, so it quickly eroded down to "auto." Finally it made the jump to "car." "Cellular Telephone" is already down to "cell phone", and will probably be "cell" before too long. In the Brian Aldiss collection Galaxies Like Grains of Sand, over the centuries the city of New Union had its name change to Newunion, Nunion, and finally Nion. In Frank Herbert's Dune, "laser handgun" has shrunk down to "lasgun." And in Robert Gilman's The Warlock of Rhada apparently the capital of the former galactic empire is New York, during the dark ages the interstellar peasants mutter about the lost city of Nyor on the island of Manhat.

Spelling and Grammar

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.

Another fun avenue is taking English and postulating some form of futuristic grammar or spelling reform. Here is an interesting attempt to predict how the English language will look like in the year 3000. Example:

1000 CE Old English: Wé cildra biddaþ þé, éalá láréow, þæt þú tæ'ce ús sprecan rihte, forþám ungelæ'rede wé sindon, and gewæmmodlíce we sprecaþ...

2000 CE Modern English: We children beg you, teacher, that you should teach us to speak correctly, because we are ignorant and we speak corruptly...3000 CE Futuristic English: ZA kiad w'-exùn ya tijuh, da ya-gAr'-eduketan zA da wa-tAgan lidla, kaz 'ban iagnaran an wa-tAg kurrap...

But don't forget this warning:

For example, in Year 1 that useless letter "c" would be dropped to be replased either by "k" or "s", and likewise "x" would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which "c" would be retained would be the "ch" formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform "w" spelling, so that "which" and "one" would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish "y" replasing it with "i" and Iear 4 might fiks the "g/j" anomali wonse and for all.

Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai Iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez "c", "y" and "x" -- bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez -- tu riplais "ch", "sh", and "th" rispektivli.

Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

From "Meihem in ce Klasrum", Dolton Edwards (Astounding Science Fiction, September 1946)

Future Alphabet


A new logical language just begs for a new logical alphabet. Many are attracted to the Tengwar alphabet invented by J. R. R. Tolkien for his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Especially since the movies have made it trendy.

The design of each letter encodes the phoneme of that letter in a logical and systematic way. A stroke with a right hook on the top is "T" = . Closing the hook make the sound explosive: "T" becomes "P" = . A double right hook dulls it: "T" becomes "D" = . And so on.

Raphaël Poss (AKA "Kena") took the obvious step and adapted the Tengwar alphabet to the Lojban set of phonemes. As Mr. Poss puts it:

...it is far more natural to write Lojban with a logical writing system. ... the tengwar system inherently contains some main Lojban morphology rules, making Lojban easier to learn when it is written with tengwar.

Raphaël Poss

If you want to learn more about Tengwar, there are many places you can go. Jon Brase has a quick run-down:

The basics of the 24 main Tengwar are as follows:

A stem extending downwards from the hook (or as you put it, a hook on top of the stem, though it's the hooks that are the main "body" of the letter and stay at the same level) is a sound that completely cuts off the airflow, such as p, b, t, d, k, and g. In Tengwar for English, ch (as in church) and j are written like this too, even though they don't exactly fit into this category.

A stem extending upwards above the line is a sound that interrupts the airflow, but doesn't cut it off, thus creating a hissing or buzzing sound, such as f, v, th (as in thin), dh (dh as in the), sh, zh (the sound in "fusion"), or the ch in German "Bach." H, s, and z also fall into this category, but don't fit into the chart, so special characters are used.

No stem indicates sounds where the flow through the mouth is stopped, but air is allowed to escape through the nose, creating a sound like m, n, Spanish ñ, or ng (as in sing). There is a major exception to this though (see below)...

There are certain characters with a stem extending both above and below the line that I won't cover here.

A single hook indicates a sound produced with the voicebox shut off, like p, t, k, or f. But single hooks with no stem are often used to write sounds like r, w, and y, since voiceless nasal sounds are uncommon in most languages, and the lack of voiceless nasals leaves a free row.

A double hook represents sounds produced with the voicebox humming away, like b, d, g, or v.

An open hook pointing down and stem on the left represents sounds produced with the tip of the tongue between the teeth, such as t, d, n, r, and th. However, in English all of these sounds except the th and dh are pronounced with the tongue behind the teeth. If the Tengwar had been designed for English s and z (which are pronounced behind the teeth) probably would have replaced th and dh here, and special characters would have been used for th and dh. But since Tolkien's Elvish languages pronounce t, d, and n between the teeth, th and dh are the "main" characters and s and z are the special ones. These sounds are called "dentals" or "alveolars".

