First Words

First Words

Humans dream of contacting aliens — but will we understand what they’re saying?

“Are we alone in the Universe?”

That’s a question humans have been pondering all the time, including in this Snipette piece. Everyone’s interested in extraterrestrial life and what it could look like. Meanwhile, a smaller group of people are working on another question: if we do find intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe, how will we communicate?

How will we speak to aliens?

Most searches for intelligent life focus on radio signals. SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, has been doing that on and off since it was founded in 1960.

The idea is that intelligent aliens, if they want to make contact, will certainly send out signals, and radio is — as far as we know — the most efficient way to do that. We might even pick up leaked-out TV or satellite signals, although (as Edward Snowden once pointed out) those will probably be encrypted.

Encryption aside, the main question is: how will we know what the aliens are trying to say? It would involve learning a new language, from a completely unknown species, living in a completely foreign world.

It’s something that’s never been done before.


The Indus Script was rediscovered in the 1870s. Bronze tools, stoneware bangles, pottery, shells, labels and more have all been found inscribed with the same script. To this day, the world’s best scholars have no idea what they mean.

Other ancient scripts have been successfully deciphered, but they usually had several “key” texts — like the Rosetta Stone, which had the same message in Greek and Demotic, as well as the then-undeciphered hieroglyphics. Even the ‘Linear B’ script was only deciphered because of its (albeit vague) similarity with Ancient Greek.

Of course, if aliens are trying to get in touch, they’ll probably try to make things easier. But — well, we’re the aliens to them. And here’s what we did.

In 1977, two spacecraft launched out from our planet and made their way to opposite ends of the Solar System. These were the Voyager spacecraft. Each carried a Golden Record: a disk with pictures, diagrams, and audio-recordings of various aspects of human life and planet Earth. The idea was for them to act like a message in a bottle, drifting across space until they wound up on the planetary shore of some alien land.

But these devices relied on many assumptions: that aliens can see light-based images the way we do, and make sounds in the same frequency as ours; that they’d be capable of understanding 2D pictures as 3D things at all. An echo-locating bat-creature wouldn’t be able to make head or tail of the thing.

Radio signals may be a better bet, because everyone (we assume) will use them. There’s the question of what frequency to use, but hopefully we can settle on a universal one — like 1420 MHz, the frequency of the hydrogen atom.

Taking the idea further, Carl DeVito, of the University of Arizona, is trying to find a common ground between humans and aliens, developing a language based on the laws of mathematics and physics — concepts that will be universally understood. Or will they?

What if aliens use a different form of geometry, or a different branch of mathematics, to represent the same concepts? Or what if their language is so unfamiliar that we think their signals are just random noise?

Preparing to speak to aliens is challenging, because there’s no way to check for hidden assumptions. There’s no way to actually speak to another species for practice.

Or perhaps there is.


In 1965, the Communication Research Institute of St. Thomas embarked on an ambitious project: teaching dolphins to speak.

The dolphins in question were owned by Dr. John Lilly, a neuroscientist working to understand the dolphin brain. His laboratory overhung a sea pool, specially designed to bring humans and dolphins into closer proximity. It was here that a human named Margaret Howe Lovatt decided to take things a step further, and actually make them learn English.

It’s never been easy to communicate with cultures completely different from ones own. Humans carry over assumptions from their own cultures, which may not work elsewhere. American diplomats, for instance, took a while to realise that Japanese consider it impolite to say a direct “no”. People usually say something like “I will do my very best” instead — so Americans often went thinking they’d got a deal, when they had actually been firmly (if politely) rejected.

With an extraterrestrial race, the communication gap could be even greater. That’s why many anthropologists are now getting involved with SETI: by looking at the history of human interaction, we can learn about and avoid some of the mistakes. Will interacting with non-human species teach us even better?

The idea sounds like an interesting one (even if I say so myself). But can dolphins really talk? Can they really use the complex way of exchanging thoughts and ideas that humans call “language”?

Lovatt’s dolphin project wound up in six months, as the lab ran out of funding. The dolphin in question, named “Peter”, did learn to imitate a few English sounds: a remarkable feat in itself, but not enough to be considered “having learnt the language”. The story has a sad ending, because Peter was sent away to a tiny aquarium where he deeply missed his human companion. Dolphins don’t breath automatically, they have to actively do it. And one day, this dolphin decided to stop.

He had committed suicide.


Linguist Noam Chomsky thinks humans are the only creatures capable of “language”. Sure, there are stories of Koko the gorilla who could make English sounds and communicate what they wanted. But did they really understand the language, or were they just imitating sounds without learning why they worked, the same way students blindly follow the algorithms of long-division?

