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.

And go here for a discussion of using sign language while wearing space suits.

…adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife.

But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.

And as size comes before colour, green great dragons can’t exist.


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 "g" 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


     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 five.

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)

(ed note: Our Heroes are with the Foundation Project, established at the very rim of the Galactic Empire on the planet Terminus. The Project is led by a board of naive idealistic ivory-tower idiots under Dr. Pirenne. The civilians of Terminus are led by a pragmatic practical take-charge hero named Mayor Hardin, who is nominally under the control of the board.

The Galactic Empire is falling, and is gradually withdrawing control away from the rim. The tiny local stellar kingdoms are rising up and taking control of every planet they can grab. The little kingdom of Anacreon wants to seize control of Terminus.

Terminus and the board become alarmed and plead to the Galactic Empire for help. The Empire sends diplomat Lord Dorwin, who hangs around Terminus for about a week, giving assurances. Dorwin then travels to Anacreon and signs a treaty between Anacreon and the Galactic Empire.

The board then tells Anacreon to go away and stop threatening Terminus. Anacreon sends Terminus an angry ultimatum.

Mayor Hardin meets with the board, and carefully explains to the board that they are a bunch of naive idealistic ivory-tower idiots.)

     (Hardin said) “All right. I’m not that vitally interested. It’s just my opinion that it was your diplomatic transmission of Lord Dorwin’s valuable contribution to the situation” – he lifted the comer of his mouth in a sour half-smile – “that was the direct cause of this friendly little note (the ultimatum from Anacreon). They might have delayed longer otherwise – though I don’t think the additional time would have helped Terminus any, considering the attitude of the Board.”
     Said Yate Fulham: “And just how do you arrive at that remarkable conclusion, Mr. Mayor?”
     “In a rather simple way. It merely required the use of that much-neglected commodity – common sense. You see, there is a branch of human knowledge known as symbolic logic, which can be used to prune away all sorts of clogging deadwood that clutters up human language.
     “What about it?” said Fulham.
     “I applied it. Among other things, I applied it to this document here. I didn’t really need to for myself because I knew what it was all about, but I think I can explain it more easily to five physical scientists by symbols rather than by words.”
     Hardin removed a few sheets of paper from the pad under his arm and spread them out. “I didn’t do this myself, by the way,” he said. “Muller Holk of the Division of Logic has his name signed to the analyses, as you can see.”
     Pirenne leaned over the table to get a better view and Hardin continued: “The message from Anacreon was a simple problem, naturally, for the men who wrote it were men of action rather than men of words. It boils down easily and straightforwardly to the unqualified statement, when in symbols is what you see, and which in words, roughly translated, is, ‘You give us what we want in a week, or we take it by force.’
     There was silence as the five members of the Board ran down the line of symbols, and then Pirenne sat down and coughed uneasily.
     Hardin said, “No loophole, is there, Dr. Pirenne?”
     “Doesn’t seem to be.”
     “All right.” Hardin replaced the sheets. “Before you now you see a copy of the treaty between the Empire and Anacreon – a treaty, incidentally, which is signed on the Emperor’s behalf by the same Lord Dorwin who was here last week – and with it a symbolic analysis.”
     The treaty ran through five pages of fine print and the analysis was scrawled out in just under half a page.
     “As you see, gentlemen, something like ninety percent of the treaty boiled right out of the analysis as being meaningless, and what we end up with can be described in the following interesting manner:
     “Obligations of Anacreon to the Empire: None!
     “Powers of the Empire over Anacreon: None!
     Again the five followed the reasoning anxiously, checking carefully back to the treaty, and when they were finished, Pirenne said in a worried fashion, “That seems to be correct.”
     “You admit, then, that the treaty is nothing but a declaration of total independence on the part of Anacreon and a recognition of that status by the Empire?”
     “It seems so.”
     “And do you suppose that Anacreon doesn’t realize that, and is not anxious to emphasize the position of independence – so that it would naturally tend to resent any appearance of threats from the Empire? Particularly when it is evident that the Empire is powerless to fulfill any such threats, or it would never have allowed independence.”
     “But then,” interposed Sutt, “how would Mayor Hardin account for Lord Dorwin’s assurances of Empire support? They seemed – ” He shrugged. “Well, they seemed satisfactory.
     Hardin threw himself back in the chair. “You know, that’s the most interesting part of the whole business. I’ll admit I had thought his Lordship a most consummate donkey when I first met him – but it turned out that he was actually an accomplished diplomat and a most clever man. I took the liberty of recording all his statements.”
     There was a flurry, and Pirenne opened his mouth in horror.
     “What of it?” demanded Hardin. “I realize it was a gross breach of hospitality and a thing no so-called gentleman would do. Also, that if his lordship had caught on, things might have been unpleasant; but he didn’t, and I have the record, and that’s that. I took that record, had it copied out and sent that to Holk for analysis, also.”
     Lundin Crast said, “And where is the analysis?”
     “That,” replied Hardin, “is the interesting thing. The analysis was the most difficult of the three by all odds. When Holk, after two days of steady work, succeeded in eliminating meaningless statements, vague gibberish, useless qualifications – in short, all the goo and dribble – he found he had nothing left. Everything canceled out.
     “Lord Dorwin, gentlemen, in five days of discussion didn’t say one damned thing, and said it so you never noticed. There are the assurances you had from your precious Empire.”
     Hardin might have placed an actively working stench bomb on the table and created no more confusion than existed after his last statement. He waited, with weary patience, for it to die down.
     “So,” he concluded, “when you sent threats – and that’s what they were – concerning Empire action to Anacreon, you merely irritated a monarch who knew better. Naturally, his ego would demand immediate action, and the ultimatum is the result – which brings me to my original statement. We have one week left and what do we do now?”

From FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov (1951)

Lingua Franca

A lingua franca is a language specifically for trade or otherwise communicating with aliens and/or human colonies with differing tongues. It may or may not be the "official" language of a galactic empire. It can be a real chore creating something every species can speak, with the difficulty rising geometrically with the number of different species.

It is often called something like Common, the Common Speech, the Common Tongue, or Basic.

It can also be valuable if said galactic empire falls. It will then allow different empire fragments to communicate, much in the same way that Latin allowed different countries to talk after the fall of the Roman empire. And like Latin it could become the official language of scholars.

  • Basic (or Anglic): Andre Norton's space operas
  • Esperanto: Harry Harrison's novels. This is a real-world attempt at a lingua franca. Harrison is always promoting Esperanto in his novels, but it still does not catch on. Lojban is better at any rate.
  • Federation Standard: Star Trek
  • Galach: Frank Herbert's Dune novels
  • Galactic Basic: Star Wars
  • Galactic Standard: Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy
  • Galacto: Edmond Hamilton's Starwolf Trilogy
  • Galanglic: The Traveller role playing game
  • Galbasic: Andre Norton's Cat's Eye
  • GalLing (galactic lingua franca): Janet Kagan's Hellspark. It only uses phonemes common to all human languages for ease of use (by humans).
  • Interlac: Babylon 5
  • League Latin: Poul Anderson's Polesotechnic League novels. Official trade language of the merchant princes, because communication makes it so much more easy to sell things to aliens.
  • Lingua Terra: Robert Heinlein's Tunnel In The Sky, H. Beam Piper's Space Viking
  • Lingua Spatia: John Brunner's Born Under Mars.
  • Symbospeech: Alan Dean Foster's Humanx Commonwealth. This originally designed for Human and insectoid Tranx vocal cords. But as it turned out other aliens could handle it as well, thus becoming a de facto lingua franca.
  • Tongue: Alastair Reynold's House of Suns
  • Trade: Liaden novels (because that is mostly what it is used for)
  • Triplanetarian: E. E. "Doc" Smith's Triplanetary

A lingua franca also known as a bridge language, common language, trade language or vehicular language, is a language or dialect systematically (as opposed to occasionally, or casually) used to make communication possible between people who do not share a native language or dialect, particularly when it is a third language that is distinct from both native languages.

Lingua francas have developed around the world throughout human history, sometimes for commercial reasons (so-called "trade languages") but also for cultural, religious, diplomatic and administrative convenience, and as a means of exchanging information between scientists and other scholars of different nationalities. The term originates with one such language, Mediterranean Lingua Franca.


Lingua franca is a term defined functionally, that is "independently of the linguistic history or structure of the language". Pidgins and creoles often function as lingua francas, but many such languages are neither pidgins nor creoles.

Whereas a vernacular language is used as a native language in a community, a lingua franca is used beyond the boundaries of its original community and is used as a second language for communication between groups. For example, English is a vernacular in the United Kingdom but is used as a lingua franca in the Philippines and India. Russian, Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Turkish and French serve a similar purpose as industrial/educational lingua francas in many areas.

International auxiliary languages such as Esperanto have not had a great degree of adoption globally so they cannot be described as global lingua francas.


The term lingua franca originated as the name of a particular language that was used around the eastern Mediterranean Sea as the main language of commerce and diplomacy, from late medieval times, especially during the Renaissance era, to the 18th century. At that time, Italian-speakers dominated seaborne commerce in the port cities of the Ottoman Empire and a simplified version of Italian, including many loan words from Greek, Old French, Portuguese, Occitan, and Spanish as well as Arabic and Turkish came to be widely used as the "lingua franca" (in the generic sense used) of the region.

In Lingua Franca (the specific language), lingua means a language, as in Portuguese and Italian, and franca is related to phrankoi in Greek and faranji in Arabic as well as the equivalent Italian. In all three cases, the literal sense is "Frankish", but the name was actually applied to all Western Europeans during the late Byzantine Empire.

The Douglas Harper Etymology Dictionary states that the term Lingua Franca (as the name of the particular language) was first recorded in English during the 1670s, although an even earlier example of the use of Lingua Franca in English is attested from 1632, where it is also referred to as "Bastard Spanish".

