How on earth do they do it? An extra-terrestrial view of Language

With all the interesting discussions about alien languages emerging from the excellent film Arrival, I thought I’d reblog  this piece I wrote for E-Magazine in 2004 (can you reblog something which has never been blogged?). It was aimed at getting A-level students of English Language to think a little differently about syntax and phonology.

There you are, in the library, studying for your English Language A Level. You’ve done all the interesting bits: language and gender, sociolinguistics, discourse, and now it’s come to phonology and syntax. Why do I have to study this, you think, as your eyes begin to droop, and your head begins to nod and you begin to dream of a galaxy far, far away …

FROM: The Director, Gargoplex Institute, Alpha Centauri TO: Chief Exo-Scientist Jenl Itstre
VIA: Direct Telepathocrystal Network
RE: New Mission

New discovery made on planet 3, system 3.387. Species (designation Yu-Man), highly successful within biosphere, developed intelligence (level 2), culture (level 2.1) and technology (level 2.2), yet apparently no telepathic ability. Raises severe theoretical problems for doctrine 6.8 of Gargoplexic Code: Intelligence Culture Technology (ICT) count above level 2 requires communication; sophisticated communication is possible only via telepathy; therefore level 2 intelligence requires telepathy.

Council is worried about ethical questions relating to experimentation on non-telepathic beings, and about apparent support the existence of Yu-Mans gives for Anti-Vivisectionist Movement. Please investigate immediately.

FROM: C.E.S Jenl Itstre
TO: Director, GI, Alpha Centauri
RE: re: New Mission – Report 1
Have entered orbit. Confirm intelligence, culture and technology levels. Species seems to have highly developed communication abilities. No telepathy observed. Hypothesis: communication system is simple symbolic, associating one external sign with one thought (cf. Report ‘Octihydras of Glarg: 7, 203 tentacular positions for 7, 203 distinct messages’. Octihydras classified below level 2 on general ICT count.). Perhaps Yu-Mans simply have many external signs? Will determine nature of external physical signs relevant to species. No tentacles observed.

FROM: C.E.S Jenl Itstre
TO: Director, GI Alpha Centauri
VIA: DTN 6.8.9
RE: re: New Mission – Report 2
Exciting new discovery. Like many other species on planet 3, species Yu-Man’s physical manifestation of thought is not visual nor olfactory, as is usual for lower species across the galaxy (cf. Report ‘Lower Xenomorph Communication’, subsection 3.3.45). Unbelievably, it involves instead the manipulation of orifices for oxygen intake and food intake to create pressure waves in the air. Such systems have been hypothesised before, but it has always been assumed that creatures would find it too difficult to extract the relevant air pressure modulations from general noise and that such physical signs would thereby be impossible to use as the basis of communication systems (see Itstre and Itstre ‘On the impossibility of sound based communication’. Report GI).

RE: re: New Mission – Report 3
Troubling discovery. As is well known, simple symbolic systems are capable of only having a finite number of possible messages (Istre and Grofr ‘Finiteness and Communication’, GIM Monographs, AC1). Species Yu-Man have no such limitation – they can communicate an apparently infinite number of sophisticated thoughts between each other without telepathy, apparently just by physically changing the air pressure around them. First hypothesis must be rejected. This gets more perplexing by the hour.

RE: re: New Mission – Report 4
Psychological profile completed: Yu-Mans have complex thoughts in usual multi-dimensional, non-linear form. Communication profile: all members of this species (and none others in the biosphere as far as can be determined) have this curious ability to communicate an infinite number of thoughts without telepathy. Suggestion: Yu-Mans somehow map from their thought structures into physical structures directly so that air pressure modulations directly mirror the structure of thought. No, this can’t be correct. Air pressure structures cannot bear such a load of information. Am not thinking clearly. Obviously turning native.


RE: re: New Mission – Report 5
New evidence which is most perplexing: I have established that Yu-Mans can extract patterns from different air structures as hypothesized in previous communications. Some of these patterns clearly relate to thoughts, in a simple symbolic way. For example, a special pattern of sound waves (somewhat abstracted) links the symbol ‘planet-3’ to the right thought and so on. But there is also something we have never seen before. Connecting the symbols in different ways allows Yu-Mans to create complex patterns of symbols that mirror the structure of the relevant thought. It turns out that for some groups of Yu-Mans the order in which the symbols come matters. So even though the pattern ‘the sun orbits planet-3’ has exactly the same symbols as ‘planet-3 orbits the sun’, the fact the parts come in a different order means that it relates to a different thought. Even more peculiar, not all combinations of symbols are possible. For the same group ‘orbits planet-3 the sun’ has no corresponding thought. How on Alpha-Centauri do they manage?