A closed hook pointing down and stem on the left represents a sound produced with the lips. (These are called "labials".)

An open hook pointing up and stem on the right represents (depending on the language it is being used for) either a sound produced with the tongue at the place where the gums behind the teeth meet the hard palate, such as sh, ch, or j (in this context, these sounds are called "palatals"), or else a sound produced with the back of the tongue contacting or coming close to the soft palate (such as k, g, ng, or German "ch," these sounds are called "velars").

An closed hook pointing up with the stem on the right represents either a velar (in the languages where the open, up-pointing hook represents a palatal), or else a velar followed by w (in the languages where the open, up-pointing hook represents a velar).

Jon Brase

Other Weird and Wonderful

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a computer role-playing game by Bethesda Game Studios. They worked hard to make the game plausible, even going to the effort of creating a language for the Dragons to speak. But what was an incredibly nice attention to detail is the dragon alphabet (see above). You see, unlike us humans, a dragon's hands has only three talons and a dewclaw. Their writing originated as scratches on stone. If you examine the alphabet carefully, you will see that every letter can be created with three talons and a dewclaw (which makes the dot symbol). Now that's quality workmanship!

Here are a few bizarre invented alphabets for your inspiration.

And as every teenager knows, if you invent your own alphabet, you have to ensure that your name looks really cool when written with it.

Pentateuch Symbols

Glyphs and ideograms are fun as well. A good example is Blissymbolics. One could keep the Blissymbolics "words" but replace the simplified symbols with fancy ones that looked more futuristic or alien. Another interesting example is the White-o-glyphics of Matthew White.

Here is a link to an on-line SF story by Justin Bacon about translating an alien inscription.

I have read that certain Chinese languages, Japanese, and Korean use the same set of ideograms for their very different tongues. So any speaker of those languages can read the ideograms even though they may not be able to speak or understand the other languages. If you point to a given ideogram and ask them to pronounce it, you will get different answers depending upon the speaker's native tongue.

The Pentateuch symbols were created by artist Patrick Woodroffe, and appear both in his illustrations for the Dave Greenslade's 1979 record album THE PENTATEUCH OF THE COSMOGANY (BGO Records, UK) and his novel THE SECOND EARTH (out of print but can be found at Bookfinder.com). In the novel, scientists are trying to translate alien books that have been found in an ancient starship orbiting Saturn. The more modern alien texts are proving difficult to decode. However, the more ancient religious books are base on ideograms. These are much easier to translate.

The symbols are agglomerated. The symbol for "stone" is a rectangle. The symbol for "hard" is a bent arrow. The symbol for "metal" is a combination of both: literally "hard stone." In the same way the symbol for "glass" is a combination of the symbols for "hard" and "water." The symbol for "bride" appears to be a combination of the symbols for "make" and "love." Perhaps a closer translation would be "mate."

There are a few odd symbols due to the mythology in the novel. In the myth, there initially was no dry land, which explains the similarity between the symbols for "house" and "boat". The symbol for "man" appears to mean something like "the little god who's power rises and falls." The symbol for "woman" means "bride of man," a more politically correct interpretation would be "spouse."

Using this system one can make a fairly large vocabulary from relatively few symbols, if you are good at making metaphors. With these symbols in particular, Patrick Woodroffe's incredible graphic skill makes ideograms that are both practical, all in the same recognizable "style", and utterly beautiful.

Here are a few Pentateuch glyphs I've assembled.

Alien Language

All SF authors who feature aliens in their stories have faced the same problem. How do you have your heroes talk with the bug-eyed-monsters?

Traditionally, the problem is so difficult and the needs of writing a fast-paced story are so urgent that SF authors tend to resort to various handwaving and cop-outs. In many SF TV shows, one gets the impression that all aliens miraculously happen to speak English. This was magnificently satirized in Harry Harrison's hysterical spoof of space opera: Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers.

"You speak pretty good English for a thing that's hot as a brick kiln and looks like a twenty-foot-long black scorpion," John spoke up bravely.