As recently as the late 20th century, the use of the generic term was restricted by some to mean only hybrid languages that are used as vehicular languages, its original meaning, but it now refers to any vehicular language.


Main article: List of lingua francas

The use of lingua francas has existed since antiquity. Latin and Koine Greek were the lingua francas of the Roman Empire and the Hellenistic culture. Akkadian and then Aramaic remained the common languages of a large part of Western Asia from several earlier empires. Examples of lingua francas remain numerous and exist on every continent. The most obvious example as of the early 21st century is English, which could be defined as the main lingua franca but there are many other lingua francas, such as French, Spanish, Urdu, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian, German, Arabic, Bengali, Mandarin, Turkish and Swahili.

In certain countries, the lingua franca is also the national language. Urdu is the lingua franca of Pakistan as well as the national language.

Indonesian has the same function in Indonesia, but Javanese has more native speakers. Still, Indonesian is the sole official language and is spoken, often as a second language, throughout the country.

Finally, the only documented widespread lingua franca to be a sign language is Plains Indian Sign Language, used across much of North America. It was used as a second language across many indigenous peoples. Alongside or a derivation of Plains Indian Sign Language was Plateau Sign Language, now extinct. Inuit Sign Language could be a similar case in the Arctic among the Inuit for communication across oral language boundaries, but little research exists.

From the Wikipedia entry for LINGUA FRANCA

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)

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)
Babylon 5

      POLITICAL OFFICER JULIE MUSANTE: Anyway, enough politics. How are things here on the station?

     BABYLON 5 STATION COMMANDER SHERIDAN: Fine. Status quo. We've had a few problems with the lurkers, but nothing --

     JULIE MUSANTE: Lurkers?

     SHERIDAN: Our version of the homeless. In some ways we have the same problems Earth does.

     JULIE MUSANTE: Earth doesn't have homeless.

     SHERIDAN: Excuse me?

     JULIE MUSANTE: We don't have the problem. Sure, there are a few... displaced people here and there, but they've chosen to be in that position. They're lazy, or criminal, or mentally unstable --

     SHERIDAN: They can't get a job.

     JULIE MUSANTE: Earthgov has promised a job for anyone who wants one. If someone doesn't have a job, it must be because they don't want one. Quid pro quo. ( She says it with the air of a true believer, as though dropping some totally accepted fact. Sheridan is boggled. )

     SHERIDAN: And poverty?

     JULIE MUSANTE: The same.

     SHERIDAN: Crime?

     JULIE MUSANTE: There's some, but it's all caused by the mentally unstable. We've just instituted correctional centers to filter them out at an early age.

     SHERIDAN: Prejudice?

     We're just one happy planet. Well, except for the Marsies, but that won't change until they stop fighting Earth rule.

     SHERIDAN: And when, exactly, did all this happen?

     JULIE MUSANTE: When we rewrote the dictionary.
     Captain, you're a good man. A fine soldier. A leader. You understand that before you can deal with a problem sometimes you have to...redefine it.

     SHERIDAN: You don't deal with problems by pretending they don't exist.

     JULIE MUSANTE: Why embarrass our leaders by pointing out flaws in society that they're aware of and dealing with in their own time, in their own way? Some people enjoy finding fault with our leaders: they're anarchists, trouble makers, or simply unpatriotic. None of which describes you. Do you want people thinking otherwise, Captain?

(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!"

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


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."

When getting down to basics, remember that the word Lord comes from the Old English word hlaford, which was derived from the Old English hlafweard. The word hlaf means "bread" or "loaf" and weard means "keeper" or "guardian", so Lord means "Keeper of the food". You give your allegiance to your lord because he's the one who gives you food. Meanwhile Lady come from the Old English word hlæfdige. -Dige means "maid", and is derived from dæge or "maker of dough."

In other words, the Lord brings home the bacon, and the Lady cooks it. And the Lord's men are loyal because he feeds them.

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.

'I'll tell you,' said Vimes. A monarch's an absolute ruler, right? The head honcho—'

'Unless he's a queen,' said Carrot.

Vimes glared at him, and then nodded. 'OK, or the head honchette—'

'No, that'd only apply if she was a young woman. Queens tend to be older. She'd have to be a ... a honcharina? No, that's for very young princesses. No. Um. A honchesa, I think.'

From MEN AT ARMS by Terry Pratchett (1993)

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)

The locals spoke Lingua Terra of a sort, like every descendant of the race that had gone out from the Sol system in the Third Century, but it was a barely comprehensible sort. On civilized planets, the language had been frozen unalterably in microbooks and voice tapes. But microbooks can only be read and sound tapes heard with the aid of electricity, and Tanith had lost that long ago.

From SPACE VIKING by H. Beam Piper (1962)

The field of nuclear semiotics arose in 1981 when a team of engineers, anthropologists, nuclear physicists, behavioral scientists and others was convened on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy and Bechtel Corp. The goal of this "Human Interference Task Force" was to find a way to reduce the likelihood of future humans unintentionally intruding on radioactive waste isolation systems.

Specifically, the task force was to research ways to prevent future access to the planned, but stalled deep geological nuclear repository project of Yucca Mountain.


When atomic or fusion bombs are detonated in a war, or nuclear power plants are used in times of peace, an unnaturally high amount of radioactive waste is produced. This material will threaten human life and health for thousands of years. Consequently, nuclear technology necessitates the creation of a secure means of terminal storage for such materials for an unusually long time period.

Unfortunately, there is no method available to continuously provide the necessary knowledge about the location of nuclear waste over thousands of years. The culture of earlier centuries becomes incomprehensible when it is not translated into new languages every few generations. National institutions do not exist longer than a few hundred years. Even religions are not older than a few millennia and do not typically hand down scientific knowledge.

Furthermore, the necessary length of storage is disputed among specialists. One work group in Germany concluded that nuclear waste must be separated from the biosphere up to one million years – about 30,000 human generations. Earlier assumptions were based on a period of 10,000 years, which seems to be too short given the half-life of certain radioactive isotopes (e.g. Plutonium-239 at 24,000 years).

The written historical tradition of humanity, in contrast, is only about 5000 years. Warnings in cuneiform script could be interpreted by some specialists, but others, such as the writing of the Indus Valley civilization, are already illegible after a few thousand years.


Three parts of any communication about nuclear waste must be conveyed to posterity:

  1. that it is a message at all
  2. that dangerous material is stored in a given location
  3. information about the type of dangerous substances


To determine how to convey these three things, the "Zeitschrift für Semiotik" (Tübingen, Germany) issued a poll in 1982 and 1983 asking how a message might be communicated for a duration of 10,000 years. The poll asked the following question: "How would it be possible to inform our descendants for the next 10,000 years about the storage locations and dangers of radioactive waste?" leading to the following answers.

Thomas Sebeok

The linguist Thomas Sebeok was a member of the Bechtel working group. Building on earlier suggestions made by Alvin Weinberg and Arsen Darnay he proposed the creation of an atomic priesthood, a panel of experts where members would be replaced through nominations by a council. Similar to the Catholic church - which has preserved and authorized its message for over 2000 years — the atomic priesthood would have to preserve the knowledge about locations and dangers of radioactive waste by creating rituals and myths. The priesthood would indicate off-limits areas and the consequences of disobedience.

This approach has a number of critical problems:

  1. An atomic priesthood would gain political influence based on the contingencies that it would oversee.
  2. This system of information favors the creation of hierarchies.
  3. The message could be split into independent parts.
  4. Information about waste sites would grant power to a privileged class. People from outside this group might attempt to seize this information by force.

Stanisław Lem

Polish science-fiction author Stanisław Lem proposed the creation of artificial satellites that would transmit information from their orbit to Earth for millennia. He also described a biological coding of DNA in a mathematical sense, which would reproduce itself automatically. Information Plants would only grow near a terminal storage site and would inform humans about the dangers. The DNA of the so-called atomic flowers would contain the necessary data about both the location and its contents.

Lem acknowledged the problem with his idea that humans would be unlikely to know the meaning of atomic flowers 10,000 years later, and thus unlikely to decode their DNA in a search for information.

Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri

French author Françoise Bastide and the Italian semiotician Paolo Fabbri proposed the breeding of so called "radiation cats" or "ray cats". Cats have a long history of cohabitation with humans, and this approach assumes that their domestication will continue indefinitely. These radiation cats would change significantly in color when they came near radioactive emissions and serve as living indicators of danger. In order to transport the message, the importance of the cats would need to be set in the collective awareness through fairy tales and myths. Those fairy tales and myths in turn could be transmitted through poetry, music and painting. The story of this original project was depicted in the 2016 short documentary "The Ray Cat Solution".

Vilmos Voigt

Vilmos Voigt from Loránd-Eötvös university (Budapest) proposed the installation of warning signs in the most important global languages in a concentric pattern around the terminal storage location. After a certain time span new signs with translations would be installed, but the old signs would not be removed. Newer signs would be posted farther away from the location, thus the warning would be understandable as languages change and it would be possible to understand the older languages through the translation.

Emil Kowalski

Physicist Emil Kowalski from Baden, Switzerland proposed that terminal storage locations be constructed in such a way that future generations could reach them only with a high technical ability. The probability of an unwanted breach would then become extremely small. Furthermore, cultures able to perform such excavations and drillings would most certainly be able to detect radioactive material and be aware of its dangers.

From the Wikipedia entry for HUMAN INTERFERENCE TASK FORCE

Future Alphabet

An Alphabet is a form of phonetic writing where each symbol ("letter") represents a phoneme. This allows English teachers to urge their students to "sound it out" when they encounter a new word. That would work better if English had only one sound per letter, instead of the deplorable mish-mash of exceptions which is the reality.

