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Scientist Designs Program to Translate Alien Languages

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If Little Green Men are one day discovered they’re certainly not going to speak fluent English. Scientists fear this may make any alien contact impossible to understand and could create some very awkward circumstances for the rest of us.

Leeds Metropolitian University’s Dr. John Elliott has devised software he believes will decipher the structure of any alien’s language which would be the first step in understanding what the potential invader of Earth may be saying, declaring or demanding. Elliott’s program is
designed to compare an alien language to a database of 60 different known languages in the world and search for ones that have similar structure.

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I think a more principled objection can be made to this project: it's not just about the sounds aliens make, since structural similarities can be easily distinguished from sounds. A series of high-pitched beeps might be an easily decodable binary language. Nor is the issue about the phenomenology of the aliens and their interests.

The problem is that linguists since the 1950s have acknowledged that language-production is under-determined by environmental input, and have concluded that much of language consists of an innate 'universal grammar' that particular languages then fill in with their own syntax, lexicon, morphology, semantics, etc. This is all relatively uncontroversial.

Any species with a different evolutionary history will not share this 'universal grammar' unless there are very specific constraints on what language can possibly be. The '60 human languages' sampled here are all human languages, that is, languages sharing in the evolutionary history of the species.

Just as there are many ways to evolve sight (compound? lens? pinhole?) the innate linguistic structures of alien species may or may not have anything to do with ours. It's a neat idea, but we have no idea of how likely it is that linguistic evolution is constrained tightly enough that structures similar enough would have independently evolved.

See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generative_grammar
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