"How nice of you to say that," Lord Prrsi said. "If truth be known, I rather pride myself on my linguistic ability; in fact, I led the movement to adopt this new language in place of our old one which was just too clumsy for civilized use. You see we have powerful radio receivers, and we picked up broadcasts from an insignificant little yellow star out in that direction." He waved a great clattering claw. "Oh, I say, I am sorry. Should have realized. It is rather a nice star, for a yellow one, I mean. Since you speak the language, I may assume you come from there? Yes, thought so. Dreadfully rude of me. But I wander. In any case we heard this language emanating from a country named BBC Third Program, and it seemed to fit our needs so we adopted it."

From Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers by Harry Harrison (1973)

Telepathic Translation

Back in the golden age of space opera, a popular handwave for talking with aliens was Telepathy. No muss, no fuss, and you can get on with the action. Of course you have to

  1. postulate that the ESP ability of telepathic receiving exists (aka "mind reading") so our heroes can hear the thoughts of the aliens
  2. postulate that telepathy is somehow some kind of universal translator
  3. postulate that the ESP ability of telepathic sending exists (aka "thought broadcasting") so that our heroes can implant what they want to say directly into the brain of the aliens.

Note that telepathic receiving and telepathic sending are two separate abilities, one does not necessarily possess both.

Hal Clement poured cold water on postulate {b}. In his short story "Impediment", he pointed out that in a telepathic society (in the same way as in a talking society) children grow up learning the common language of that society. Unfortunately, children growing up in a non-telepathic society are the telepathic equivalent of feral children, that is, they have no alternative but to invent their own private idiosyncratic mental language. Wolves don't talk so they cannot teach the technique to human feral children, and humans generally do not use telepathy so again they cannot teach the technique to human children.

This isn't a problem until a telepath tries to talk to a human being mentally. The telepath has to deduce the syntax and vocabulary of the feral language in order to talk to that person. This could take months.

The bad part is that the telepath has to deduce the language for every single individual person they want to talk to, since they are all going to be different! (In Psychohistorical Crisis, author Donald Kingsbury uses this to explain why brain-computer interfacing does not lead to a sort of telepathic internet.)

But that didn't stop E.E."Doc" Smith from using telepathy in his Lensman series, nor John W. Campbell in his Arcot-Morley-Wade series (though Campbell later used a more realistic simplified alien pidgin language in The Space Beyond and The Mightiest Machine, yelled at Doc Smith for using telepathy, and pretended that he had never used telepathy himself.)

"No. We stay right here till we can talk with them somehow. I wish to heck we knew some one of these wonderful systems of telepathy they talk about in stories. I can understand why the author uses them all right. Here we are in a situation that evidently requires immediate action. We don't know how to act, nor what to act against until we can communicate with these people. And in the meantime the enemy continues to operate unhindered. Till I know what this is all about, I'm not moving. They may have richly deserved to have that city wiped out, though somehow, looking at Thaen, I don't believe it. Nevertheless, I'm staying till we can communicate. That's the trouble with languages. They have to be learned, and before a complex situation can be understood, they must be learned rather completely. Months, perhaps, wasted. Nothing else to do.

"We'll have to investigate the language here, and find out how it works. If they go in for innumerable irregularities, passive, vocative and indicative voices, singular, dual and plural forms, nouns declined in singular dual and plural through eight or nine cases, we'll learn something else -- or they can learn English. If theirs is easier than ours, all well and good."...

...The sounds of this language seemed entirely different from those Thaen had first employed, and did not at all fit in with the names of the men. Their teacher, Haelieu; kept saying the word that meant full or complete in the dictionary, and after an hour Putney grasped the idea.

"Ran - no wonder this is so easy - it's a specially constructed language. It's simplified to the uttermost. Take their verb 'ascend.' It isn't that. It's made like the German verb 'abgehen.' Gehen, to (sic). Ab, up. They have taken a few dozen root verb ideas like to, be, see, talk, and made compounds with prefixes and such. They don't say descend, ascend, accelerate or decelerate. They simply say go down, go up, go faster, go slower and so forth.

"Further, the sounds are simplified for others to learn. They aren't like their own sounds. This was meant to be taught to other races."

"They've completely left out all sign of declension, thing, things. Big, bigger, biggest. That's about the only sign of change in nouns and adjectives. Not quite like some of Earth's languages, German for instance, with its der - des - den - dem, die - der - der - die for 'the' and so on for every single adjective in the language. No gender here, either. And their verbs! Two modals, two principal parts. Then you know the whole story, absolutely no irregularities. We can learn it in a day."