A Syllabary is like an alphabet except each symbol represents a syllable. So an alphabet might have the symbol for "B" and one for each vowel, while a syllabary would have separate symbols for "BA", "BE", "BI", "BO", and "BU" (and sometimes "BY"). Obviously a syllabary will have approximately five times the number of symbols compared to the corresponding alphabet. More if they do more than just encode consonant-vowel patterns (CV), some also do CVC and CV-tone.

Ideograms are where symbols represent ideas or concepts, not words in any specific language. If the ideogram image resembles the concept it is a pictogram, if the ideogram image is abstract it is a logogram.

Note that logograms are sort of like propaganda, encoding the proper societal-approved thinking patterns. See Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis.

Chinese characters are ideograms. This is why people who speak Chinese, Japanese, and Korean can all read Chinese ideograms. The ideograms represent concepts, not words. Of course if you showed a Chinese speaker, a Japanese speaker, and a Korean speaker a given ideogram and asked what it was, each speaker would tell you a totally different phonetic word (a Chinese, Japanese, or Korean word).

Logosyllabic Scripts are in that gray area between ideograms and syllabaries. Each symbol represents a morpheme, which is similar to a word but not quite.


A new logical language just begs for a new logical alphabet. Many are attracted to the Tengwar alphabet invented by (linguist) 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

Skyrim Dragon Alphabet

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 (Dovahzul). 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!

Sample text:


GeiN ZII DO ZeyMahMaaR


All men are born free and
like in honor and truth.
They have (the) blessings of wisdom
and mind and shall be as
one spirit of brotherhood.

Kefo Rn

Kefo-Rn is the language used by The Academy in the RPG Shock:Human Contact by Joshua A.C. Newman

Kefo-Rn is written vertically so it can occupy a horizontal field of vision without taking an inordinate amount of space. Its characters have two sets of five positions, one to two of which are occupied on each side. In its most legible form top and bottom positions connect to give an overall shape to the character.

Punctuation and numbers are written in a similar gird, only three positions tall.

Because all syllables are constructed of two sets of five positions, a signer can spell word syllable by syllable with their fingers.

Read vertically and left-to-right, Kefo-Rn uses the uniqueness of the left and right edges — each one byte tall — of each character exclusively. This design feature allows a reader to share space in their horizontal field of vision with textual information.

In formal script digits, diacritics, and punctuation use 3/5 the height of letters and lie between the characters as shown here.

Calligraphers and poets freely modify the center of the characters for artistic purposes while only minimally reducing the legibility of the words. Calligraphy takes many forms and has many traditions, but this is one caligraphic form of the same previous word.

When writing with maximum density, a writer can rely on only the dots to convey the meaning, though it takes time to read. Note that, if the writer requires no numbers, the column can be one block narrower. This word is identical to the previous.

The Culture

In The Culture series by Iain M. Banks, the Artificial Intelligences that rule The Culture invented an alphabet based on nine-digit binary codes.


Marain is a synthetic language created towards the very beginning of the Culture with the specific intention of providing a means of expression which would be a culturally inclusive and as encompassingly comprehensive in its technical and representational possibilities as practically achievable — a language, in short, that would appeal to poets, pedants, engineers and programmers alike. The intention was to start with a linguistic blank sheet, yet with the accumulated knowledge of the hundreds of thousands known to those people and machines charged with the language's devising. It had, therefore, no specific links to any of the main languages spoken by the people who came together to make up the Culture as a civilisation, save those statistically likely.

Marain's principle symbols are based around a three-by-three grid, which is itself a diagrammatic representation of a nine-digit binary number, or byte, it being intended from the start that the language could be rendered into binary code as informationally economically as possible. The number 1 would be shown as in figure 1, while the letter equivalent to our phoneme "w", the first letter in the Marain alphabet shown in the list accompanying this text, would be the binary number 100111100, or 121 in base 10. This means that there are a total of 512 possible values, or symbols, from 0 to 511 (shown in figures 2 and 3 respectively).

The choice of the principle symbols listed here was dictated by the requirements that each symbol can be rotated and mirrored, without being mistaken for any other of the primary alphabetical symbols. The rotated versions of these are generally used to represent phonemes close to the original, unrotated sound, though others have little in common with the sound of the original, being used to stand for different vocalisations. The original idea behind this flexibility was to allow Marain accurately, and relatively simply, to reproduce any language capable of being spoken by a humanoid.

All other values of the grid are associated with symbols for numbers (in base 8), punctuation, and the more common units of measurement, physical and mathematical symbols and constants, chemical elements and so on.

While the 3×3 grid is the basis of the language's symbols and is the standard of default mode of Marain, it is only that, and there are various commonly used complications which increase the length of the byte. For the normal data transmission purposes, for example, the principle part of the byte is followed by an additional buffer bit.

Where further complexity is required the binary byte used (ignoring the buffer bit) can be expanded beyond nine; a ten-bit byte provides a further 512 symbols, and a twelve bit byte — the most commonly used value after the standard notary byte due to the relative ease of representing it as a grid and therefore a written symbol — offers a total of 4,096 symbols. The next square grid after the 3×3 gird, of course, is 4×4, offering 65,536 symbols. Larger bytes — and therefore grids — are generally used to transmit pictograms, culturally alien symbols and simple diagrams. There is no restriction in principle the length of the byte and therefore the dimensions of the grid implied; by specifying a grid of, say, a million bits to a side, a fairly detailed black and white photograph could in theory be transmitted within a Marain data stream without recourse to specialised symbols or codes, though in practise, due to the economies offered by data compression, this happens only rarely.

It should be noted that while Marain was designed to be as quintessentially clear, concise and unambiguous a language as it is within the wit of human and machine to devise — and is, like the best games, essentially very simple but offering almost infinite possibilities — experience has proved that the judicious dropping of buffer bits and the use of varying byte-lengths, usually without the relevant notification of those mathematical or other pattern, though just as often not, plus the equally unflagged, abrupt and sporadic switching to entirely alien binary codes (Morse code being a perfect example) thankfully enables the Culture Minds fully to indulge their seemingly congenital predilection of unnecessary obfuscation, wilful contrariness and the fluent generation of utter and profound confusion in others.

It should be notes that the "written" symbols in the list are only those which have become the most used. Obviously in many of the symbols there are lots of other equally plausible ways to join up the dots. So humans can use Marain to confuse their fellows, too.

Palm OS Graffiti

Gather around and listen, children. Way back at the dawn of history in days of yore when dinosaurs roamed the earth (about 1996) there was a type of gadget called a "Personal digital assistant" (PDA). These were sort of like a smart phone with no phone in it, no internet connection, and a low-res monochrome screen. Apps typically included an appointment calendar, a to-do list, an address book for contacts, a calculator, and some sort of memo (or "note") program.

After smart phones came out PDAs died off, since there really wasn't anything they could do that a smart phone couldn't do better. Plus smart phones could be used as phones.

Manually entering data into a PDA tended to be clumsy. Most of them had touch screens, but they were so tiny that one would commonly tap on the screen with a stylus instead of one's fingers. Text entry was by:

  • An array of buttons forming a tiny computer alphanumeric keyboard
  • A separate physical keyboard connected to the PDA by a cable, infrared signal, or Blue Tooth. Most had physical keys, one drew a virtual keyboard on the tabletop using laser beams.
  • A virtual alphanumeric keyboard appearing on the touch screen, that you'd tap with the stylus
  • A stroke recognition system, with a stroke area on the touch screeen that you'd draw in with the stylus

A button array keyboard tended to have tiny buttons, which wasn't easily used by fat-fingered people. A separate keybord was easy to use, but inconvenient to carry along (even if some did fold up, the laser keyboard wasn't bad but it still was an extra bit to carry). The virtual keyboard with stylus was a bit fiddly to use and it made it difficult to rapidly enter text data.

The stroke system is not fiddly, does not require extra equipment, is easily used by the fat-fingered, and allows quite rapid text input.

The main drawback is that a user has to learn the stroke alphabet.

Back around 1998 I had one of the first Handspring Visors. These used Palm OS, and a stroke system called Graffiti. Personally I managed to learn Graffiti in about two days, and found I could enter text pretty darn quickly. Most of the strokes are fairly close in shape to the character they encode, making them easy to memorize.

When I am struggling with text entry on my current smartphone, I often find that I miss Graffiti.

Stroke recognition is done on an area on the touch screen about the size of a postage stamp. Since each letter had to be drawn one on top of the other, there has to be a way for the PDA to know when one letter ends and another starts. In Graffiti each letter is one single stroke, lifting the stylus off the touchscreen is the signal that the current letter has ended. This means no dotting the "i" or crossing the "t".

Well, they did make an exception. A "prefix" stroke of going from upper left to lower right means you are writing one of the "extended mode" or "two-stroke" characters. What this means is they ran out of easy-to-write-strokes before they ran out of characters. So the extended mode is a way to re-use some of the strokes on some of the more lesser-used characters (such as ©, €, and ¢).


     “It could have been a portrait,” Blaine suggested. He took out his pocket computer and scrawled “Church of Him” across its face, then punched for information. The box linked with the ship’s library, and information began to roll across its face.

     Renner skipped it. “I remembered something. Have you got your pocket computer?”
     “Certainly.” She took it out to show him.
     “Please test it for me.”
     Her face a puzzled mask, Sally drew letters on the face of the flat box, wiped them, scrawled a simple problem, then a complex one that would require the ship’s computer to help. Then she called up an arbitrary personal data file from ship’s memory. “It works all right.”
     Renner’s voice was thick with sleep. “Am I crazy, or did we watch the Mode take that thing apart and put it back together again?”
     “Certainly. She did the same with your gun.”
     “But a pocket computer?” Renner stared. “You know that’s impossible, don’t you?”
     She thought it was a joke. “No, I didn’t.”
     “Well, it is. Ask Dr. Horvath.” Renner hung up and went back to sleep.
     Sally caught up with Dr. Horvath as he was turning into his cabin. She told him about the computer.
     “But those things are one big integrated circuit. We don’t even try to repair them.” Horvath muttered other things to himself.
     While Renner slept, Horvath and Sally woke the physical sciences staff. None of them got much sleep that night.

