In space no one can hear you say ‘what’s the dizzle?’

by Craig Evans

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When NASA launched the two Voyager space probes in 1977, they sent with each a phonographic record containing messages from humankind in the hope that these might one day reach intelligent extraterrestrial life. The records, made from gold-plated copper, included various information about Earth in the form of images and audio recordings, including greetings spoken in 55 different languages.

 

A list of the languages and greetings used, together with the actual recordings, can be found here on the JPL website.

 

Among the entries are: Greetings to our friends in the stars. We wish that we will meet you someday, in Arabic; We greet you, O great ones, in Sotho; and We wish you everything good from our planet, in Serbian (note that these translations are the ones used on the website).

 

Speaking as a student of linguistics, I must say that it is quite a treat to listen to the variety of languages represented here, and I highly recommend others to do the same. However, without the translations, I would be at a complete loss to know what was being said by my fellow human beings.

 

What chance, then, would an intelligent alien life form have of making sense of it all should these space time capsules ever cross their path?

 

Perhaps a better alternative would be to use more universal methods of communication to convey a message of greeting. For example: an image of a forward-facing human with open arms in a gesture that communicates openness, warmth and invitation. A human-like being, should one exist elsewhere in the universe, may understand more readily the semiotic meaning of a gesture than they would the code of a particular language.

 

However, the problem of semiotics is easily illustrated, as was the case with the only other space time capsules to ever have been launched: the Pioneer plaques. Part of the Pioneer space mission in the early seventies, these included the use of arrows to depict the Pioneer’s path. Unfortunately, as many critics subsequently pointed out, the arrow symbol has a culturally specific derivation that comes from the history of hunter-gatherer societies. This would most likely make it meaningless to the extraterrestrial discoverer.

 

The linguistic challenges facing anyone attempting extraterrestrial communication are so enormous that it’s easy to wonder why they bother. Short of the existence of a parallel Earth-like planet where similar languages have developed, whatever message we try to communicate is surely to be lost in intergalactic translation. This is not to say that conveying depictions of human life through images and sounds, like those also included on the records, doesn’t have value; but perhaps the same can’t be said for trying to communicate a specific message.

 

Of course, when we consider more closely the greetings themselves, it quickly becomes clear that the messages are not only intended for some vague, unknown alien entity, they also serve the symbolic purpose of reflecting the hopes and possibilities of space exploration for a diverse human audience.

 

This is demonstrated by the differences in the wording of the various greetings. For example, the Sotho greeting mentioned earlier, We greet you, O great ones, expresses reverence for the anticipated recipients of the message. The greeting in Gujarati speaks to a more pragmatic sensibility with the down-to-earth tone of its request: Greetings from a human being of the Earth. Please contact. In English, the message is Hello from the children of planet Earth, which was recorded using the voice of the six-year-old son of Carl Sagan, the person who headed up the entire project. Both the wording and speaker of the English message can be viewed as expressing the idea of future (i.e. children are the future) to be aligned with the distant prospect, far into the future, of the message being found.

 

In reality, the preparation of these messages was far less planned than this analysis might make it seem. Carl Sagan was given very little time to prepare the records; a decision was made to record the 25 most widely spoken languages in the world, plus any others they could manage to find speakers for; and it was left to the speakers themselves to decide what the greetings should be.

 

However, that is not to say that the symbolic effects described are any less valid. In a book about the messages, “Murmurs of Earth”, Linda Salzman Sagan describes how they were ‘principally concerned with the needs of people on Earth’. It would have been possible to use just one language with a key to make any message more decipherable, but this would have meant selecting one or two main languages over all others. For the people involved in this project, it was felt ‘that Voyager [should] greet the universe as a representative of one community, albeit a complex one consisting of many parts’.

 

At this point, anybody who has read the list of greetings would probably agree that the messages represent the collective voice of one community. There is considerable overlap in their tone and meaning as they variously express well-wishing and friendship, but what community is being represented? Can it really be said to be the ‘complex’ Earth ‘community’ where there are today approximately 7,000 languages and within those languages widespread variation? To say nothing about our long history of war, famine and social inequality, which raises the moral question: are we really in a position to be wishing peace and welcome to other possible intelligent life forms?

 

I think that what these issues highlight is the enormity of the task of extraterrestrial communication, should it ever become a genuine matter that humans may one day need to address. Of course there is the challenge of translation, but perhaps a bigger challenge will be deciding on what language should be representative of the planet Earth. It may prove the case that a relatively obscure language is deemed to be most compatible with the new alien language. However, would most people be willing to accept the sudden primary global status of such a language, even in the face of the greatest discovery to ever face humankind? Alas, I seriously doubt it.

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