RE: re: New Mission – Report 6
Have new inspiration: Yu-Mans have some sort of an internal symbol manipulation device, part of their psychological makeup, just as telepathic abilities are part of our psychology. Perhaps the usual telepathic development mutated in this species. (I hope it wasn’t as a result of the Interstellar Radiation Dump we set up 20,000 years back in nearby Cygnus 3!) My idea is that this internal symbol manipulation device can be used to build complicated structures, which mirror the structure of thought well enough to be used for communication purposes. Bizarre, I know. Need advice.

FROM: Director, GI Alpha Centauri
TO: CES Jenl Itstre
RE: previous report
Intriguing: you are suggesting that Yu-Mans can manipulate symbols in their minds to mirror the structure of thoughts and then they turn these same symbols into movements of their breathing and food intake orifices which eventually create puffs of air in the surrounding atmosphere! And you are suggesting further that other Yu-Mans can sense these different air-puffs, turn them back into mental symbols and then use that to work out what the original thought was. Amazing abilities, but I can see how telepathic communication could be mimicked in this way. How do you propose to conceptualise these processes?

FROM: CES Jenl Itstre
RE: Hypothesis 2
Following Concept Processing Protocols I propose the following: Yu-Mans’ ability to manipulate symbols to approximate the structure of their thoughts will be syntax, and their capacity to turn these symbols into physical instructions for their mouths and lungs will be phonology.

FROM: Director, GI Alpha Centauri
TO: CES Jenl Istre
Make the study of syntax and phonology your prime concern. It is clearly the key to the communication that makes these Yu-Mans so successful in their non-telepathic environment. It’s also perhaps a good route to understanding the structure of Yu-Mans’ thought processes and the ways in which the turn these thoughts into actions. Repeat: make the study of syntax and phonology your prime …

… ow! As your head hits the table, you wake up. Hmmm, so syntax is about mirroring the structure of thought itself, and phonology involves the amazing ability to glean meanings from how the air moves around you. No wonder they make us study this stuff.

How alien can language be?

Update: a longer and more linguistically focussed review of Arrival has appeared in Inference.
 Last night I went to an advanced showing of Denis Villeneuve’s new film Arrival, which is showing as part of the London Film Festival (a perk of being on the committee of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain that was a little unexpected!). Linguistics is central to the film, and, it’s very well done. Based on a Ted Chiang short story, the film tells of the arrival of enigmatic alien ships on Earth, and the involvement of Louise Banks, a professor of linguistics, in figuring out the aliens’ language. It’s an intelligent, beautifully designed, and thought provoking film. And the linguistics in it is a real step above what linguists have come to expect of cinematic portrayals of our discipline (thanks in no small part to Jessica Coon acting as a consultant).

The film turns on the visual language of the heptapods, the name given to the aliens because of their seven tentacular feet. In Chiang’s short story, the spoken language looks pretty familiar to Dr Banks; nouns have special markers, similar to the grammatical cases of Latin or German, that signify meaning; there are words, and they seem to come in particular orders depending on what their function is in the grammar of the sentence. But it is the visual language that is at the heart of the story. This language, as presented in the film, is just beautiful; the aliens squirt some kind of squid-like ink into the air which resolves holistically into a presentation of the thought they want to express. It looks like a circular whorl drawn with complex curlicues twisting off of the main circumference. The form of the language is not linear in any sense. The whorls emerge simultaneously as wholes. The orientation, shape, modulation, and direction of the tendrils that build the whorls serve to convey the meaningful connections of the parts to the whole. Multiple sentences can all be combined into more and more complex forms that, in the film, require GPS style computer analysis. The atemporality and multidimensionality of the heptapods’ written language is a core part of the plot.