     “I don’t remember exactly.” Sally took out her pocket computer and scrawled the symbols for information recall. The gadget hummed, then changed tone to indicate it was using the car’s radio system to communicate with the Palace data banks.

From THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (1975)


The Micronauts was a comic book that came out in 1979, as a thinly disguised attempt to promote a line of toy action figures. However, the plot line was actually surprisingly deep. It did have your standard "Star Wars-esque rebels fighting the Evil Empire" background, but unlike Star Wars it had some motivation.

In Star Wars, the Emperor is oppressing everybody just because he is a big bad meany.

Baron Karza, the villain of the Micronauts, motivates the population to oppress themselves.

Karza developed and has a monopoly on advanced organ and body transplant technology. So Karza tells the wealthy "Do whatever I tell you to do, and I'll give you eternal life and eternal youth." Naturally the wealthy fall over themselves to do Karza's bidding.

The lower class of society work at menial jobs. They can obtain "life credits" (redeemable at Karza's medical labs) by [1] as a part of their menial salary, [2] by selling their limbs and internal organs, or [3] enlisting in Karza's Dog Soldier army.

The underclass of society are periodically captured by Dog Soldiers sweeping the slums and sent to Karza's Body Banks. Hey, all those fresh young internal organs and entire bodies (needed to prolong the life of the wealthy) have to come from somewhere, right?

Predictably by this time there is no middle class.

The rebels find this to be an intolerable situation and are rebelling. Since this is the back-plot for the entire comic book series, the rebellion faces a constant uphill battle. Otherwise the series would be over half-way through the first issue of the comic book.

But anyway, the authors of the comic book thought it would be cool to create an alien alphabet for the Micronaut universe, so they could sprinkle it through the issues for the edification of the fans. About 20 years later the producers of the TV show Futurama did the same trick.

The Micronauts alphabet appears to be Sanscrit. But even so the fans found it very entertaining to translate all the signs written on the walls of the buildings of Homeworld. In the comic book it is implied that the reason for the alphabet's similarity is because the ancestors of Homeworld actually came from ancient India.

Pirates of Venus

Pirates of Venus was written in 1934 by the legendary Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of John Carter of Barsoom and Tarzan of the Apes.

The alphabet of Venus or "Amtor" is written as a continuous line, forming jagged letters like an EKG trace. I got pretty good at writing this when I was about twelve years old.

The same idea was used decades later in the Tenctonese alphabet of the TV show Alien Nation.

The map scan has crude resolution. As near as I can see the text along the edge says:

Top Edge
[R] trambol ? vodaro [P] zando vaxlap nor [M] havatoo morov andoo ator [F] jonjong kantum mol [K] ioroen pand oerlxt [V]
Right Edge
[V] mistel korde koszaj [B] korvu tan strel tan [A] klukoan kum kalto [V] notar anodoroon lat [L]
Bottom Edge
[D] amttak ledo jebo joram ? [G] kor neolap vepaja ? [H] traxol straxl karbol [Z] sombaj kormor [J] movis ator rovlap [L]
Left Edge
[D] sentar sera tajtum [X] gonfal muja gerl?? [?] ?a?ja jododes kozer [?] ukja tortum lotes [R]

Some words are written on the map in English but the Amtor letters spell the Venusian words:

  • ocean = joram
  • small circle = neo var
  • great circle = ong var
  • island = small land = neo lap
  • bird land = anlap

Doctor Who

This is a non-canon writing invented by the fan Loren Sherman for the Gallifreyan writing seen on the TV show Doctor Who. It doesn't make a lot of sense but it sure is pretty.

Other Alphabets

Here are a few bizarre invented alphabets for your inspiration:

  • Omniglot: the Online Encyclopedia of Writing Systems and Language. The motherlode. Zillions of invented writing systems for all your language researching needs.
  • Idrani: various invented writing systems for use with the invented Idrani language.
  • Tommy of Escondido's Alien Fonts Page: Fonts from media science fiction aliens, such as from Star Trek, Babylon Five, and Star Wars

Roll Your Own Alphabet

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

Before you start, read this article Writing Systems And Calligraphy Of The World right now. I'm not kidding. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Dave Bleja has a nice article about the design process he used to create the alphabet for his game Spryke.

Zach Barth has a nice article about the design process he used to create the alphabet for his game Infinifactory.

The first thing you have to do is choose the spoken sounds (phoneme) your alphabet contains. And their alphabetic order. If you just use the English alphabet phonemes and alphabetic order, you are actually creating a cypher, not an alphabet.

At the very least, in the English Alphabet, the letters C, Q, and X are redundant. The sound of Q can be written as KW, X as KS, C can be written as either K or S depending upon which phoneme it is coding for. So if your alphabet is not for English, leave those letters out.

There are also phonemes that are not in the English Alphabet. A common example is the "ch" sound in the Scottish word "loch". It is not pronounced like the ch in the English word church, it is a more raspy guttural sound which most US citizens will need to hear from a Scottish speaker or a YouTube video.

A simple but good source of phonemes can be found in the pronunciation guide for Lojban. It uses English alphabetic symbols, but each has only one sound associated with it (as it should be). A few symbols are used in an unexpected manner to English speakers. The letter "C" is for the sh sound in shape. The letter "J" is for the s sound in measure, which is also the same as the z sound in azure and the j sound in déjà vu. The diphthong "DJ" is for the j sound in joke (the equivalent to the English "DZ").

A complete source of phonemes can be found by reading about the International Phonetic Alphabet. Using IPA symbols, an US citizen would pronounce l-o-c-h as "lɒt͡ʃ" while a Scotsman would pronounce it as "lɒx". But a science fiction author might find that dealing with non-English phonemes might be a bit of over-kill, also could be a waste of precious writing time since most readers could care less.

As far as "alphabetical" order goes, anything non-English alphabetical will do. Tolkien's Tengwar has a logical sound-relationship arrangement worthy of a linguist. Real-world Viking Runes (Elder Futhark) have a more or less random arrangement.

Note that the English Alphabet starts with the letters A and B (Alpha and Beta) so it is called the AlphaBet. The Elder Futhark starts with the letters FUÞARK, where Þ is "thorn", the "th" sound. Further note that Þ is often misspelled as "Y", which explains all those old-timey signs that say "Ye olde tavern".

Don't bother creating upper and lower case, most languages do not use it. Otherwise you are making your job twice as hard. This also avoid problems like your fictional characters computer password input failing because they accidentally had the caps lock key on.

And don't forget to create numerals. English uses base-10 numbers with positional notation, so it has the numbers 1 through 9 plus 0 as a placeholder. Base-8 would have number symbols for 1 through 7 plus a 0 symbol.

Roman numerals do not have a positional notation (i.e., no zero symbol), which makes them clunky and difficult to use. Attempting to do long division with Roman numerals is a nightmare.

In his well worth reading RPG Shock:Human Contact, Joshua A.C. Newman has advice about creating new forms of alphabets and writing. You have to get back to basics. When the alphabets were invented, what sort of writing instruments were used? Was is chalk on rock, stylus pressed in mud or wax, ink from a brush or pen on paper? This will influence the appearance and the style of the letters, which will persist even as the instruments change.

Chinese logograms were drawn with ink from a brush on paper, but they still have the same look even though now they mostly appear on computer monitor screens. The same goes for Klingon cuneiforms.

So if you really want to design your alphabet properly, you would do well to actually draw the prototypes with the original tools.

You may even invent new tools. The Skyrim Dragon Alphabet was designed to be scratched into stone by dragons who had three claws and a dewclaw on each hand. The dinosaurs of Dinotopia have an alphabet designed to be written by making footprints in various orientations.

Mr. Newman goes on to look at the practical matters. For instance, if the people using the alphabet are generally right-handed, sentences will probably be written top-to-bottom or left-to-right to avoid smudging what was already written. Or maybe not, Hebrew and Arabic are written right-to-left. And alphabets that are carved in stone might be done right-to-left so the carver can have the hammer in their right hand and the chisel in the left. When you carve in stone, you do not have to worry about smudging the letters.

There are even some ancient scripts that are written boustrophedonically, alternating left-to-right and right-to-left sentences as if they were oxen ploughing a field.

If you write with a brush, it puts down more ink than a pen so it takes longer to dry. This might encourage sentences to have lots of space in between to help the writer keep their fingers out of still wet prior sentences.


Quipus, sometimes known as khipus or talking knots, were recording devices historically used in the region of Andean South America. A quipu usually consisted of colored, spun, and plied thread or strings made from cotton or camelid fiber. For the Inca, the system aided in collecting data and keeping records, ranging from monitoring tax obligations, properly collecting census records, calendrical information, and military organization. The cords contained numeric and other values encoded by knots in a base ten positional system. A quipu could have only a few or up to 2,000 cords. The configuration of the quipus have also been "compared to string mops." Archaeological evidence has also shown a use of finely carved wood as a supplemental, and perhaps more sturdy, base on which the color-coordinated cords would be attached. A relatively small number have survived.

Objects that can be identified unambiguously as quipus first appear in the archaeological record in the first millennium AD. They subsequently played a key part in the administration of the Kingdom of Cusco and later Tahuantinsuyu, the empire controlled by the Incan ethnic group, flourishing across the Andes from c. 1100 to 1532 AD. As the region was subsumed under the invading Spanish Empire, the use of the quipu faded from use, to be replaced by European writing systems. However, in several villages, quipu continued to be important items for the local community, albeit for ritual rather than recording use. It is unclear as to where and how many intact quipus still exist, as many have been stored away in mausoleums, 'along with the dead.'