From The Space Beyond by John W. Campbell, jr. (1976)

While John W. Campbell is to be applauded for avoiding telepathy in his novel The Space Beyond, he inadvertently revealed that his knowledge of linguistics is imperfect. Since his readers were equally unaware, this probably didn't matter much. But just to set the records straight, Jon Brase had this to say:

The excerpt from John Campbell's "A Space Beyond" is a really good example of how not to introduce linguistic realism into a story:

"If they go in for innumerable irregularities, passive, vocative and indicative voices, singular, dual and plural forms, nouns declined in singular dual and plural through eight or nine cases, we'll learn something else -- or they can learn English. If theirs is easier than ours, all well and good."

There's so much wrong with this sentence that I don't know where to begin. First the technical flaws, I guess: Passive is in fact a voice, but vocative is a case, and indicative is a mood. Indicative is in fact generally the default mood in a language. It tells us that something is happening, as opposed to that something might be happening, or wondering if something is happening.

Then there is the fact that this quote here is horribly Anglocentric, and ignores the fact that English has many of these features, but indicates them with special word orders or helping words rather than by tacking an inflection onto a word like the supposedly "complicated" languages like Latin and German that "have" these features. And whether or not a language is inflecting (uses word endings, or beginnings, or whatever) or isolating (words remain the same, but modifier words and special word orders are used to produce shades of meaning) does not really affect its "easiness". You're just exchanging word-level complexity for sentence level complexity. (That said, pidgins often do go for more of an isolating structure, for various reasons).

"Take their verb 'ascend.' It isn't that. It's made like the German verb 'abgehen.' Gehen, to (sic). Ab, up. They have taken a few dozen root verb ideas like to, be, see, talk, and made compounds with prefixes and such. They don't say descend, ascend, accelerate or decelerate. They simply say go down, go up, go faster, go slower and so forth."

This demonstrates a very poor understanding of both German and English. The error in the German is fairly simple: "Ab" does not mean "up". It means "from, away from, off". Abgehen thus means "to go off", or "to exit" (in the theatrical sense of "exit"), as well as having several other meanings. (Also, I think you have a transcription error in there: "Gehen" is "to go", not "to". (ed. note: Actually, the error is Campbell's, that is the way it is in the original text).

The error in the English has to do with not understanding the origins of English words. Words like "ascend" were borrowed from Latin. And in Latin, they were formed by the exact same process as he describes for German: "ascend" -> Lat. ascendere (sp?) -> ad (to) scendere (climb). -> meaning: "to climb to". (I'm not sure if I've got the exact form of "scendere" right, but it should be close to that). "descend" -> de (from) scendere -> meaning "to climb from". Accelerate -> ad + celer (quick) + -are (infinitive ending for a verb) -> meaning, very roughly, "to 'go to being quick' ", "to quicken". Decelerate -> de + celer + are -> meaning, "to 'come from being quick' ", "to unquicken".

"Further, the sounds are simplified for others to learn. They aren't like their own sounds. This was meant to be taught to other races."

This assumes that A): Enough races in the galaxy communicate (or can communicate) primarily via sound (as opposed to, say, sign language), for the endeavor of creating an interspecies pidgin to be worth it. B): Enough races can hear sounds in a similar enough frequency range for the endeavor to be worth it. C): Enough races have a mechanism somewhat similar to the human vocal mechanism for this endeavor to make sense (ie, one or more gas bladders or lungs hooked up to a tube that has a "mouth" with something resembling a tongue and something resembling lips, and has a nose that can be sealed off from the rest of the mechanism at will. All the musculature for this has to be under conscious control, with the size of the whole mechanism being appropriate to resonate at frequencies in the common hearing range. (This minimal mechanism should give access to at least (very roughly) p, t, f, s, voiceless m and n, voiceless ah, and voiceless nasalized ah). I find the likelyhood of all these conditions being met somewhat dubious, with condition C being the least dubious (considering that parrots can, in fact, imitate human speech to the point where humans can understand it).

