Since 1966 people have been pointing at Star Trek and asking "How come all the aliens speak English?" They go on to point out the impossibility of a universal translator, make fun of the show and basically prove that they couldn't have missed the point any harder if it was on the asteroid of Pluto. Of course, the reason a magic device can let everyone talk to each other is that forty-five minutes of people saying "I'm sorry, what?" is terrible television. But recent advances at the University of California might show that those nit-pickers aren't just petty-minded pedants, but flat-out wrong.
Professor Terrence Deacon believes that all languages must have a common universal structure. While there may be an infinite variety of means to communicate, there are only a finite number of things communication tries to do - the most fundamental of which is attempting to describe the physical world. By homing in on this fundamental goal any two languages must have in common, Professor Deacon believes it should be able to decode any xenoliguistics, be they communicated by sounds, scents, numbers or phllggQQ'arns.
He weakens his point by referring to how this happens the Carl Sagan book "Contact", which we can only hope he knows is fiction. And even if fiction was admissible in the court of scientific inquiry, a few entries from Stephen Baxter would destroy any "fundamental commonality" principle, conjuring the idea of alien races so fundamentally different from us we wouldn't even know they were there, let alone communicating. The intrepid interpreter's theories can be saved by an "argotic anthropic principle" - any species similar enough for us to even attempt communication with probably does have language as we would understand the term.
Of course, waiting around for ET to show up to test the theory might take a while. Dr Denise Herzing of Florida Atlantic University says we may be able to speak to dolphins using such a system. Then again, Dr Herzing is a research scientist working on animal consciousness with the Wild Dolphin Project, so it's hard to tell if that's expertise or bias. One things for sure: proving that dolphins can speak would trigger a huge response by animal rights organizations. Assuming the dolphin's name isn't "Flipper".
Posted by Luke McKinney.
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