there It is! On the day that the greatest dreamers, scientists, artists have so many times imagined, happened. The aliens have done us the honour of visiting the planet Earth. Consider therefore! Is it little green men? Creatures unformed? Do they come in peace? And if yes, how will you know?

To do this, we need to understand and, therefore, to speak to them. But how? In his book How to talk to an alien? (Belial’), Frédéric Landragin, director of research at CNRS and a specialist in linguistics, explores the works of science fiction that depict the “first contact”. The goal: to popularize the different language theories in the light of the idioms imagined by the writers.

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LE FIGARO. – The science-fiction illuminates the science of linguistics?

Frédéric LANDRAGIN. – What is certain, is that science fiction is a kind of laboratory in which we test things. There are no precautions to take and ethical questions to ask. You can go to the end of an experiment and explore different principles. This is the case of the film First Contact , which explores the theory, Sapir-Whorf, which says that our language determines how we perceive our reality. In this film, the linguist Louise Banks, is trying to communicate with two aliens heptapodes (a kind of octopus with seven tentacles) of which the idiom is totally different from ours. This leads to a question: what would happen if ever we are human, we discover a language alien?

“Designate returns to appoint”

so let’s Imagine! If we meet one day a alien, what language methodology should be followed?

This is the big question! Of course, there are little chances of this happening. But imagine encourages us to do exercise language interesting. First, it is necessary that the aliens have a body that looks like us a little. And this is not self-evident! It should not be that their biology is similar to that of ants, bees or dolphins. These are species that have a language and with which we are yet unable to exchange. You can rub, that’s all.

Then, if the body of the aliens looks similar to ours, this means that they are beings able to do actions. It is essential when one wants to learn an unknown language, the gesture of pointing. Take this example: I point my finger towards a chair and utters the word “chair”. In making this gesture, and associating a sound at the same time, I give it meaning. I called this object. This is exactly what the linguist in First Contact . It puts the “human” on a sign, the delivery, and refers to itself.

Is this what the fieldworkers do when they encounter populations with unknown languages?

It is exactly this methodology that they adopt when they land among a people. They established a base, thanks to the gesture of pointing, which allows them to communicate. Refer back to name. What comes next, this is the “yes” and “no”.

Take the example of the “chair”. It can be seen in the new “The Story of your life” written by Ted Chiang, and which is taken from the feature film First Contact . Once the heptapodes point and learn the words, it is necessary to ensure that it is “table” or “chair” which are indicated by the word. It is a principle that a philosopher of language, Willard Van Orman Quine, has described under the term “gavagai”.

“The first contact the most credible is in the stories where it’s not well -”

What is the work of science-fiction has imagined a “first contact”?

If you look at the films made on this subject, we may quote the Encounter of the third kind of Steven Spielberg, which is not the most credible but it remains an interesting example: it is the music which establishes the link between the scientists and the aliens. But finally, it is observed that the music does not express what it wants to say. This is more of an intention to communicate an authentic exchange.

As for the novels, the first contact the most credible is in the stories where it is not going well. That is to say, those where we can not exchange with an extraterrestrial. Take Solaris of Stanislas Lem in which humans arrive on a planet and where there is an ocean that takes strange forms. It is suspected that it is an entity intelligent. But despite multiple attempts, humans fail to engage with. They have, however, developed dictionaries, encyclopedias complete that describe the science of “solaristique”. In vain. While the novel describes how humans love to categorize things, describe a system to talk between them without ever interacting with the other which emanates from the language.

This mania for categorization that we have already prevented the decoding of a language?

Yes, temporarily with the Rosetta Stone and the deciphering of the egyptian hieroglyphs. We hold that it was Champollion who has it all decoded but there has been a multitude of attempts, before him. Take the case of Thomas Young, a doctor and a English physicist, who went from one premise to be false, in believing that the characters form an alphabet. To characterize it, he made this assumption: such a character is equivalent to a term from ancient Greek. Result: he has not been able to decode the system. It happened because of the confidence that the Man wears to an operation that he knows all too well.

“It is necessary to know the culture of the other to understand its language”

What a linguistic theory of science-fiction has not yet explored?

Let’s make the theory “good-enough”, which says that when one listens to a sentence, we do not necessarily include everything, but this does not prevent us to continue to listen to and understand the overall content of what is being said. A linguist, classical, him, will, on the contrary, look at all the words, all the ends of the words and be in a approach very fine. The theory of “good-enough” is tantamount to saying that our human brains are not capable of deciphering everything, but enough developed to allow dialogue.

You speak of the importance of a point of departure for understanding a language: the myths, dictionaries… In 1977, the probes Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 flew in space to go to the meeting from distant planets. To their banks, we find a disc containing pictures, music and of human voices. Is this an effective starting point for the alien to have them understand us?

No. Imagine that you want to learn chinese and that the only thing you need is a stock of web pages written in chinese. How to do it? You don’t have a dictionary or interpreter. The only thing you can do is search the data, try to see where there are repetitions, finding patterns, regularities… In sum, all you can do is make conjectures about the data that you have. No, what we need is a starting point where there was a consensus of the two sides. It is necessary to archive, myths, poems that say the culture of a people. Without this, you cannot ask questions.

It is necessary to know the culture of the other to understand his language, it is essential. It is this that takes a lot of time. Let’s take the example of a people native to or arising out of the islands in Australia. They have never had contact with the western world. If we want to understand their language, it is necessary that it permeates their ways of life, which is a reflection of their culture. And this, the science-fiction shows.


there is a novel of science-fiction entitled foreign land of Heinlein. Summary: a group of humans are sent to Mars. All die except for one baby who is raised by an alien. Eventually, a rescue mission allows its extraction. But once on Earth, he is lost. He has a human brain but of the martian culture. And even if he manages to communicate with the humans, he has his own words. In this case, the verb “to gnoquer” which means “fully understand” and “become one with the object of his reflection”. It is typically a word that comes from the culture of the Martians that humans do not understand. And yet, the child can not say this term. It is a pillar of its culture.


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