John Campbell

Translator Gizmo

The other popular handwave is some sort of high-tech alien-language-to-English gadget. Star Trek has the baton-shaped "universal translator." The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy has the paradoxical Babel Fish. In Farscape, John Chrichton is implanted with translator microbes. In The Last Starfighter, Alex Rogan is given a chip that was attached to the collar of his shirt. In James White's Sector General series, the personnel in the huge Sector General hospital wear "translator packs" hot-linked to the giant translation computer in the hospital's core. And the companions of Doctor Who have an instant translation service by a telepathic field generated by the TARDIS.

"The Babel fish," said The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy quietly, "is small, yellow and leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy not from its carrier but from those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. It then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain which has supplied them. The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language. The speech patterns you actually hear decode the brainwave matrix which has been fed into your mind by your Babel fish.

"Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindboggingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as the final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.

"The argument goes something like this: `I refuse to prove that I exist,' says God, `for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.'

"`But,' says Man, `The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. QED.'

"`Oh dear,' says God, `I hadn't thought of that,' and promptly vanished in a puff of logic.

"`Oh, that was easy,' says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.

"Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo's kidneys, but that didn't stop Oolon Colluphid making a small fortune when he used it as the central theme of his best- selling book Well That About Wraps It Up For God.

"Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation."

From The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979)

Alien Pidgin

In the real world, communication with hypothetical extraterrestrials is such a huge problem that it may never be properly solved. Researchers are having enough problems trying to talk to porpoises, and they are from our own planet. Alien thought processes might be forever inscrutable. In C. J. Cherryh's Chanur novels, the methane-breathing Tc'a species are almost impossible to be communicated with, since their brains are multi-part and their speech decodes as complex matrices of intertwined meanings. And just imagine the headaches of trying to communicate with a species that uses various scents and smells instead of sound. Or radio waves. Or modulated laser beams. Or rapid changes in skin color. Or all four combined.

"This man Boyce," said Karellen. "Tell me all about him." The Supervisor did not use those actual words, of course, and the thoughts he really expressed were far more subtle. A human listener would have heard a short burst of rapidly modulated sound, not unlike a high-speed Morse sender in action. Though many samples of Overlord language had been recorded, they all defied analysis because of their extreme complexity. The speed of transmission made it certain that no Interpreter, even if he had mastered the elements of the language, could ever keep up with the Overlords in their normal conversation.

From Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke (1954)


In the real world, since starships have not been invented yet, the SETI researchers are focusing on communication without contact, which more or less boils down to interstellar radio transmission.

They had to deal with an even more difficult problem. It is hard enough to communicate with a specific known alien species, even if they are present to assist with the effort. It is much harder to make a communication that is sufficiently universal enough to be decoded by any species, specifically ones that are unknown and and are not physically present. They have to create some kind of universal "pidgin." They are using anticryptography instead of cryptography: attempting to create a code that is easy to break.

The SETI researchers tried to get down to basics. They were forced to make the assumption that the listening aliens understood mathematics. You have to have something to use as common ground. Without mathematics, there was not really anything else to use. The SETI researchers tried to console themselves with the rationalization that a non-mathematical species was unlikely to have radio technology in the first place. Maybe.

An interesting exception was in H. Beam Piper's classic short story "Omnilingual." Human archaeologists in the ancient ruins of the extinct Martian civilization are attempting to translate the documents. The work goes nowhere since there is nothing resembling a Rosetta stone. Until one of the archaeologist stumbles over a Martian periodic table of the elements. The elements are also a universal common ground.

Given mathematics, there are a few approaches that suggest themselves. One can transmit the equivalent of 1+1 = 2, the value of Pi (π) to a few decimal points, things like that. A popular choice for inclusion is the most famous equation in all of mathematics, Euler's identity: e + 1 = 0.

But it doesn't take much knowledge of mathematics to see the importance of Prime Numbers.

For nearly a billion miles the great ship was hurled through space at a tremendous normal-space velocity. Then abruptly it was halted, without a sign of strain or hurt. The great twenty-foot UV beam on the nose of the "S Doradus" broke into glowing gentle red light. It flashed twice. There was a pause. Then it flashed four times. A long wait. Then three times, a pause and nine times. A wait. Four times, a pause, sixteen times. Then it stopped.

A slow smile of ineffable joy spread over Gresth Gkae's face. "Jarth, Be Praised. He can destroy, but does not wish to. Ah, Thart Kralt, turn your spotlight toward him, and flash it twenty-five times, for he is trying to start communications with us.