From Wikipedia article QUIPU

Glyphs And Ideograms

Glyphs and ideograms are fun as well. This is where one symbol represents an entire word, instead of a phonetic letter (although in Chinese it is more like one symbol per syllable).

They are pretty, but unwieldy to use. In Unicode, they reserve only 128 code points for English letters but they need 80,000 for Chinese-Japanese ideogams. Even before the computer revolution a Chinese mechanical typewriter needed 4,000 keys.

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


At the ship’s axis they found pay dirt. Half a dozen radial corridors converged, and a tube with a ladder led up and down. There were diagrams covering four sections of wall, with labels that were tiny, detailed pictograms.

“How convenient,” said Louis. “It’s almost as if they had us in mind.”

Languages change,” said the kzin. “These people rode the winds of relativity; their crews might be born a century apart. They would have needed such aids. We held our empire together with similar aids, before the Wars With Men. Louis, I find no weaponry section.”

“There was nothing guarding the spaceport either. Nothing obvious, anyway.” Louis’s finger traced the diagrams. “Galley, hospital, living area — we’re here in the living area. Three control centers; seems excessive.”

The control room was small: a padded bench facing three walls of dials and switches. A touchpoint in the doorjamb caused the walls to glow yellow-white, and set the dials glowing too. They were unreadable, of course. Pictograms segregated the controls into clusters governing entertainment, spin, water, sewage, food, air.

From RINGWORLD ENGINEERS by Larry Niven (1979 )

Blissymbolics is intended for use as a universal written language which would enable speakers of different languages to communicate with one another. It consists of several hundred basic symbols, each representing a concept, which can be composed together to generate new symbols that represent new concepts. They represent concepts, not the sounds of any spoken language.

Since 1971 Blissymbolics have been used mainly as a communication aid for people with communication, language and learning difficulties, where they work amazingly well.

One could keep the Blissymbolics "words" but replace the simplified symbols with fancy ones that looked more futuristic or alien.

  • The pronoun "I" is formed of the Bliss-character for "person" and the number 1 (the first person). Using the number 2 would give the symbol for singular "You"; adding the plural indicator (a small cross at the top) would produce the pronouns "We" and plural "You".
  • The Bliss-word for "to want" contains the heart which symbolizes "feeling" (the classifier), plus the serpentine line which symbolizes "fire" (the modifier), and the verb (called "action") indicator at the top.
  • The Bliss-word for "to go" is composed of the Bliss-character for "leg" and the verb indicator.
  • The Bliss-word for "movie theater" is composed of the Bliss-character for "house" (the classifier), and "film" (the modifier); "film" is a composite character composed of "camera" and the arrow indicating movement.

White-o-glyphics by Matthew White is an attempt to utilize commonly used graphic symbols to create a pseudo-hieroglyphic language. It is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it does have some interesting aspects. Click on the images for a break-down of the phrase.

Pentateuch Symbols

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.

Captain Blood Icons

Captain Blood is a video game that was released in 1988. In it, the protagonist has to travel to various planets and attempt to communicate with various alien species. This is done via an icon-based interface called UPCOM, using a set of 150-odd icon "words."

The point is that since this is a game, the word-list of icons has to be actually functional, or the game cannot be played. Science fiction authors trying to make a minimalist alien communication system might find Captain Blood's list of words to be useful.

Please note that the words in the list which appear to be nonsense are actually the names of different alien species. The game is currently being modernized under the name Captain Blood Legacy.

Spacers Runic

Spacer's Runic is from Jovian Chronicles Spacer's Guide (which has other hard-science space travel details that are relevant to our interests).

In the world of Jovian Chronicles, Spacer's Runic is an ideogram based written language used as an emergency form of communication when speaking is not possible. The straight lined symbols can be drawn with all sorts of improvised tools and surfaces, and space suits carry vacuum rated marking pens specifically to write them. Morse code is considered to also be a part of Spacer's Runic.

Spacer's Runic is considered to be universal among spacers, understandable regardless of what language the spacers speak. This is much like the real-world International Code of Signals, which can be understood even if the sender only speaks Mandarin Chinese and the receiver only speaks Czechoslovakian.

A single straight line (the "orientation mark") is used to indicate the left side of the sentences, since otherwise the orientation of the message is ambiguous in the microgravity environment. The line should include at least two sentence rows, but most spacers draw the line to include all of them. If there is only one sentence, the orientation mark should extend above and below the sentence.

The runes are read left to right,top to bottom.

Each rune is drawn within an imaginary 3 × 3 grid of evenly sized squares. They are drawn with dots and straight lines. Dots are drawn in the center of a grid square or at an intersection. Lines are drawn from the side of one grid square to another, either from the intersection or the midpoint.

The reader should cut some slack to the writer, since the writer is probably trying to draw the runes under extreme stress during an emergency.

Sentences start at the orientation mark, with each rune added at the right edge of the sentence. A sentence should be on one row, or the "continue on next line" rune allows a sentence to be on several rows. It is not allowed to have more than one sentence on a row.

Runes should be spaced so there is from 3 to 6 grid square between them, it is allowed to space the digits in a number closer than 3.

There are thousands of runes, only a representative sample is shown here.

No Written Language


from Jacques Mattheij:

Question for you: One HN thread caused me to wonder about this: What would a technological society look like that somehow managed to side-step the written word? Would such a thing even be possible? If not why not?

Just to keep you awake at night :)

This question caught my attention like a snagged fingernail, and it's still pulling at me: here's my first cut at an answer. I'm taking the no-writing parameter seriously as a limiting condition: what level of technological society can emerge in conditions which preclude writing—for example, if it's forbidden for religious reasons? I'm going to treat this as holy writ for purposes of this thought-experiment: rules-lawyering around the no-writing rule in the comments will be treated as Derailing and deleted, with one special sort-of-exception which I'll explain near the end because it opens up a bunch of interesting consequences.

My rule of thumb answer is: it wouldn't be possible for human beings to develop a technological civilization—at least anything beyond roughly 17th century levels of energy utilization and mid-19th century levels of agriculture—without some form of record-keeping technology. And without writing they might never get that.

The reason is memory capacity. Yes, we can memorize lengthy texts when assisted by verse metrics as a form of mnemonic—the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Koran—but the format is error-prone, transcription is at least as time consuming as copying a mediaeval illuminated manuscript, and the "books" are high maintenance (they need food, clothing, and shelter). I don't know how many books one human being can memorize, but even if the number runs as high as two digits (which I think would require a very rare level of memory) you're then faced with the problem of what to do if one of your books gets cancer or dies of old age. So not only is copying more expensive than in a mediaeval monastery's scriptorum, but the substrate onto which "books" can be copied is extremely expensive (because we're coming at this from a pre-industrial situation where agriculture is labour-intensive because there's no copious supply of cheap energy). To put it in perspective, if one "book" can memorize five texts, then those five texts represent an entire productive human lifespan's worth of opportunity costs.

We know you can get to high-level neolithic culture (including agriculture and settlements) without writing, because our ancestors did so. I'm guessing that by using a monastery system for libraries, you could maintain stores of expertise equal to a couple of hundred (maybe as many as a thousand) "books". But studying them would require a scholar to travel to wherever the nearest current copy of a "text" lives and listen to (and memorize bits of) their recitation. Carrying on an actual academic dialog between two or more texts would be ... interesting, but likely slow, and the cost of creating a new text would be enormous (human lifespan-equivalents).

And then we run into mathematics. Assuming they figure out binary, integer arithmetic on fingers and toes gets you a long way for basic counting, multiplication, and optionally subtraction and division. But I'm not sure how they'd explore reals, let alone algebra or calculus, in a notation-free environment. I imagine tally sticks might work if our sophonts have opposable thumbs, but then we're cheating and getting into writing systems by the back door.

We might have specialist memory folks whose job is to act as temporary stores for working human calculators, but again, that's going to be a rare skill ("Quick! Memorize these six thirty digit binary numbers! Now repeat the fourth and sixth back to me!").

So I see the natural sciences stalling out around the point where they'd be getting to Newton/Liebnitz, and as for literature, oh dear. (Hey, I'd be out of one job but into another as an itinerant storyteller, with just one story to call my own, endlessly elaborating on it. I'd go nuts!)

Law and arbitration is going to be problematic. The Mediaeval Icelandic parliament is said to have started each session with a recitation of the legal code; any law that no sitting legislator could remember was deemed to have passed beyond the sunset. This is thus shown to work, after a fashion, for non-literate societies up to a mediaeval level. However, reliance on memory means that a case-law system simply can't develop, except in the sketchiest of ways. (On the third hand, though, one might expect the accounts of witnesses in such a memory-based society to be more detailed, if not more accurate, than what we've become used to.)

Economics is going to be even worse. Pace Graeber, money may have originated as a tally mechanism inside temple grain stores: you can't eat gold, so it serves as a persistent token representing so many sheaves of wheat or ewes or whatever that the temple has received on your behalf. Money represents a debt. But without hard records outside of someone's head, how do we agree on exchanges of fair value? There are possible work-arounds, such as using an impartial third party as an arbiter, or using gift-giving rather than purchase-buying, but they probably don't scale well.

