YOU’RE READING THESE WORDS, on this screen.
The Latin alphabet — those 26 glyphs in their upper- and lowercase forms, arranged in small groups and peppered with punctuation — is a supremely versatile code, a code in which graphical simplicity can communicate a great depth of meaning. A few simple marks, arranged in an infinite variety of combinations, have carried our literature, our philosophy, our political discourse.
But that code is familiar to you only because you happen to reside in a certain geographical area on planet Earth, an area that for historical and cultural reasons has adopted this system, a system that you, almost by osmosis, picked up as you grew up. For this reason, it often goes unexamined. It is familiar. It is elegant, pliable, and versatile. It works.
But it is not the only, or even the most common, arrangement of marks on a page that communicates meaning. 380 million people speak English as their first language, while 480 million speak Spanish. Both Indo-European languages split from the same evolutionary tree around 5,000 years ago. And while an alphabet in English is an alfabeto in Spanish, while the letters both languages use differ in the hats and fringes they wear, they still share the same roots. Both are a phonetic representation of spoken speech, read left to right, top to bottom.
But even that is a local phenomenon. Mandarin Chinese, spoken by 918 million people, is a logographic script in which glyphs generally represent words (nouns, adjectives, etc.) rather than sounds the human mouth happens to make. Unlike the Latin alphabet, it is traditionally written left to right, and vertically from top to bottom. Our assumptions about how to graphically represent time, and thus the order in which words (or in the case of comics, images) are to be read, again turns out to be parochial.
Language is not just spoken or written. Meaning is encoded in facial expression, gesture, or body language, whether through the formalized grammar of a signing language or an ever-evolving vernacular. Hands held in the shape of a heart. The middle-finger salute. A chef’s kiss. If we can use something to express ourselves, we probably will. If speech is a peculiarity of the human vocal tract, these gestures are specific to the design of the human body — a cluster of sense organs arranged on a head atop a body with four limbs, two for locomotion and two for manipulation. If we had evolved from starfish or squids or mollusks we would have an entirely different body language because we would have entirely different bodies.
Meaning is not just carried by our bodies, but what we put on them. This is the language of fashion. We can telegraph our moods, our religious affiliation, our hipster credentials, our membership in an organized group such as an army or a team, even our sexual availability or preference, all through a readily understood language of color, hemline, shirt-button, and headwear. This grammar is not taught in schools but is still readily understood, at least to those within a specific cultural context. Move outside of that context, and those meanings may shift in unexpected ways. Again, many languages are local rather than universal.
And it’s not just the products of human ingenuity that can carry meaning — the weather, the seasons, the stars have all been “read.” Thunder is the gods’ anger, the seasons the cycle of death and rebirth, your fate is fixed in the heavens. We traditionally use random generators as fortune-telling mechanisms — the shuffled Tarot deck, tea leaves, the arrangement of lines on the palm, a throw of bones. Our propensity to see structure and meaning, even where there may be none, is hardwired in our genes. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense — if your survival depends on seeing that predator hiding in the brush, a false positive is less dangerous than a false negative. We are all descendants of those survivors whose ability to pick a weak signal out of the noise meant they didn’t get eaten.
But an over-propensity to see patterns has a downside — it may leave us susceptible to conspiracy theories. A scrap of data here, a suggestive anecdote there, and we construct a whole from disparate parts that may not actually exist. Not everything works like a man-made language, and sometimes real life does not have the narrative elegance of a well-constructed plot.
We are very much products of two things: our nature, the physical forms and senses biology equipped us with; and our culture, the memetic back-and-forth of ideas propagating from mind to mind through, in its broadest sense, language.
So how might we communicate with aliens?
Their symbols will differ. Their context will differ. They will differ — unlike on, say, “Star Trek,” where most aliens are bipedal, breathe an Earth-like atmosphere, can fit through our doors, do not carry organisms to which we have no immunity, are not bent on eating or killing or copulating with us, and, most unlikely of all, speak English (with an American accent, no less). If you happened to catch “Star Trek” in Spain or in China, the aliens would of course speak Spanish or Mandarin. The Universal Translator, a kind of Babelfish storytelling workaround, is invoked to deal with this anthropocentric failure of imagination, but the stories are often not about the aliens at all. Warlike, peaceful, inscrutable, avaricious, they often simply represent human traits exaggerated and wrapped in a green skin. They are really about us — aliens, it seems, are just a mirror that reveals our own values, aims, desires, and shortcomings.