So, could a human language work like this, or is that just too alien?
There are two big competing ideas in linguistics about what a language is. One is that  it’s the outcome of an evolutionary process of expansion and refinement of a basic system of communication. It has evolved culturally, buffeted by the pressures of its use as a communicative and social artefact. Language is a cultural object. The other idea is that a language is what happens when the human mind is faced with certain experiences that it can understand as linguistic. The human mind cant help but build a general system, the language, that allows it to connect speech or sign (or, in Dr Banks’ case, alien ink shapes hovering in thin air) to meaning. Language is a cognitive object.
The linguistics of Arrival sits a little uneasily between these poles. For the story, the heptapod language has to be profoundly different from human language. There’s a Sapir-Whorf idea underlying the plot. The language creates, in fact forces, a new way of understanding reality, an understanding that is, until the events of the film, truly alien. But, at the same time, Louise Banks’ linguistic methods have to work, or there is no story, no way of connecting with the heptapods. There has to be a means to segment the whorls, to codify the visual syntax, to connect the forms to the meanings. In fact, to do the kind of fieldwork that linguists do, when they are faced with a new language.
If language were a cultural object, and the heptapods’ culture was as alien as one would expect from their technology, appearance and biology, there’s no reason to expect Dr Banks could segment, classify and analyse the system using the techniques of linguistics. But she did. If language were a cognitive object, then, assuming the heptapods’ mental set-up to be profoundly different from ours, the task of coming up with a theory that could guide the fieldwork in profitable ways would be insurmountable. But Dr Banks generates new whorls to communicate with the aliens, using a kind of iPad type device to select and combine the convoluted shapes. This means that their language has a syntax, a way of systematically connecting the shapes to the meaning of the whole. But if syntax is an attribute of the human mind, why would we expect the heptapods to have it?
In fact, human language, just like the heptapod language, is multidimensional. Syntax is in a different dimension from the words we speak one after another. It is a mostly invisible scaffolding that holds words together, even though they are pronounced far apart, and keeps them structurally apart, even though they are pronounced together. In a sentence like Louise knew which heptapod the captain of the soldiers likes best, the phrase the soldiers is right next to likes but while soldiers is plural, likes is a singular verb (because captain is singular). Things pronounced together are grammatically distinct. And which heptapod is of course the object of likes. The captain likes some heptapod. Things which are far apart, are, in terms of meaning and structure, closely connected. There’s an invisible set of connections, in a different dimension from the linear way the words are pronounced one after the other. Human syntax is just as multidimensional as the heptapods visual language. The  heptapods, and their language, far from being too alien, are, in fact, very human. Why?
An answer is available to this question. Perhaps syntax, the system that infinitely extends the abstract connection between form and meaning beyond the simplest cases, is the only solution, cultural or biological, that is consistent with rational thought, and hence, eventually, advanced technology. Across the galaxy, different species can only connect because, independently,  we have all evolved syntax.
So, NASA, you know where your next big funding push has to be!

Syntax is not a Custom

I had a brief twitter exchange with @david_colquhoun the other day. Prof Colquhoun tweeted a response to a UCL press release about how learning something about grammar could be good for school children (a point made by Bas Aarts). Colquhoun’s view was that teaching children things about formal grammar was ‘daft’, and I’m sure he’s not alone in this view. When I suggested that learning about a fundamental attribute of human beings was a good thing for children, Colquhoon responded that ‘syntax isn’t an attribute. It’s a custom and it changes’.

I thought this exchange was interesting, though I did find it irksome. A well-respected scientist (a Fellow of the Royal Society), who comes from outside of linguistics, thinks that syntax is trivial enough that it’s legitimate to make categorical (and quite incorrect) pronouncements about it. Would he make such pronouncements about, say, palaeolimnology, or astrophysics? Why are we syntacticians doing such a bad job that academics from other fields think they know enough about syntax to say that it’s a ‘custom’? I don’t know, but I want to just give a few arguments here that syntax does not derive from culture and it is not a custom. The syntax of languages changes as Colquhoun noted, of course, but it does in ways that we have been describing quantitatively for years, and that we have have some theoretical grasp of. None of that work involves thinking of it as a custom.

In fact, one of the important findings of syntactic research over the last 50 years (if not longer) is that structure doesn’t reduce to custom or culture. The idea that the structure of a language is intimately connected to its culture is, I think, quite a common view amongst people who don’t study languages. Though it’s a stronger position than `syntax is custom’, it is, therefore, worthwhile to address first.

This view abjectly fails. Take how languages ask questions about things. In English, if you bought something, and your partner sees the shopping bag, they can ask What did you buy? There’s something funny going on with the syntax here. The part of the sentence that you are asking a question about appears, not where it would go if you weren’t asking a question, but right at the front. I bought a book but Which book did you buy? Linguists call this kind of syntax question-movement (or, more commonly, wh-movement, though that’s not such a good term). There are question-movement languages. English is one, so is Inuktitut, so is Mohawk. But there aren’t question movement cultures. There’s nothing about the culture of the Anglo Saxons and the Mohawks that leads to them having the syntax of question-movement in their languages.

