When NASA sent Voyager 1 and 2 into space they carried instruments to study the giant planets beyond the asteroid belt. They also carried a Golden Record each, which could be played by any alien species that happened to find these craft wandering in the depths of space, telling them a little about Earth and those who inhabit it.
Unfortunately, our ignorance about the receivers undermines our capacity to communicate. They may use frequencies far above or below the ones we use, or not communicate with sound at all, undermining the value of the record, which includes people saying “hello” in 55 languages.
However, even if the crafts’ finders resemble us closely enough to be able to hear the record, Dr Sheri Wells-Jensen and student Rebecca Orchard and of Bowling Green State University (not the site of the fictitious massacre) think it will do a poor job of representing us.
Wells-Jensen is a board member of Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI), a parallel project to the more famous Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), which is considering how we should make ourselves comprehensible to aliens. She has pioneered the field of Extraterrestrial Linguistics, seeking features we might expect of alien languages.
Speaking at the International Space Development Conference in Los Angeles the two argued that the languages mixed with footsteps, whale noises, Carl Sagan’s laughter and eclectic music lacks “grammatical congruity” and could come across as a hostile argument, not voices of peace. Sounds cannot be matched to the accompanying images.
“The Golden Record is a beautiful artifact and representation of how humans want to see themselves, but it is meant to be received by and interpreted by something that has the sensory capabilities of the average human,” Orchard said. “If the second one of these senses is absent, or an entirely different sense is added, the Golden Record becomes a bit confusing.”
It probably doesn’t matter for craft that are very unlikely to ever be found, but if we want future communications to have an impact, we need to think about the user experience.
Other talks at the extraterrestrial linguistics session discussed the extent to which “universal grammar”, the features identified by linguist Noam Chomsky as featuring in all human languages, might apply to alien species. METI president Dr Douglas Vakoch said the talks marked a shift, with increasing support for the idea extraterrestrial languages may share some grammatical features with our own, rather than maths and science being the only universal tongues.