As for engineering, I think they'd have to rely on models and finger-in-the-sand sketches. You can get quite a long way with that; I live on the top floor of an apartment building where about 80% of the builders would have been illiterate when they constructed it. (Admittedly without electricity, plumbing, or central heating at the time of construction, circa 1829.) You might get low-pressure walking beam steam engines, but I don't think you'd be able to build high pressure steam engines (and thereby prime movers) without being able to mess around with the ideal gas law and do heat transfer calculations—it's too dangerous (the failure mode is an explosion and your research notes are mortal), and if you build in conservative margins of error on stuff like the boiler wall thickness you'll end up with it weighing too much to be useful.

The lack of steam traction means agricultural productivity will remain geared against human and animal labour: by our standards, it's very labour-intensive indeed. I don't see the lack of writing as precluding the development of things like threshing machines—and in related industries, the Spinning Jenny and the weaving loom—but lack of motive power and recording technology may prevent more complex derivatives (such as the Jacquard card-controlled loom). Clothing is going to stay expensive for a long time here. In general devices which have hidden dependencies on high pressure engineering aren't going to be readily available: I'm guessing the sewing machine, developed in the mid-19th century, would in principle be possible but mass production of standardized steel needles and precision components would make them inaccessible.

... This is as far as the discussion got in email, before my wife came in and made a key observation: sound recording tech is something you can do entirely mechanically. Think in terms of hand-cranked wax cylinder recorder or dictaphone: such a device is functionally equivalent to writing, albeit bulky, slow to absorb (spoken narrative is about a third to half the speed of reading), and still requiring transcription costs. Wax cylinders won't last forever, but they're easy enough to re-record by someone memorizing the "text" in five minute segments and reciting from memory. And if wax isn't good enough, there were early forms of plastic (casein polymerized with formaldehyde?) that date to the early-19th century and don't require advanced chemistry which might do as a shellac alternative in mass use, if indeed shellac itself isn't available.

So, if we permit audio recording as a possibility (but not writing as such) we then have the derivative question: can a civilization develop to wax cylinder reorders in the absence of writing? (Note that this technology is not trivial: it depends on reduction gearing, probably an escapement mechanism, and some degree of precision engineering. It also almost certainly depends on your being able to deliver division of labour which is itself a question of economics and resource allocation which, under conditions of expensive information storage, is problematic.) And, if that isn't a leap too far, how much further can you bootstrap your technological civilization if you can do some audio reording? And what will such an a-literate climax society look like?

From A WORLD-BUILDING PUZZLER by Charles Stross (2016)

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."


...the vast majority of sentients (alien races) cannot directly communicate with each other.

Some species operate on different time lines, or are out of phase with the four dimensions we can perceive, are too small or too large, or perhaps, if they had to acknowledge us, they would have to kill us.

So even when an atomic matrix life form that feeds off the microwave hum left over from the Big Bang and excretes time lives in the same solar system with your typical silicon-based life form that eats rocks and excretes hydrogen, communication between them may be close to impossible.

Luckily it's not really a big deal, because they usually don't have anything to talk about. Or so it appears, right up until said atomic matrix life form begins a simple operation to make the local sun go nova in order to harvest neutrinos, and to their surprise, are vigorously opposed by those gritty little creatures clinging to their large orbiting rocks, who have had to start throwing anti-matter around to get their attention, and things usually deteriorate from there.


Rosetta Stone

Humans trying to translate an alien language used by real aliens face a daunting task. It is incredibly hard even if representative aliens are in the lab trying to help you (see the movie Arrival). It is even harder if the aliens are not physically present and all the humans have are radio messages. Even if you can ask question (and get answers back in a few decades) or if the messages are in an alien code specifically designed to be easy to break.

But if all you have are some thousand-year-old samples of non-anticryptographic alien language carved on a statue of Ozymandias by some extinct species, you are pretty much sewage-outta-luck.

Unless you can find the equivalent of a Rosetta Stone.

Rosetta Stone

Even before the Egyptian civilization vanished into the sands of history everybody thought that Egyptian Hieroglyphs were too cool for school. They had a stylish occult vibe which never got old. It had a nice almost four-thousand year run (ca. 3200 BCE – 400 CE) but died out in the space of a generation due to being outlawed in order to eradicate any link with Egypt's quote "pagan past" unquote. The Egyptians used the related Coptic alphabet until it was displaced by spread of Arabic in the 11th century. At this point nobody could read hieroglyphs any more.

Since hieroglyphs were still ultra-cool, lots of fans spent lots of effort trying to translate them. The first successful attempt was by Arabic scholars in the 800s. The Euro-centric view of course ignored this and attributes the decyperment to Jean-François Champollion in the 1820s, a bit more than a thousand years later.

European efforts were hampered because the European researchers made the incorrect assumption that since hieroglyphs looked like little pictures, they actually were pictograms. This was utterly wrong. If they had bothered to ask the Arabic scholars they would have been informed the little pictures were a fancy kind of phonetic writing. Even the legendary Athanasius Kircher (the last Renaissance man, the 1600's answer to Leonardo da Vinci) got this wrong.

There were lots of fanciful self-consistent pictogram "translations" invented through the centuries, all total nonsense. With no contact point with reality, the hieroglyphs were more a translator's Rorschach test than they were a writing system.

The contact point with reality was of course the Rosetta Stone.

The stone was rediscovered by the French expeditionary army on Napoleon's 1798 campaign in Egypt, and recognized as an incredibly important find by the Commission des Sciences et des Arts who just so happened to be accompanying the army. Arguably Commission member Michel Ange Lancret was the first to realize the stone might be the key to cracking the mystery of hieroglyphs. This juicy scoop was reported in Courrier de l'Égypte, the official newspaper of the French expedition.

1800, three of the Commission's technical experts devised ways to make copies of the texts on the stone. Which was a good thing since in the same year the British captured the town the stone was being held in, demanded all the French scientific data and artifacts be handed over, and was told by the French scientists that they would rather destroy all the artifacts instead of turning them over to filthy Englishmen. A deal was negotiated that all the scientific data belonged to the French scholars. But the Rosetta Stone was spirited away to England anyway under murky circumstances including a back street ride hidden in a gun-carriage.

The key to hieroglyphs was the fact that the Stone had the same text written in three different alphabets, one of which was already known (Greek) and one of which was hieroglyphs. This is the contact point with reality that will prevent bogus "translations" invented out of a whole cloth. If the three sections of text were in the same language then the hieroglyphic code could be broken in a about five minutes.

Alas the section written in the Greek alphabet was also in the Greek language, while the Demotic and hieroglyphic sections were in Ancient Egyptian. Which hasn't been spoken in the last eight centuries or so. So the stone revealed what the hieroglyphic section meant, but not the phonetics of the spoken Egyptian words. Knowing that word number such-and-such in the Greek section is the Greek word for "King": Basileus (βασιλεύς) does not help much with translating the corresponding word in the hieroglyphic sections: Pharoah. Particularly when nobody knew the Egyptian word Pharoah, much less how it was pronounced.

The breakthrough was made by English polymath Thomas Young in 1814. He noticed occasional words in the hieroglyphic section were surrounded by an oval thingy (called a Cartouche). It occurred to Young that these were the names of royalty. And the important thing about a name is it is pronounced the same no matter what language you use.

The Greek section mentioned Ptolemy. Young looked for a cartouche in the corresponding part of the hieroglyphic section, matched up the hieroglyphs with Greek letters, and suddenly had the phonetic values for seven hieroglyphs.

And there he stalled out, because Young couldn't break his brain-washing that hieroglyphs were not pictograms. He thought the symbols inside the cartouche were phonetic, but the rest of them were pictograms. In other words cartouche meant "this is a foreign non-Egyptian word."

Later Jean-François Champollion took Young's work and proved that all the hieroglyphs were phonetic. He was helped by the fact that ancient Egyptian evolved into ancient Coptic, and while Coptic was a dead language Champollion just happened to know it via the liturgy of the Christian Coptic Church. No fool he, Champollion quickly sent the Lettre à M. Dacier to ensure he got full credit for breaking the hieroglyphic code. He was rather vague about Young's initial work, Young was somewhat bitter about that.

But What About Aliens?

By now you are telling me that this is all very interesting, but the Greeks and Egyptians were both humans. How can you have a Rosetta Stone for Aliens? What common ground could there be?

The answer from science fiction is the universal laws of mathematics and science. There is plenty of common ground there.


     "The supply port was long deserted," Travis pointed out. "There may be nothing left of their empire anywhere."
     "Well, we've not found the home port yet." Renfry got to his feet. "Once we set down there—I hadn't intended to say this, but if we ever get to the end of this trip, there's a chance we may get back, providing—" He drummed his fingers against the door casing. "Providing we have more than our share of luck."
     "How?" demanded Ashe.
     "The controls must now be set with some sort of a guide—perhaps a tape. Once we are grounded and I can get to work, that might just be reversed. But there are a hundred `ifs' between us and earth, and we can't count on anything."
     "There's this, too," Ashe added thoughtfully to that faintest of hopes. "I've been studying the material we have found. If we can crack their language tapes—some of the records we have discovered here must deal with the maintenance and operation of the ship."
     "And where in space are you going to find a Rosetta Stone?" returned Travis. He did not dare to believe that either of the two discoveries might be possible. "No common word heritage."
     "Aren't mathematics supposed to be the same, no matter what language? Two and two always add to four, and principles such as that?" puzzled Ross.
     "Please find me some symbols on any of those tapes you've been running through the reader that have the smallest resemblance to any numbers seen on earth." Renfry had swung back to the pessimistic side of the balance. "Anyway—I'm not meddling with the machines in that control cabin while we're still in space."

From GALACTIC DERELICT by Andre Norton (1959)

They found that the alien base lay in a circle of about two hundred yards diameter surrounding a conical rock formation which resembled a scaled-down volcano. The pressure domes—there were eleven altogether—were merely the surface entry points for an installation which stretched for an unknown, but probably considerable, distance underground. Despite this, Davies was able to glimpse things through their observation windows that made him even more anxious than Mercer to get inside one of them.

