Is this even a possibility? How can we communicate when we don’t even know what they look like? Let’s first look at some of the possible ways they might communicate.
Body Language, Sound, Smell, and BrainWaves are probably the most popular methods so how might we work with this?
BODY LANGUAGE: Many times communication will not be all one style, but often are not the only means of communications used, but may advise if danger is approaching, let one know if everything is copacetic, assert dominance, or possibly scare others off. For examples we look to the animal kingdom since there are not too many alien races to reference. Animals use body language for attracting mates – as if the case of fireflies and their glow or peacocks and their tails. To scare off potential enemies a Cobra inflates it’shood; an Elephant communicates with other herds by dragging its trunk, and in order to show affection Baboons touch and groom each other. Consider the slamming of a hoof by a stag/deer – this offers an invitation. An invitation to stay and fight or turn around and exit. Of all the example animals, not one of them uses this method as their only means of communication. The only exception might be a deaf human or animal. How could this be used to your advantage?
Actually you are at a disadvantage right away. Not everything is the same as it is here on earth. Important to remember is the ‘why’ of various methods. If one runs into an alien on an alien world one needs to consider biology, physiology, the science of it all. If the atmosphere is such that sound doesn’t carry very well then perhaps a danger signal or challenge might not be stomping but something that would be equally unavoidable in that world. Gravity could be important to how they chat.
SOUND: Possibly the easiest communication form, no? No. Think of how languages on Earth differ: from the sing-song of the Vietnamese to the more adamant sound of German or the supposed romance implied by the Romance Languages of Italian, Spanish, French and perhaps Portuguese. Chinese & Japanese to outsiders sound impossible to translate. How do you communicate when traveling abroad? Charades? That makes sense, but these are people who while speaking a different language have similar lives. In China they pretty much eat the same way as the US. Italy understands Mexico if Mexico holds up an invisible phone to his face. But in an alien world, the biggest thing to remember is nothing is guaranteed to be the same. Look a little further – an alien may not be capable physically of sound in the accustomed way. May not be able to do that touching scene in the movie where they slowly learn your language and repeat it back to you. Think of Birds that across breeds have a recognizable shriek for danger. Or maybe they can only speak on wave lengths that humans cannot hear!
SMELL: If you are unsure as to how smell might be used think carefully because even humans use it. (We wear perfume or cologne! pheromones) A good example of this would be the ant or maybe the skunk. Ants use pheromone trails to follow each other, to know where food is (as a successful find leaves a different trail then an unsuccessful one!) Skunks, on the other hand, use their signature smell as a deterrent so they won’t need to fight. Cats on the other hand mark their territory as they rub up beside it. Humans use smell in several ways. Ultimately it becomes a combination of how attractive ne is either due to pheromones released or how ‘clean’ one is ie. How hard one is trying – good cologne, mouthwash, hair gel, even dryer sheets. Again, smell is a means of communication that would be greatly impacted by how the atmosphere is. What you perceive as a pleasant smell might start a war on another planet. I recommend either watch and learn or run and hide if this seems to be the method used.
BRAINWAVES: This means of communication has interesting implications. Brain Waves and technology that interacts with them have become the latest and greatest. But in order to allow motion to a cybernetic hand or activate a wheelchair (actual products involves implants) one needs to know the code used, in our case electronic code, but would an alien life necessarily have the same? When scientists electronically linked two rats, they were able to work together to accomplish a common goal. That leads us toTELEPATHY. TELEPATHY is not a recognized scientific discipline. But if it were, it is believed that it can be explained away with Electromagnetism. Speaking completely hypothetically this could be the best and worst method for an alien to have. Translation would not be required but interpretation would be. This supposedly ‘speaks’ by transmitting feelings, imagery, and the like. However if the alien sees a sunrise and thinks danger as they find the light to be like acid to their ‘skin’ but plant that image and you think sun – warmth – nice…
There is one method that we have not explored - a language of sorts.Mathematics. If an alien represents an intelligent life form, than odds are that while they may not have a clue who Pythagoras is or Euler, odds are they had their own Pythagoras, their own geniuses. While simplifying a theorem as a means would not invite them to dinner or ask where water is, it would inform them that you were also from a smart race. That is if you were able to!
Heard of Lincos? “Design of a Language for Cosmic Intercourse” is a book that was published in 1960. By Hans Freudenthal. It’s purpose? The creation of a general purpose language derived from mathematics and logic symbols. Carl Sagan in his novel Contact explored the construction of communications using prime numbers as a starting point. In 1992 Carl Devito & Richard Oehrle together designed a language that is similar t Lincos but builds its vocabulary around physical properties. Finally in 2010 Michael W. Bushecreated binary language to transmit crowd sourced messages to extraterrestrial intelligence.
While I have problems with the design of a language to speak with a being whose language we do not know, I do believe that all astronauts should regularly be trained/re-trained in simple mathematical theorems or science concepts and their transmission without using language to another being.