Learning a language is the most cognitively complex thing we do in our lives, and we’ve nailed the better portion of it by our fifth birthday. Most of this process happens without our awareness, and indeed we all possess unconscious knowledge of the rules of our native tongue that never rises to our realization unless we encounter another language that does things differently. Only then do we notice the barest tip of the iceberg that is our command of grammar. And on those rare occasions when we think about the nature of language at all, we do so through the filter of our own expectations, conflating “language” in the broad sense with our individual and intimate experience of it. That’s reasonable, sensible, and understandable.
And, of course, completely wrong.
There are more than 6800 languages left in the world, and while they all allow two native speakers to share the ideas in their respective heads, they all accomplish the trick in different ways, with different phonological systems, different syntaxes, and different grammars. The rules of a language define how we organize the world around us. Some languages—English, for example—have tense, and their speakers effortlessly describe when actions occur relative to any point in time. Other languages may lack that feature but instead possess the alien concept (to us, anyway) of aspect; these speakers can instead talk with ease about whether an action is completed, in progress, perpetual, or even intentional. Neither system is superior to the other. There is no value judgment here. Languages simply differ from one another, in ways both great and small. If you’re a linguist, it’s part of what attracts you to the field. And if you’re not…it can be confusing because every least little bit you know about how language operates is false somewhere else in the world.
Our expectancy of what language should look like gets in our way when we go looking for language elsewhere in the world (let alone out there in the galaxy). And with millions of other animal species here on Earth, we have yet to find any that seem to possess their own language—at least not as we define the term. Linguists are divided on just what makes a communication system a language. Fortunately, a menu of properties has been proposed, and all known languages possess all these properties; other communication systems—defined as not language—lack one or more.
Wolves aren’t considered to have language because while they can communicate certain ideas very effectively (on the order of “Danger!” and “Let’s get it!”) they can’t discuss the insights to be gained from a reading of Le Guin’s “The Author of the Acacia Seeds.” They lack an open-ended communication system, or what linguists call productivity. Song birds may meet the requirement for infinite variation, but that variation is random and as such is neither learnable nor passed on. Thus, no language. And the oft-touted “dance of bees” also fails to qualify because it lacks prevarication, and this ability to lie is typically seen as an intrinsic property of language.
Examples of other properties include being able to communicate about communication, the ability to both send and receive signals in the language, and an arbitrary relationship between the form a symbol takes (in the case of spoken language, the assortment of speech sounds) and the thing it represents. Because all of these (and other) qualifications are found in all known human languages, they quite naturally pass the test of our own expectations. Or to put it another way, they provide further support for a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. The irony here is that despite the evidence that language can take seemingly infinite forms, humans limit that infinity by the shape and flavor of our expectations.
Science fiction can take language as we know it, and ask the question what would it be like if we took away one or more of these required characteristics while insisting the result was nonetheless still language—language used by intelligent beings from beyond our comfortable home.
Authors have created aliens whose language had no conception of falsehood, and in the tradition of Classic SF extrapolated such a premise throughout culture and society. We’ve read stories of fully fluent, space-faring creatures who nonetheless lack the capacity to comment on the language they use. And then there are the tales of beings who emerge from egg or womb with their language fully developed. And if a group of people ceases to produce speech as they mature, but can still clearly comprehend it, have they sacrificed the right to call it language?
We have to question our expectations about language, and accept that they stem from a bias older than our first memory of conscious thought. We know our language, but we don’t know language in all its glory, as it might exist in communication systems beyond our own species but within the reach of our imagination.
Language is a system that assigns symbolic meaning to arbitrary combinations of signals in our environment. That can just as easily be the two consonants and vowel that come together in the right order to give us DOG, as a progression of fragrances, or chemical reactions, or pattern of juggling colored balls to convey the same meaning.
If we’re to get anywhere in our search for nonhuman languages, we will first need to let go of our linguistic expectations.
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