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Alien Communication

Nanelia: The Sonar Tank. They’re wearing sound baffles in case they get in front of it. Even if we plug our ears, we can’t get any closer.
Cowboy: [to the nearby Kelvin, who are trying to get his attention] Will you two radiators stand back? It’s hard enough to think!
Nestor 1: It seems they’re volunteering.
Cowboy: Yeah, what can THEY do?
Nestor 1: Well, for one thing, the Kelvin have no ears.

Battle Beyond the Stars

Science fiction is full of unique ways alien species communicate. In the 1980 Roger Corman movie, Battle Beyond the Stars, the Kelvin have no ears because they communicate by radiating body heat. In China Mieville’s Embassytown, a race of insectoid creatures communicate using two mouths and a language that is utterly inhuman in its construction. And in the film and book Close Encounters of the Third Kind. scientists use Solresol, a language based on musical tones.

In real life, communication even within species can occur in a number of ways. Humans communicate verbally (though language, accent, tone of voice, habitual voice quality, etc.) and nonverbally (communication other than through than speech, including facial expressions, hand and arm gestures, postures, positions, and various movements of the body or the legs and feet).

Other primates communicate through vocal behavior (functional reference, call combinations, and vocal learning), olfactory signals to mark territories, screams to recruit help while fighting, gestures to request food and facial expressions to initiate play. Some fish can communicate using noises that include grunts, chirps and pops.

Even plants have been shown to be able to communicate. When bugs chew leaves, studies have shown they release volatile chemicals through their leaves and roots when damaged by herbivores that other plants can perceive and respond by increasing production of chemical weapons or other defense mechanisms. But now a unique method of communication has been discovered between a parasitic plant and it’s hosts.

Jim Westwood, a professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech in a study published August 15th in Science found that plants may also communicate on a molecular level. Westwood examined the relationship between a parasitic plant called a dodder, and two host plants, Arabidopsis (small flowering plants related to cabbage and mustard) and tomatoes.

The dodder wraps itself around its host, then uses an appendage called a haustorium (think of a vampire’s fangs) to penetrate the plant and suck the moisture and nutrients out of the host plants. Professor Westwood had previously shown that during this parasitic interaction, there’s a transfer of information using RNA between the dodder and it’s host. But the new study expands on that, finding that a surprising amount of messenger RNA (mRNA) is constantly being exchanged between both plants during the parasitic relationship.

Dodder attacking a sugar beet

Dodder attacking a sugar beet. Credit: Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sceinces

Westwood believes the dodder may be telling the host plant what to do, such as lowering its defenses so that the parasitic plant can more easily attack it. “The discovery of this novel form of inter-organism communication shows that this is happening a lot more than any one has previously realized,” Westwood said in a recent release. “Now that we have found that they are sharing all this information, the next question is, ‘What exactly are they telling each other?’”

Of course, creating an alien language involves more than just determining the method of communication. There’s the sentence pattern (for English, that’s Subject/Verb/Object, while in Japanese it’s Object/(particle)/Subject/Verb), vocabulary, and grammar. And you need to think outside of whatever your cultural norm is. For example, Marc Orkand, a former linguistics professor who created the Klingon language, notes in the introduction to The Klingon Dictionary:

…there are no words for greetings, such as hello, how are you, good morning, and so on. It seems apparent that such words and phrases simply do not exist in Klingon. When two Klingons meet each other (except in cases where military protocol determines behavior), if anything of an introductory nature is said, it is an expression that can best be translated as What do you want? Unlike most speakers of English, who begin conversations with greetings, inquiries about the state of health of the conversants, and remarks about the weather, Klingons tend to begin conversations by simply stating the main points.

But coming up with a unique method of communication is a good start.

References

Liebal, Katja, Waller, Bridget M., and Burrows, Anne M. 2013. Primate Communication: A Multimodal Approach. 2013, Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Okrand, Marc. The Klingon Dictionary. 1992, New York, NY: Pocket Books