There are also languages that are wh-in-situ. When speakers of these languages ask a question like what did you buy? they say it as you bought what?, leaving the question word in the same place (‘in situ’) as it would be in a declarative statement like you bought a book. This is a property shared by Turkish, Chinese, Malayalam, and many other languages. But again these are not wh-in-situ cultures. There are other languages that adopt a mixed strategy. Indeed, languages with very similar cultures can vary quite wildly in what they do with questions, with some dialects of Italian moving question words and others leaving them in situ.

There is a weaker version of the idea that syntax is custom, which is, I think, what Colquhoun was meaning. If someone comes visiting you, you tell them `the custom in London is to stand on the right hand side of a moving staircase’, so they avoid being mown down by irate Londoners. You can see people obeying customs like this, and once you know the custom, you can tell others what it is. But the syntactic rules of a language are not like this. Take movement of question words in English. Now I’ve told you what that is, perhaps you could think of it like a custom: you know it when you see it, and you can tell me about it. But that won’t work. Though you can say David likes the man you gave the book to, you can’t ask a question about the book, following this `custom’. You can’t say in English Which book did David like the man you gave to? Why not? There are hidden patterns, discovered by syntactic research over the years, that capture when this syntactic pattern works, and when it doesn’t. Unlike standing on the right, English speakers are neither aware of the syntactic patterns they use, nor can they say what they are. In fact, it required a lot of research to find out how this bit of syntax works, and we now have a good understanding of the abstract generalizations that predict whether a speaker of English will react to a sentence positively or not. That speaker has no idea of what these patterns in their use of language are, but syntactic theory can predict them. That’s not how customs work. Syntax is not a custom: it’s a complex, highly abstract system of rules generating patterns in the sentences we use. Different languages have different syntax because, as children acquire a language, there is to-and-fro between the set up of their brains (how human brains process linguistic data they are exposed to and what they do with it) and the linguistic acts of the people around them. Syntax is constrained by the ways our mind works, and it’s within these limits that historical change takes place.

The whole of syntax is like this: there are tiny scraps of it that are similar to customs (don’t end a sentence with a preposition, etc.), and those tend to be what people know about. But these are close to scientifically trivial, though they act as cultural shibboleths. The rest of syntax goes unnoticed; because we find it so effortless, we are unaware of the rich, abstract, and complex flow of syntax in our language.

The study of syntax is a straightforward scientific enterprise. There are many complex facts and phenomena that you need to do a lot of descriptive research to find. There are many possible hypotheses about what is going on, most falsified by new data that comes from observation or experiment. And there are fairly good explanations of many of these in terms of basic theoretical primitives and formalised theories of how they relate and combine. The theories are, without doubt, in a primitive state (maybe around about the level of chemical theory pre-Dalton). Indeed, we are very possibly not even thinking about this stuff in the right way. Nevertheless, research in syntax has been extremely intellectually fertile for years now, revealing many new discoveries about how the grammar of many different languages work, and uncovering broad laws and principles that govern these. There are areas of great controversy, but the basic phenomena, generalisations, and concepts are well researched.

I’ll finish on what the initial tweet was about. Is it a good idea to teach grammar to kids? My own view is that it’s a good idea to teach syntax to kids, looking at many languages, and showing them what some of the basic ideas are. Linguistics, and syntax particularly, is an excellent way to teach the basics of the scientific method. Children can go very quickly from observation to hypothesis to experiment to (dis)confirmation (though less easily to theory, it’s true). All using sentences of their own languages. From this they can learn precision in thinking, the rudiments of science, and, it must be said, some facts about the grammar of the language(s) they speak. None of these is daft.

New Squib on EPP effects

This brief squib revisits a problem that’s been bothering me for a long time, first noticed by Jim McCloskey in a 1996 paper (presented at the first conference on Celtic I ever went to!). Jim noticed that in Irish certain verbs single argument appeared either as a prepositional phrase or as a nominal phrase. In the former case, the PP seemed to appear low in the structure, while the nominal phrase moved to the standard subject position. This seems like a perfectly sensible pattern, but is actually quite difficult to capture in the kind of approach, mainstream at the time, that said movements had to be triggered. If you need to trigger the movement of the nominal subject, what happens to that trigger when the subject is a PP. This squib shows that some ideas from Chomsky’s recent POP framework make this pattern much less weird. Overall, it suggests that there aren’t EPP features of heads; rather, phrases that can’t stay in situ, end up wherever they can be licensed.