We find it hard to step back, away from our cultural and natural heritage, and realize that our supposed universals are anything but. The proliferation of earthly religions, all purporting to be the One and Only Truth, each claiming to reveal the One and Only God, should underscore this point: we can’t see very far at all, and if our universal truths don’t even hold true here on Earth, why should they hold true elsewhere?
If we want to speak to aliens, let’s call it “communicating,” as “speaking” implies a mouth that forms oscillations in an atmosphere that are received by an ear and decoded by a brain — all anthropomorphic assumptions even before we get to the nuances of the actual language being spoken. Maybe we need to resort to certain universal reference points we presume hold everywhere else in the universe: the atomic structure of hydrogen, the speed of light, the positions of certain pulsars, unwavering constants of nature.
Voyager 1, the most distant probe humans have launched, is currently more than 14 billion miles away, just beyond the heliopause — barely out the front door in interstellar terms. It will be another 40,000 years before it passes close to another planetary system. It carries 115 images; the sounds of surf, wind, thunder, birds and whales; a selection of music from around the world and from different eras; and spoken greetings in 55 languages, including messages from Jimmy Carter and U.N. Secretary-General Waldheim.
What will aliens make of this? The Voyager message is carried on a phonograph record, a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk that plays at 16 ⅔ RPM. It also carries a pick-up arm and an instruction manual, but our alien friends’ home entertainment systems may well only play at 45 and 33 ⅓ RPM, with older models perhaps playing 78s. In this scenario we will all sound like “Pinky and Perky.” Or perhaps they’ve just invented the iPod, but their USBs are the wrong shape.
We have shipped a message in a format that was popular here on Earth for around 180 years, a small window of time in modern man’s 200,000-year-old history of mark-making and symbolic language use. Though vinyl enthusiasts have given it a new lease on life, it’s still only been around for 0.0009th of that time — though it did outlast the compact cassette, 8-track cartridge, and CD by an order of magnitude.
Try and discard these human-centric notions. Imagine you have never seen a gold record, and take a new look at the Voyager probe. Perhaps the whole thing is a symbol. The dish, the boom, the whiskers, the octagonal body. Each could represent some universal truth, have some deep symbolic meaning. Maybe it resembles a rare sea creature that appears twice a year to mate on the sodium flats of Xantu, when the Seven Moons are all full. Maybe it traces a line of fire across the firmament as it burns up in the atmosphere of Polix 5 on the morning of Grug the Destructor’s coronation, cowing his subjects into submission and inaugurating his 2,000-cycle reign of terror. Maybe it falls into a hydroxide ocean and is eaten by the simple organisms there who never think that it may have any meaning beyond the nutritional. Maybe it is discovered by the alien intelligence V’ger, and comes back to Earth to give us a new chapter in the “Star Trek” franchise.
Maybe that gold record carries a message that is not so much aimed at those out there, but those back here. As Linda Salzman Sagan notes in Carl Sagan’s “Murmurs of Earth,” “During the entire Voyager project, all decisions were based on the assumption that there were two audiences for whom the message was being prepared — those of us who inhabit Earth, and those who exist on the planets of distant stars.” Like those “Star Trek” homilies, perhaps we are simply speaking to ourselves.
If we do discover an artifact that is not of this world, if we do receive a signal of alien origin — however it may be encoded — what will be the one message that we can be sure it unambiguously communicates? What will it say?
Rian Hughes Writer
Rian Hughes is an Eisner-nominated graphic designer, illustrator, comic artist, writer, and typographer who has worked extensively for the British and American advertising, music, and comic book industries. He has written and drawn comics for "2000 AD" and "Batman: Black and White," and designed logos for "James Bond," "The X-Men," "Superman," Hedkandi, and "The Avengers." These are collected in the book "Logo-a-gogo" (Korero Press, 2018). He has published two novels, "XX" (Picador, Overlook Press, 2020) and "The Black Locomotive" (Picador, 2021).