In one he saw a desk and a few surprisingly ordinary chairs—though he knew that their ordinariness should not have surprised him, because one of these long-departed aliens had spent nearly two years, living, breathing and passing himself as a human being on Earth. But everything he saw was an indication that the aliens had made an orderly and unhurried withdrawal from their base on Titan, and the things which they had left behind were little more than junk. Here and there were discarded items of furniture or fittings, odd pictures left hanging on walls, and even neat piles of rubbish swept into corners. It was these floor sweepings that had Davies burning with impatience to get inside.

There was no Rosetta Stone to help him here, Davies knew. It would be a far cry indeed from his deciphering of sand-eroded ideographs—or the even more difficult parchments unearthed sometimes by his university’s archaeological team, but the challenge excited him. And there was, too, a certain amount of amusement to be found in the thought that he had come nine hundred million miles just to rummage in an alien wastepaper basket.

“Well, there is plenty of printed material lying about, Davies replied carefully. “Once I’m able to translate it—"

“But how can you?” Silverman broke in suddenly. As I see it, in order to translate a hitherto unknown language you must first have a…a sort of bridge—passages written both in the unknown language and in one already known so that you can compare them, and transpose words or phrases. A sort of Rosetta Stone, in fact. But this is a completely alien language…”

Davies found himself warming to the captain. It was nice to find someone intelligent enough to appreciate another specialist’s difficulties. He smiled and said, “But I have a Rosetta Stone, of sorts.” He pointed suddenly. “Him!”

Mercer choked, spluttered, then got his breath back enough to exclaim, “Me? But my specialities are electronics and the A-Drive generators—”

“A product, as we now know, of alien science.”

“But I don’t know anything about languages!”

“That doesn’t matter," said Davies, waving the engineer to silence. He spent a moment ordering his thoughts, then went on. “We are trying here to translate a language without a single clue as to its structure, the number of letters in its alphabet, or anything else at all beyond the fact that it belongs to a highly advanced, scientific civilization.

“But the work of the alien expedition seems to have been pretty comprehensive,” Davies continued, his eyes still on Mercer’s puzzled face, “and there are all sorts of charts and technical literature lying around. Well, I want you to go over those papers with me.

“You can see my idea now, I expect a natural law or a chemical element is the same no matter what the language used to express or describe it. So if we find, say, a radio circuit diagram with the usual list of component values appended, you may be able to tell me that such-and-such a squiggle is the alien equivalent of a resistor or condenser—I wouldn’t expect you to read the whole diagram, naturally—and we would have approximate meanings for a couple of alien words.

“The same applies to the Periodic Table of Elements, which would furnish a clue to their system of numbering…”

Suddenly excited, Mercer said, “It might work at that. But—"

“But it will be a long, tedious job,” Davies said. “The things I’ve mentioned will only give us a toehold on their language, nothing more. But a beginning is all I ask.”

From FALSE ALARM by James White (1957)

(ed note: our heroes are exploring the extinct Martian civilization. There are lots of libraries and books, but sadly nothing resembling a Rosetta stone.)

     The two side walls bore inscriptions: on the right, a pattern of concentric circles which she recognized as a diagram of atomic structure, and on the left a complicated table of numbers and words, in two columns. Tranter was pointing at the diagram on the right.
     "They got as far as the Bohr atom, anyhow," he said. "Well, not quite. They knew about electron shells, but they have the nucleus pictured as a solid mass. No indication of proton-and-neutron structure. I'll bet, when you come to translate their scientific books, you'll find that they taught that the atom was the ultimate and indivisible particle. That explains why you people never found any evidence that the Martians used nuclear energy."

     There was something familiar about the table on the left wall. She tried to remember what she had been taught in school about physics, and what she had picked up by accident afterward. The second column was a continuation of the first: there were forty-six items in each, each item numbered consecutively—
     "Probably used uranium because it's the largest of the natural atoms," Penrose was saying. "The fact that there's nothing beyond it there shows that they hadn't created any of the transuranics. A student could go to that thing and point out the outer electron of any of the ninety-two elements."
     Ninety-two! That was it; there were ninety-two items in the table on the left wall! Hydrogen was Number One, she knew; One, Sarfaldsorn. Helium was Two; that was Tirfaldsorn. She couldn't remember which element came next, but in Martian it was Sarfalddavas. Sorn must mean matter, or substance, then. And davas; she was trying to think of what it could be. She turned quickly to the others, catching hold of Hubert Penrose's arm with one hand and waving her clipboard with the other.
     "Look at this thing, over here," she was clamoring excitedly. "Tell me what you think it is. Could it be a table of the elements?"

     "Sure. If that's a table of elements, all I'd need would be the numbers. Thanks," he added as she tore off the sheet and gave it to him.
     Penrose knew the numbers, and was ahead of him. "Ninety-two items, numbered consecutively. The first number would be the atomic number. Then a single word, the name of the element. Then the atomic weight—"
     She began reading off the names of the elements. "I know hydrogen and helium; what's tirfalddavas, the third one?"
     "Lithium," Tranter said. "The atomic weights aren't run out past the decimal point. Hydrogen's one plus, if that double-hook dingus is a plus sign; Helium's four-plus, that's right. And lithium's given as seven, that isn't right. It's six-point nine-four-oh. Or is that thing a Martian minus sign?"

(ed note: atomic weights: hydrogen=1.008, helium=4.002602, lithium=6.94)

     "Of course! Look! A plus sign is a hook, to hang things together; a minus sign is a knife, to cut something off from something—see, the little loop is the handle and the long pointed loop is the blade. Stylized, of course, but that's what it is. And the fourth element, kiradavas; what's that?"
     "Beryllium. Atomic weight given as nine-and-a-hook; actually it's nine-point-oh-two."

     "Hey! You're reading that!" he cried. "You're reading Martian!"
     "That's right," Penrose told him. "Just reading it right off. I don't get the two items after the atomic weight, though. They look like months of the Martian calendar. What ought they to be, Mort?"
     Tranter hesitated. "Well, the next information after the atomic weight ought to be the period and group numbers. But those are words."
     "What would the numbers be for the first one, hydrogen?"
     "Period One, Group One. One electron shell, one electron in the outer shell," Tranter told her. "Helium's period one, too, but it has the outer—only—electron shell full, so it's in the group of inert elements."
     "Trav, Trav. Trav's the first month of the year. And helium's Trav, Yenth; Yenth is the eighth month."
     "The inert elements could be called Group Eight, yes. And the third element, lithium, is Period Two, Group One. That check?"
     "It certainly does. Sanv, Trav; Sanv's the second month. What's the first element in Period Three?"
     "Sodium. Number Eleven."
     That's right; it's Krav, Trav. Why, the names of the months are simply numbers, one to ten, spelled out.
     "Doma's the fifth month. That was your first Martian word, Martha," Penrose told her. "The word for five. And if davas is the word for metal, and sornhulva is chemistry and / or physics, I'll bet Tadavas Sornhulva is literally translated as: Of-Metal Matter-Knowledge. Metallurgy, in other words. I wonder what Mastharnorvod means." It surprised her that, after so long and with so much happening in the meantime, he could remember that. "Something like 'Journal,' or 'Review,' or maybe 'Quarterly.'"
     "We'll work that out, too," she said confidently. After this, nothing seemed impossible. "Maybe we can find—" Then she stopped short. "You said 'Quarterly.' I think it was 'Monthly,' instead. It was dated for a specific month, the fifth one. And if nor is ten, Mastharnorvod could be 'Year-Tenth.' And I'll bet we'll find that masthar is the word for year." She looked at the table on the wall again. "Well, let's get all these words down, with translations for as many as we can."

     "This is really it! The it, not just it-of-the-week, like finding the reservoirs or those statues or this building, or even the animals and the dead Martians! Wait till Selim and Tony see this! Wait till Tony sees it; I want to see his face! And when I get this on telecast, all Terra's going to go nuts about it!" He turned to Captain Miles. "Jeff, suppose you take a look at that other door, while I find somebody to send to tell Selim and Tony. And Gloria; wait till she sees this—"
     "Take it easy, Sid," Martha cautioned. "You'd better let me have a look at your script, before you go too far overboard on the telecast. This is just a beginning; it'll take years and years before we're able to read any of those books downstairs."
     "It'll go faster than you think, Martha," Hubert Penrose told her. "We'll all work on it, and we'll teleprint material to Terra, and people there will work on it. We'll send them everything we can ... everything we work out, and copies of books, and copies of your word-lists—"
     And there would be other tables—astronomical tables, tables in physics and mechanics, for instance—in which words and numbers were equivalent. The library stacks, below, would be full of them. Transliterate them into Roman alphabet spellings and Arabic numerals, and somewhere, somebody would spot each numerical significance, as Hubert Penrose and Mort Tranter and she had done with the table of elements. And pick out all the chemistry textbooks in the Library; new words would take on meaning from contexts in which the names of elements appeared. She'd have to start studying chemistry and physics, herself—

     "But, Martha, can you be really sure? You know, by now, that learning to read this language is as important to me as it is to you, but how can you be so sure that those words really mean things like hydrogen and helium and boron and oxygen? How do you know that their table of elements was anything like ours?"
     Tranter and Penrose and Sachiko all looked at him in amazement.
     "That isn't just the Martian table of elements; that's the table of elements. It's the only one there is." Mort Tranter almost exploded. "Look, hydrogen has one proton and one electron. If it had more of either, it wouldn't be hydrogen, it'd be something else. And the same with all the rest of the elements. And hydrogen on Mars is the same as hydrogen on Terra, or on Alpha Centauri, or in the next galaxy—"
     "You just set up those numbers, in that order, and any first-year chemistry student could tell you what elements they represented." Penrose said. "Could if he expected to make a passing grade, that is."
     The old man shook his head slowly, smiling. "I'm afraid I wouldn't make a passing grade. I didn't know, or at least didn't realize, that. One of the things I'm going to place an order for, to be brought on the Schiaparelli, will be a set of primers in chemistry and physics, of the sort intended for a bright child of ten or twelve. It seems that a Martiologist has to learn a lot of things the Hittites and the Assyrians never heard about."
     Tony Lattimer, coming in, caught the last part of the explanation. He looked quickly at the walls and, having found out just what had happened, advanced and caught Martha by the hand.
     "You really did it, Martha! You found your bilingual! I never believed that it would be possible; let me congratulate you!"

