ENG 480/580; Extraterrestrial Language

July 3 to August 9, 2001
Tuesday-Thursday: 6:15 to 9:25 PM
East Hall 406

Course Outline and Requirements
ET Language Analysis Assignment
First Optional Text: Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin
Second Optional Text: The Klingon Dictionary by Marc Okrand.
Contents of Required Reading Packet

Note: Even though the class is officially over, I will be adding lecture notes and additional references as time permits. Input welcome!--SBWJ.

Whenever (if ever) we make contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence, we'll want to know many things about them. We'll want to learn their science, find out about their biology, investigate their planet. But, most of all, we'll want to talk to them. We'll want to ask them questions; to tell them our stories and hear theirs. We'll want to learn from them and maybe see what we can teach them about what we ourselves have learned. Later, we'll want to experience their art and poetry, their religion, their philosophy, their humor.

Scholars from many disciplines including linguistics, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, xenobiology, literature and physics have begun to ask themselves what the structure of an alien language might be like, and what chance we have of learning such a language. This field of enquiry is called 'xenolinguistics'.

This graduate/undergraduate seminar (English 480/580) will explore what linguistics, literature and the natural sciences have to tell us about the possible structure of a language of extraterrestrial origin and our hopes of being able to understand it.

Course Schedule

Date Topic Reading Assignment Invited Speaker
July 3 Terrestrial Language Structure OGrady et al
July 5 Terrestrial Language Structure Cont. OGrady et al
July 10 How Weird Can Languages Get?
Design Features of Language
Ogrady continued
Hockett (1960)
Jason Wells-Jensen: BGSU
July 12 Essential Rules of Human Communication Grice; Golomb
July 17 Klingon Look over intro to Klingon Dictionary Andrew Strader, Co-Translator of the Klingon Hamlet
July 19 Linguistics and Science Fiction Mossop
July 24 Metaphor Lakoff and Johnson: ch 1-5, 19 and pp 229-232
Additional Optional Reading: pp 165-166, pp 185-194, pp 226-228
Lakoff and Turner (excerpts); Plath, Kumin
Featuring the Darmok episode of Star Trek Next Generation
Please also visit The Darmok Dictionary by Raphael Carter
July 26 Is Human Language Hardwired in the Brain? Pinker Chap. 9 and 10; Elgin Chap. 12
July 31 How Likely Is ET Life?
Goldsmith, 1992 Chap. 17
Meyer, 1980 Chap. 9; Barthes
Dr. John Laird, BGSU Physics and Astronomy
August 2 Structure of Extraterrestrial Languages Minsky; Watson
August 7 Field Methods: How Will We Learn an Alien Language? Hockett, 1955; Russell: excerpts from The Sparrow A speaker of an Unknown Terrestrial Language
Jordan Lachler, U of New Mexico
August 9 Radio Signals From Space Vachok; Devito Sky and Telescope Magazine's up-to-date account of the search for ET radio signals.

Languages Discussed

For a truly staggering list of invented languages that range from the triumphantly alien to the more-or-less-English-like to the enormously weird to the beautiful, please visit Langmaker.com. There, you will also find instructions for inventing your own language.

Paper Topics

Here are some of the topics used as term papers this semester.
  • Preparing for the communication aspects of first contact
  • Use of telepathy in Star Trek DS9
  • The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and alien culture
  • Dolphin communications systems
  • Gricean constraints on first contact and field methods
  • Effectiveness of a "rival-Model" language teaching paradigm for first contact

Other Interesting Links

Looking for the Real Thing

The SETI Home page
The Search for extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute is an organization dedicated to, you guessed it, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Their home page contains a wealth of information on all aspects of such a search.

The Voyager Home page
When NASA launched the Voyager planetary probe some decades ago, they knew that it would eventually leave our solar system. The little robotic ship carries a message from the people of Earth to ... well, to anyone who finds it out there.

Some people are thinking seriously about how to get ready. See Judge, Anthony. Communicating with Aliens: The Psychological Dimension of Dialogue

Astronomy Links

BGSU Observatory
BGSU Planetarium
BGSU Dept. of Physics & Astronomy
Astronomy Picture of the Day
Ask the Astronomer
Tour of the Solar System
NASA home page
NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab
The Planetary Society
Astronomical Society of the Pacific

Other SF and Xenolinguistics

Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow is hands down the best 'first contact' novel there is. It's got sound linguistics and fascinating anthropology... and lots more!

Justin B. Rye offers his insightful, hip Primer in SF Xenolinguistics. This is worth visiting just to see if you can catch all the allusions! I didn't!

Obligatory UFO Links

Do You Believe?
Center for UFO Studies
Kitt Peak
The UFO Skeptic's Page

If those don't satisfy you, and you have a conspiracy on your mind, try
Coast to Coast AM for exactly what you need!
or The Disclosure Project
Unfortunately for our purposes, the UFOs that are said to be buzzing earth seem to be telepathic or speak pretty decent English.

ET, if you're out there, email the instructor, Dr. Sheri Wells-Jensen:
Sheri Wells-Jensen's Home Page
Office: 423 East Hall
Phone: (419) 372-8935
Office Hours: by appointment

Page Updated: August 20, 2001