His argument was that, if these creatures were able to use language, they’d be using it already — not waiting for humans to teach them. That would be as absurd, he said, as having an island of winged birds sitting on the ground, waiting for someone to teach them to fly.

But what if they are using language, and we just haven’t noticed?

Linguistic anthropologist Charles Hockett once identified what he called the “thirteen design features” of language. These included things like: language should be something you can teach and learn; it should have separate units of meaning that can be moved around; it should be able to express things that are unusual or imaginary, such as “the purple giraffe in the living-room”, and it should have some sort of syntax to tie separate words together.

By this definition, emoji are not a language: they don’t have grammar. You can find an emoji for pretty much anything you want these days, but there’s no way to indicate whether ☀☕ means “tea in the morning” or “heating the coffee with solar energy”.

Similarly, a hiss or a howl aren’t language. A dolphin can sound an alarm for a shark, but it can’t say “the shark passed by at three o’clock yesterday afternoon”. Dolphins have no grammar either.

Or do they?

Recent research seems to indicate that they do. One study found dolphins making “sentences” upto five “words” long, and there were only some correct ways for one “word” to follow another — just like you don’t say “morning the tea in”. Another study shows them making sounds while workings together on a task, as if they’re speaking to each other to coordinate.


‘Kylie’ was the only dolphin in Scotland’s Firth of Clyde. Most of the inhabitants were harbour-porpoises, but Kylie continued to make the clicks and whistles usually used by dolphins to signal to each other. Was the lonely dolphin talking to himself?

Dolphins are social creatures. They live in large groups called “pods”, but every dolphin has a circle of close friends with whom most interactions happen. Every dolphin has a “name”, a unique whistle that’s different from anyone else’s. They use these whistles to identify who else is around, and to catch each others’ attention; they also yell them loudly when in danger.

Sound travels fast in water: five times faster than it does in air. That’s why dolphins use sound for most of their communication. Unfortunately for us, most of it is too high-pitched for humans to hear. But if you took a recording, and converted it to human-audible frequencies, you’d hear low, musical humming interspersed with clicks and whistles.

When a dolphin finds a group of fish, he or she calls out to the others to join in. Together, they herd the fish into a small space, and then take turns picking them out.

Different groups of dolphins have different feeding-habits. The bottlenose-dolphins of Shark Bay have come up with a novel technique to hunt flat fish from the ocean floor. They stick a creature called a “basket sponge” at the end of their snouts, so they don’t get hurt by the hard ocean floor. Mother dolphins teach this technique to their children, and it’s not seen in any other place — even by other dolphins of the same species.

Clearly, dolphins communicate a lot. They also learn things from each other, and invent creative solutions for special situations. But are they capable of that special, complex, abstract thought called “language”?

PhD student Mel Cosentino was studying underwater recordings, and decided to include Kylie the lonely dolphin. That was when she got her surprise: the dolphin’s whistles were quite different from what his species usually makes. In fact, they were pretty similar to those of the creatures who lived around him.

Kylie had learnt to speak porpoise.


According to one theory, the first thing baby humans pick up when learning to speak is the musical aspects of language. They pick up the pitch, rhythm, and timbre of how to speak; the way the phonemes and syllables fit together. Language, according to this theory, is just a subset of music.

Some languages are more “tonal” than others. The Chinese sound ma can mean “scold”, “rough”, “horse”, or “oh”, depending on which tone you say it in. But even non-tonal speakers use music more than you’d think. As a simple example, people are more likely to speak it “minor third” pitch when they’re sad, and “major third” when they’re happier.

As humans, we hear dolphin sounds as “music”. But is that simply because we don’t yet understand their meaning?

The Dolphin Research Centre aims to work to dolphins in their natural habitat, and understand how they communicate. Founded by behavioural biologist Denise Herzing, this is the first systematic attempt for humans to learn dolphin, instead of the other way round.

There’s a SETI connection too, though not quite at the level of “speaking to aliens”. It’s about getting an idea of what communication looks like, mathematically speaking — so that when we get the first radio signal we’ll know it’s not just random noise. Until now, SETI has only been analysing human communication: the dolphin signals will help get a more general idea of how such signals can be.

Meanwhile, Herzing and his team are still at early stages of understanding. It’s clear dolphins communicate, but it’s not yet clear how complex or abstract their communication can get, let alone what they’re saying.

I guess it’s a bit like an alien signal, one that we’ve just received, whose meaning we’ve only just started trying to figure out. An alien signal that reveals nothing but the answer to whether we’re alone in the Universe…But wait. I think we can already answer that one.

We’re not even alone here on Planet Earth.


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