From OMNILINGUAL by H. Beam Piper (1957)

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).

Jon Brase

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)

Came today [it read] a blob from Thuban VI. There is no other way in which one might describe it. It is simply a mass of matter, presumably of flesh, and this mass seems to go through some sort of rhythmic change in shape, for periodically it is globular, then begins to flatten out until it lies in the bottom of the tank, somewhat like a pancake. Then it begins to contract and to pull in upon itself, until finally it is a ball again. This change is rather slow and definitely rhythmic, but only in the sense that it follows the same pattern. It seems to have no relation to time. I tried timing it and could detect no time pattern. The shortest period needed to complete the cycle was seven minutes and the longest was eighteen. Perhaps over a longer period one might be able to detect a time rhythm, but I didn't have the time. The semantic translator did not work with it, but it did emit for me a series of sharp clicks, as if it might be clicking claws together, although it had no claws that I could see. When I looked this up in the pasimology manual I learned that what it was trying to say was that it was all right, that it needed no attention, and please leave it alone. Which I did thereafter.

If, Enoch thought, I could only teach her the pasimology of my galactic people—then we could talk, the two of us, almost as well as with the flow of words on the human tongue. Given the time, he thought, it might not be too hard, for there was a natural and a logical process to the galactic sign language that made it almost instinctive once one had caught the underlying principle.

Throughout the Earth as well, in the early days; there had been sign languages, and none so well developed as that one which obtained among the aborigines of North America, so that an Amerindian, no matter what his tongue, could express himself among many other tribes.

But even so the sign language of the Indian was, at best, a crutch that allowed a man to hobble when he couldn't run. Whereas that of the galaxy was in itself a language, adaptable to many different means and methods of expression. It had been developed through millennia, with many different peoples making contributions, and through the centuries it had been refined and shaken down and polished until today it was a communications tool that stood on its own merits.

There was need for such a tool, for the galaxy was Babel. Even the galactic science of pasimology, polished as it might be, could not surmount all the obstacles, could not guarantee, in certain cases, the basic minimum of communication. For not only were there millions of tongues, but those other languages as well which could not operate on the principle of sound because the races were incapable of sound. And even sound itself failed of efficiency when the race talked in ultrasonics others could not hear. There was telepathy, of course, but for every telepath there were a thousand races that had telepathic blocks. There were many who got along on sign languages alone and others who could communicate only by a written or pictographic system, including some who carried chemical blackboards built into their bodies. And there was that sightless, deaf, and speechless race from the mystery stars of the far side of the galaxy who used what was perhaps the most complicated of all the galactic languages—a code of signals routed along their nervous systems.

Enoch had been at the job almost a century, and even so, he thought, with the aid of the universal sign language and the semantic translator, which was little more than a pitiful (although complicated) mechanical contrivance, he still was hard put at times to know what many of them said.

From WAY STATION by Clifford Simak (1963)


This section has been moved here.


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.

Universal Language of Mathematics

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.

Cool Math

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. As a side note, science fiction authors are fond of using Euler's identity as the basis of alien's mathematical systems, since it is so wierd yet scientific. This includes Star Strike by Ian Douglas and If The Stars Are Gods by Gregory Benford and Gordon Eklund.

Prime Numbers and Radioglyphs

One of the best ways to communicate is by drawing pictures. I'm sure you've seen scenes in movies where people who do not share a common language attempt to talk by drawing pictures in the dirt using a stick. A picture is worth a thousand words, which is a vast increase in transmission bandwidth.

Pictures can be transmitted as bi-level binary images. This is a picture composed of black and white pixels, turned into a string of ones and zeroes. These are sent as a string of pulses and absence of pulses.

The problem is, while binary images are two dimensional (width and height) radio transmissions are one dimensional (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, 10 x 40, 25 x 16, and so on. The aliens will give long before they run out of combinations.

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

What if the total 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. More to the point, there are only two possible numbers for the row and column.

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

The Arecibo Radioglyph was sent as the semi-prime 1679. This means the only possible way to break down the message was as a binary image of 23 rows and 73 columns, or 73 rows and 23 columns (or as the degenerate cases of 1 row and 1679 columns and 1679 rows and 1 column. Any aliens too stupid to figure this out are probably not worth talking to anyway).


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.

(ed note: 22=4, 32=9, 42=16, 52=25 )

From THE ULTIMATE WEAPON by John W. Campbell, Jr. (1936)

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 (called The Puzzle) 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 beasts, 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.


     “Vance here.”
     “I’ve got an idea we might work on. I think the Puzzle might be based on a different topological referent.” Mara’s voice lacked the usual cutting, illusive edge she took with Vance. Bradley leaned forward eagerly.
     “Well, I’ve tried some—”
     “I know, I did too. The point is there are too many choices to make, no way to single out anything. But those spheres—they have to be creatures, don’t you agree?—made me think. They’re probably bladder fish or something like that.”
     “Where’s the bladder? I’m not even sure they’re alive.”
     “Under high pressures a spherical shape is a good idea. Least surface, most volume. Best internal support against pressure differentials on the surface.”
     “I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me before. It’s an obvious solution. Mother Nature didn’t have to go that far on Earth, that’s all. It was more profitable to make fins and teeth at the ocean bottom, and anyhow life on Earth never got away from bilateral symmetry, left and right.”
     “Okay, maybe. We’ll check with the biologists. But— so what?”
     “Imagine living down there. You’re perfectly round. Your surroundings are just clouds and variable flows of gas and water vapor. If you float, there’s noireal sense of up and down—not a sensitive one, anyway. Now, suppose you’re Euclid. What kind of geometry do you make up?”
     Vance smiled. “Well, I suppose—Lobachevsky. Riemann. Geometry on a curved surface.”
     “So how would you count things?”
     “Well, in angular units, I guess.”
     “What we call angular units—that’s the point. To them, angles would be the natural set of numbers. A simple choice would be to set pi equal to one.”
     “Never mind trying it. I did. It doesn’t work. So our friends must be a little more sophisticated. After all, the first chunk of the Puzzle is in ordinary ratioiial numbers. That's how we could decipher it. But look at the picture—that circle arcing toward the left. Couldn’t that mean that the code was shifting from ordinary linear number systems to a different topological notation?”
     Vance frowned. “I suppose so. But which one?”
     “I don’t know. There are a lot of places we could start.”
     “We can try algorithms. There may be some fundamental identity our notation system has in common with theirs.”
     Vance sat frozen, rapt. Bradley leaned over and watched the young man write quick clear notes on a pad.
     “I don’t follow this,” Bradley said.
     “We’ll go through it in detail later, Bradley,” Mara said hurriedly. “Look at it this way. We measure the angles in a triangle one way, and we count apples another. Using one and two and three and so on seems natural to us, and angular coordinates—degrees, radians—aren’t. But the Alpha Libra signals may have it the other way around though. They live in a universe of clouds, with no straight lines anywhere. So they sen: the first part of their message in simpleminded notations, but then switched to ‘natural’ ways of talking when they got down to serious business. The metric curvature is arbitrary—”
     “Skip it,” Bradley said. “Vance, patch her into the computer if she needs it. You two work together. I’m going to talk to Corey.”

     “I’ve got it,” Vance said. He slapped a photo output in front of Bradley. “That transformation worked. I’ve got a decipherable message out of the next six thousand units in the Puzzle.”
     “What does it say?”
     “Mathematical theorems, mostly. Seems to be building up basic concepts of length and angle. There’s some sort of talking about motion and the idea of differential processes.”

From IF THE STARS ARE GODS by Gregory Benford & Gordon Eklund (1977)

Danny Dunn and the Voice from Space

Roland Volz pointed out to me a fictional radioglyph that I had overlooked. In Raymond Abrashkin and Jay Williams' Danny Dunn and the Voice from Space (1967) our hero and his family tags along with Professor Bullfinch to England. There Bullfinch's new invention the cryostat is used in Project GNOME, a SETI experiment.

The experiment exceeds their wildest dream, as they pick up a signal from a planet in the 61 Cygni system.

The signal is a series of 559 ones and zeros. The scientists pull their hair out trying to derive a message mathematically. Danny Dunn (and you the reader) have already figured out this is a graphic message, not a mathematical one. The fact that 559 is the product of the prime numbers 13 and 43 is a dead giveaway. Aha, a Radioglyph!

Arranging it as 13 rows of 43 digits gives a random pattern of dots, seen above. Later they try 43 rows of 13 digits and get the far more interesting messages shown on the right.

They figure at the top is our solar system, a star surrounded by nine planets (back in 1967 Pluto was still considered to be a planet). In the middle is two stars and one planet, obviously the 61 Cygni binary star system and the alien homeworld. In between is something that looks suspiciously like a rocket ship traveling from 61 Cygni to Sol.

And at the bottle is what looks like a hammer-head alien clacking its pinchers at you in a menacing manner. Oh noes! An alien invasion!

However Danny Dunn calms everybody down by pointing out a good way of saying "We Come In Peace" is by showing there ain't no weapons in our hands/pinchers/tentacles/whatever.

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.

Atomic Rockets notices

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