Sunday, 28 February 2016

Inter-Species Communication

How quickly or easily would human beings and aliens establish regular communication? It would be easier if both sides wanted to communicate and recognized the problems. In first contact with Ythri, the first problem is for human beings to recognize that the winged Ythrians are intelligent. In Poul Anderson's Technic History and For Love And Glory, there is recognition that inter-species communication must be to some extent superficial. There would be dialogue about matters of common interest but we can scarcely expect to penetrate the inner thoughts or feelings of an alien being. The British  sf writer, Bob Shaw, criticized Larry Niven for having Puppeteers converse like Harvard professors. Shaw had aliens but never any conversations with them.

A first attempt at communication is to repeat sounds heard or gestures seen. In Larry Niven's and Jerry Pournelle's The Mote In God's Eye, a Motie Mediator, i.e., a specialist in communication, amuses the human spaceship crew by instantly and accurately mimicking one man's theatrical shrug of incomprehension. More on this subject later.


  1. Kaor, Paul!

    And don't forget the possible uses of plain old ARITHMETIC in enabling two mutually alien races establishing communications with each other. That is, once members of two different intelligent species make First Contact with each other, they may attempt doing things like writing 1 + 1 = 2, 2 + 1 = 4, etc. Some writers have argued that a big step forward towards mutual comprehensibility would be made that way.

    And I disagree with Bob Shaw! I don't think the idea of non human rational beings talking like Harvard professors or Oxford dons all that implausible. Not if we take into account that such persons might well learn English/Anglic at that high a level simply for diplomatic relations. Plus we see in Anderson's Technic Civilization stories non humans like Axel going to Terran universities, where they would HAVE to learn the skillful use of Anglic.

    I do agree that while mutually understandable dialogue between members of two races might be possible, this has to remain, for the most part, in many ways superficial. A true understanding of the innermost thoughts and feelings of non humans (and they of humans) is not likely to be attained. At least not without long study and effort.

    You alluded to Poul Anderson's "Wings of Victory" as one story where humans had difficulty establishing communication with a very different alien race. Another would be his non Technic story "The Word To Space," where communication was only possibly by STL radio. And even then the aliens controlling communications at the other end were only interested in ONE kind of communication. The story also shows Anderson's treating religion seriously and his fondness for the Sherlock Holmes stories.


  2. Sean,
    Remember that "1+1=2" would not be immediately comprehensible but ".+.=.." should teach someone the meanings of "+" and "=".

    1. Kaor, Paul!

      Exactly! I had something like what you typed in mind but didn't quite know how to express it.

      And of course 2 + 1 = 3, not 4! I goofed! (Smiles)