From The Ultimate Weapon by John W. Campbell, Jr. (1936)

A picture is worth a thousand words, but radio transmissions are linear. Given a string of pulses (and absence of pulses) of length N, there are lots of ways one can divide them into an image. If there are 400 pulses, the picture might be 20 x 20, 40 x 10, 25 x 16, and so on.

Unless the number of pulses is a semi-prime, that is, a number which is the product of two prime numbers. This would catch the attention of any mathematics using species.

An interstellar message of this type send by radio is called a "radioglyph".

Drake's Radioglyph

In the early 1960's, Frank Drake (creator of the Drake Equation) made a hypothetical alien message and sent it unexpectedly to the participants of a conference on intelligent extraterrestrial life. He wanted to see how many of them could decode and interpret it. The message was a string of 551 ones and zeros.

A mathematician would instantly notice that 551 is a semi-prime, the product of two primes 19 and 29. If you make the ones into black squares and the zeroes into white squares you can make an image 19x29 or 29x19. If you try 19x29 you got a mess.

However, if you try 29x19 you get an interesting image.

There is a stick figure of some kind of biped creature, with a larger abdomen and a wider spread to its legs. Perhaps the gravity on its planet is more intense than on Terra.

Down the left edge is a representation of the alien's solar system, with the primary star at the top. Five small planets, two medium planets, and two large planets. Very much like our solar system.

The two groups in the upper right corner are a diagram of a carbon atom and an oxygen atom. It would seem reasonable to infer that the alien's biochemistry is based on carbon, and it breaths oxygen, just like us.

Next to planets one through five are binary numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, with the addition of a parity bit. Presumably in future transmissions one will be able to tell letters from numbers by the presence of a parity bit.

In between the biped and the atoms are three numbers aligned with the planets. There is a diagonal line connecting the numbers with the biped. The implication is that these are the number of aliens on each of the planets: 11 on planet two, 3000 on planet three, and about 7e9 on planet four. The inference is that the aliens have space travel, their home world is planet four, there is a colony on planet three, and an exploration or research base on planet two.

Finally to the right of the biped appears a "height" marker with the number 31. The only unit we have in common with the alien is the radio wavelength that the message was delivered on. So we can conclude that the aliens are 31 wavelengths tall.

Not a bad amount of information for 551 ones and zeroes.

Drake tried to set the difficulty so that a group of scientist could decode and interpret it in about a day. Any shorter a time and the message would have to be so simple it was not efficiently using all the bits. Any longer and there would be a risk that the message might not be decoded at all. As it turns out, only one scientist managed to decrypt the message: Bernard Oliver.

Radioglyph Schemes

Lincos TextMeaning
Ha Inq Hb ?x 4x=10Ha says to Hb: What is the x such that 4x=10?
Hb Inq Hc ?y y Inq Hb ?x 4x=10Hb says to Hc: Who asked me for the x such that 4x=10?
Hc Inq Hb HaHc says to Hb: Ha.

In 1952, British mathematician Lancelot Hogben proposed a simplistic radioglyph scheme called Astraglossa. It expresses numbers and operators in a series of short and long pulses. Short pulses represent numbers, while trains of long pulses represent symbols for addition, subtraction, etc. Philip Morrison built on Hogben's work.

In the 1960's, Dr. Hans Freudenthal constructed a mathematical pidgin language called Lincos (short for lingua cosmica). It is a language designed to be understandable by any possible intelligent extraterrestrial life form, for use in interstellar radio transmissions. Freudenthal considered that such a language should be easily understood by beings not acquainted with any Earthling syntax or language. Lincos was designed to be capable of encapsulating "the whole bulk of our knowledge."

Bruno Bassi has an analysis of Lincos here. There is some work on a Lincos based variant here.

You can find more samples of Lincos here.

Arecibo Radioglyph

In 1974 the Arecibo radio telescope was refurbished. As a publicity stunt, they sent a coded message to the Hercules Globular Cluster. The cluster was chosen because it is a flashy object visible from Arecibo, not because anybody thinks it has habitable planets populated with aliens. Globular clusters are composed of ancient metal-poor first generation stars, such stars are highly unlikely to possess any planets at all. But "Hercules Globular Cluster" looks really impressive on a press release. And since it is about 25,100 light-years away, the promoters will not have to worry about any response until about the year 52,174.

