I am working on a sci-fi story and asking what do you think the protocol would be should a ship from Earth discover a planet having human-like beings on it. The inhabitants have a similar vocal mechanism to us. For the sake of discussion, let’s say their civilization is similar to North America and Europe in the mid-1860s to 1870s so there is no broadcast media. Presuming the inhabitants are friendly, what would be the quickest and most effective way to learn and catalog their language(s)? Their culture? Many thanks.
Universal Translator plus Linda Park.
I’m no expert but my own approach would be to first get some basic vocabulary, by pointing at things so as to be told what name is in that language. Along the way I’d learn some basic spatial/motion vocabulary, which includes demonstrative pronouns (this/that/…). The next step would be to learn some simple sentences (this is…) (this is called…) go/come. Once you can speak/understand such basic structures you can use them to get extra information, both by asking how you say this or that and by getting language samples and try to work out their meaning from both context and some further questioning. Some knowledge of how languages tend to work might help. For example, as you learn, you will want to list the phoneme inventory of the language, based both on what you hear and on previous knowledge of what phonemes are usually found in human languages, although the value of such knowledge may be limited if the aliens vocal system is different, of course. You would also be trying to answer questions about what kind of language they speak based on common classifications, such as word order (SOV, VOS, VSO?) or general classifications: synthetic, agglutinative, analytic? Do verb forms change? How? Do noun forms change? Etc.
In all of this we’re supposing that the aliens’ language is “human-like” enough. For example, we’re taking for granted that there are distinct phonemes (as opposed to a continuous sound modulation, e.g.). That there are localized words serving functions similar to our verb/noun distinctions and so on. For different possibilities and an approach to “decypher” them, have a look at research about possible dolphin/whale languages.
I’ve found a discussion about this topic online, which to my mind, proves two things:
- At least some experts seem to agree with parts of my intuitive approach
- There’s some uncertainty about how to go on in this endeavour, even among experts, so you’re allowed to develop your own ideas.
Here’s the link:
The discussion also refers to a course about this topic and provides a link to more info about it
Their technological advancement shouldn’t stop you to record all conversations on the planet from your ship or to scan their books into your computer. Listen, read and observe.
Mere recordings/texts are not enough to decipher a language. Otherwise, we would understand the Indus script or Linear A or so many other examples of undeciphered texts. Arguably, videos might help a bit more but I claim that you’d still need interaction with the speakers for full comprehension.