The draft is on lingbuzz at:

A labelling solution to a curious EPP effect


New paper on language death

I’ve just finished a writeup of my NWAV ‘cornerstone’ talk. It’s an attempt to try to explain why a particular set of changes took place as the Gaelic dialect spoken in East Sutherland, and studied by Nancy Dorian, died in the latter half of the last century. The explanation, unlike Dorian’s, which relied on primarily sociolinguistic factors, appeals to the weakening and loss of syntactic agreement features, and how this leads to the replacement of a variety of null pronoun structures with alternatives. Which particular alternatives are chosen depends on what I call the ‘syntactic ecology’ of the language.

The draft is on Lingbuzz at:

Structure, use, and syntactic ecology in language obsolescence

Bird Syntax?

Bird syntax? Interesting new study in Nature but I’m not convinced. They report that birds have a particular behaviour associated with one call ABC (scan for danger), and another behaviour associated with D (approach nest). They say that when the birds hear ABC-D, you get scanning followed by approach, but with D-ABC, no reaction, and conclude that there’s a compositionally interpreted rule for the former, but no rule licensing that latter. But surely the lack of reaction to the reverse call (approach then scan for danger) could simply be because this is behaviourally odd, as opposed to not being generable by rule? Signalling to approach a nest and then to scan for danger (as opposed to the other way around) might just be unhelpful behaviour. If that’s the right interpretation, then there’s no compositional syntax, just serially ordered behaviour associated with the order of calls, with one kind of behaviour outside of the birds’ usual repertoire.

My first Monster Language

Early in 2015, I was sitting in my office, reading a student’s thesis, and the phone rang. It was a TV company, with an odd request. “Could you”, the producer on the line asked, “make up a language or two for us?”

The TV series was a version of Beowulf, the Old English Epic, which ITV was turning into a major fantasy series. They needed, as is almost de rigeur these days, languages for their otherworldly creatures, and for some human tribes that the heroes and heroines were to interact with.

I jumped at the chance, of course. When I was a Master’s student, in Edinburgh, I’d made up a language for a friend, Ricardo Pinto, who was writing a series of epic fantasy novels. I rather stupidly made this language (Quya) fiendishly complicated, a decision which came back to bite me as Ricardo asked for translations of various chapter titles and bits of poetry over the next decade. These took me ages.

Forearmed by this experience, and quite a bit more knowledge about how language works than I had over twenty years ago, I developed two languages for the series, one for the monsters and another one I’ll come back to in later blogs. As Beowulf  is about to appear on UK TV (the opening episode is on the 3rd January 2015), I thought I’d blog a little about the language and why I designed it the way I did.

The trailer features some monstrous creatures, bounding across a beach. Some of the creatures in Beowulf, the Warig, have their own language, and that language, Ur-Hag Hesh (literally, Not-Food Speech), now has a fairly large vocabulary and a reasonably complex grammar. In this blog, I’ll just talk a little about the sounds of Ur-Hag Hesh.

If you watch the trailer, you’ll see that the creatures have little that you could call real lips. So I decided that the language would lack consonants that are made with the lips (labials). This means no sounds like p, or b, or m. I originally wanted to make up for losing these sounds by increasing the range of sounds made at the back of the throat (the producers wanted a ‘guttural’ sounding language). Unfortunately, these turned out to be too much to ask of the actors, so my plan to have a series of uvulars and pharyngeals was quickly scuppered.

So the system of sounds I came up with in the end looks as follows. I’ve given the transliteration I used for the producers, with the International Phonetic Alphabet symbol, where different, in parentheses.

Glottals: the glottal stop, ʔ; and the glottal fricative, h

Velars: the velar stops, k, g; the velar fricative, kh (x); and the velar nasal ng (ŋ)

Palatals: the palato-alveolar fricatives, sh (ʃ) and zh (ʒ); the palatal glide y (j)

Alveolars: the stops, t, d; the fricatives s, z;  the approximants r, l; and the nasal n.

Vowels: a, e, i, u (though given the lack of lips, the u should really be the unrounded back vowel ɯ). I suggested that the actors could grimace when they were pronouncing the language to get rid of all lip rounding, but I’m not sure if they did!

I also allowed combinations of a stop plus a following fricative to act as essentially single sounds, giving the following combinations.

kkh, ksh, gz, gzh

ts, dz, tsh, dzh, tkh

So that’s the sound system, and here’s a bit of Ur-Hag Hesh for you to listen to.