The message was 1679 bits, which is of course a semi-prime. It breaks down into a 23x73 image. The message contains the numbers 1 through 10, the elements that compose DNA, the formula for the nucleotides of DNA, a picture the DNA double helix, the number of nucleotides in a human genome, a stick figure of a human, the height of a man, the population of Terra, a diagram of the solar system, a picture of the Arecibo dish, and the size of the dish. You can read all the details of the message here.

Martin's Radioglyph

In 1991, Martin C. Martin created a hypothetical alien message and posted it on Internet newsgroups sci.crypt, sci.astro, sci.space, rec.arts.sf-lovers and rec.puzzles. You can see the puzzle here and the solution here.

Encounter 2001 Message

In 1999 Dr. Yvan Dutil and Stephane Dumas created a far more sophisticated message that was over 400,000 bits long. It was beamed at four relatively close-by stars (between 50 and 70 light-years) thought likely to host intelligent life (HD190360, HD190406, HD186408, HD178428).

You can see the message pages here and the translation here.


Fictional Radioglyphs

Radioglyphs have appeared in a few SF novels, such as James Gunn's The Listeners (1968), Gregory Benford & Gordon Eklund's If The Stars Are Gods (1977), and Carl Sagan's Contact (1985).

The Listeners

In The Listeners by James Gunn, scientists receive a transmission from the star Capella. It is composed of snippets from old radio programs (like Burns & Gracie, and The Shadow) along with blanks. Eventually somebody notices that the total number of snippets and blanks is equal to 589, which is the product of the two primes 19 and 31. Arrange it like a radioglyph and you obtain the glyph at left.

The scientists interpretation is to the right. A figure with a helmet and wings stands in the center with an egg at its feet. Capella is a double star, the two are in opposite corners. The hotter sun has more rays. Apparently the dimmer one is host to the Capellan's home planet, which is a moon of a gas giant. The Capellan stick figure is pointing at the home planet.

The (binary) numbers are horizontal, the words have a vertical component. The word for "Capellan" is pointed to by the stick figure, and also occurs by the wing and by the egg (which is why they figure it is an egg and not a toilet accident).

Some politically influential religious fundamentalists want to shut down the project, but change their mind when they see the message. To them it is obviously an angel with wings and a halo.

The scientists send their reply and eventually get a full data-dump from the Capellans. Posthumously. The dump is prefaced with the original radioglyph, with the stick figure omitted, the home star grown huge, and the gas giant vastly reduced in size. All the Capellans have been killed by their home star turning into a red giant, the transmission is from an automated station.

If The Stars Are Gods

In If The Stars Are Gods by Gregory Benford & Gordon Eklund, scientists receive a radioglyph from Alpha Librae, a star about 77 light-years away from Sol. The diagram of a solar system on the right edge is clear enough, even though it indicates that the aliens are living on a gas giant. But the rest of the message does not make sense to the scientists.

Clutching at straws, the scientists send expedition to study life forms living in Jupiter's atmosphere. They turn out to be huge spherical beast, which provide the key to the riddle. We humans use one system for numbers and an auxiliary system to measure angles. But spherical creatures might find it more natural to use an angular measure as their primary mathematical system. The easiest method is to set the value of Pi (π) to equal "one," though in the novel a more complicated system actually proved to be the solution.

The transition from ordinary numbers into angular numbers is indicated by the large arc in the radioglyph.

Physical Media


Of course if email fails you, there is always physical mail. Eric Burgess and Richard Hoagland approached Carl Sagan with the idea of attaching a physical plaque to the Pioneer 10 and 11 space probes. These probes were going to achieve solar escape velocity and were on a one-way trip out of the solar system.

The plaque is engraved with many interesting pieces of information, including the position of Terra relative to several pulsars. You can read about the details here.

Of course, since Pioneer 10 is only poking along at a paltry 12 km/s, it will take a bit more than 30,000 years before it passes closer than three light years to any star (Ross 248 actually). But it is the principle of the thing.

In any event, Pioneer 10 is shown being vaporized by a disruptor beam from a Klingon Bird of Prey in the movie Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.


When the next to space probes achieved solar escape velocity, they too had messages attached. Voyager 1 and 2 had golden records containing sounds and images. You can read about the details here.

Voyager 1 was intercepted by the alien in the movie Starman.

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