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Linguists gather in L.A. to ponder the Language of ET
by Staff Writers
Los Angeles CA (SPX) May 28, 2018

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As preparation for communicating with intelligent life on other planets, linguists and other researchers gathered in Los Angeles to explore whether language is universal. "We know that the face-to-face meeting of humans and aliens is quite unlikely given interstellar distances," said Sheri Wells-Jensen, chair of the workshop and member of the Board of Directors of METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence).

"We are not expecting a 'Star Trek' universe where most of the aliens are humanoid and lots of them already have a 'universal translator.' So would we ever be able to understand each other by sending messages by radio?"

The daylong workshop, 'Language in the Cosmos,' was organized by METI and took place in Los Angeles, California, on May 26, 2018, as part of the National Space Society's International Space Development Conference (ISDC) 2018. For decades Noam Chomsky, the father of modern linguistics, has talked about the 'universal grammar' that connects the varied languages we find on Earth.

"Chomsky has often said that if a Martian visited Earth, it would think we all speak dialects of the same language, because all terrestrial languages share a common underlying structure," said Douglas Vakoch, president of METI. "But if aliens have language, would it be similar to ours? That's the big question."

At METI's workshop, two of the presentations - including a paper co-authored by Noam Chomsky - were optimistic that extraterrestrial languages might have a 'universal grammar' with virtually the same architecture that we find on Earth.

"That's a radical shift for SETI scientists, who have scoffed at the idea of creating interstellar messages inspired by natural languages," said Vakoch. Past radio messages targeting possible extraterrestrials were typically encoded with principles of math and science, which were hoped to be universal.

Other papers from the workshop showed that even carefully built messages, such as the Voyager Golden Record, can easily be misinterpreted. Wells-Jensen showed through a series of puzzles presented to college students, how wildly the assumptions of humans and aliens might diverge from one another.

The workshop closed with a presentation by David Peterson, inventor of the Dothraki language found in HBO's 'Game of Thrones' television series.

This was the third time that METI held a workshop at the ISDC. In 2016 METI gathered experts to explore the nature of intelligence in the universe, and in 2017 the workshop focused on two interrelated questions: "Can extraterrestrials already detect us?" and "How can we weigh the risks and benefits of sending intentional signals?"

ISDC 2018 showcased science, business development, cutting edge space development concepts, education, and even the science fiction that inspired the dreams that are becoming reality. Speakers included space development giants like Freeman Dyson, Jeff Bezos, JPL's John Casani, SpaceX's Tom Mueller, SETI's Frank Drake, ESA's Jean-Pierre Lebreton, science fiction writer David Brin, and many more.

Related Links
Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence
Lands Beyond Beyond - extra solar planets - news and science
Life Beyond Earth

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