In the following essay, Anassa Rhenisch discusses why alien languages will have almost nothing in common with human tongues...and why alien forms of communication could eschew language altogether.
Contrary to Hollywood and the majority of fictional languages, alien languages are almost certainly not going to look like human ones. They're not going to have the same sounds, the same word orders, or the same way of solving problems like time, direction, and ownership. Why? Because human DNA and culture help determine what human languages look like, and aliens will, by definition, not share that background.
That's not to say there won't be similarities, though. Because language is a communication system and therefore has to convey information efficiently, there are some facts that won't change.
The ability to use language will be coded in the aliens' genes. Either the aliens evolved language and have basic linguistic structures in their brains at birth, or every individual has to independently invent the language from scratch. With humans, we call this nativism and it applies to a whole range of mental traits, not just language.
A corollary of having language hard-wired is that other brain "structures" will affect what the language(s) look like, because everything's likely using the same neural pathways. Unfortunately, we're still trying to figure out exactly where language overlaps with other pathways in humans, so I can't give examples that aren't personal conjecture. Let's just say that if an alien fundamentally perceives the world differently, its language is going to reflect that difference.
A second corollary is that members of the same species can learn any language spoken by that species, because the neural pathways will be the same. (A different species, such as humans, could have tremendous, even insurmountable difficulties learning these languages, and the aliens, ours.)
A species that has multiple languages, or has had its language evolve significantly, is going to have "encoded" more linguistic structures in its brain than any one language uses. This means that languages spoken by the same species do not have to be similar, and that even related languages can have big differences because a different element of code was chosen. French, Spanish, Catalan, and Romanian were all Latin two thousand years ago.
An alien language will be organized, because without syntax and/or word building, there's no way of knowing who did what to whom where when, meaning that communication's negated or at least significantly hindered. An efficient language is going to get the point across as simply as possible, and meaning comes across much easier if the order of information is predictable. This means there'll be rules for word order or word formation, possibly both. However, those rules may look nothing like even the least common patterns in human languages. A sentence transliterated as "the bit dog man the" could be perfectly acceptable.
Ordering sounds may or may not occur. Why order sounds? Because some carry over distances better than others, and it's easier to hear soft-loud-soft or loud-loud even at close range than it is to hear soft-soft or soft-softer-soft. It's also possible, but not certain, that there will be vastly different sounds in the same language (b vs. ee vs. sh) because again, it's easier to distinguish words when they're not all variations of tkktt. This is, of course, assuming that aliens will be sensitive to variations in amplitude and frequency, like humans, and that they'll use sound for communication.
There will likely be ways to combine and recombine "clauses" and "phrases" to form different patterns with different meanings-reporting speech, for instance, or passive voice. Again, this is to simplify communication. Why create an entirely new string of words or sounds when a good one's already been laid out? Does anyone need an entirely new string of sounds for every possible sentence?
On Culture and Language Change
On Earth, languages change over time and differ between areas. The longer a group of speakers is separated from another, or the longer they're exposed to other linguistic influences, the more distinct their speech will be from other speakers of their language. The changes are somewhat counteracted by socio-political pressures (upward mobility, government mandates, education, and so on), but dialects and new languages do develop. This will likely happen on other planets too.
Because language is a means of communication, it's not going to develop in places where people have no need to communicate. Lone wanderers will not create language. Tribes will.
Finally, and I know this has be said elsewhere before this: aliens will have words for concepts and objects important to them and in their world, but not for unfamiliar concepts and objects. For those, they will need to invent or borrow words.
Humans have two kinds of language: spoken languages, which use sound waves, and gestural (sign) languages, which use light waves and images. Other species on our planet communicate through chemicals (insects, plants, fungi), though those systems aren't nearly complex enough to be called languages. Aliens also won't be limited to the same systems as we are, because they'll come from a different evolutionary path. Taste, touch, and smell are equally possible, along with systems based on abilities humans don't have, such as telepathy or electric impulses.
Some of these possible systems aren't going to allow for the same kinds of segmentation human languages enjoy. Trying to describe "speech sound" to a scent-speaker or "word" to a telepath is going to be difficult.
Aliens aren't going have the same kinds of syntax, the same kinds of word structures, or the same kinds of grammatical elements (-prepositions, cases, gender…) as humans do. They have a different culture and biological background and can therefore develop other ways of referring to the world and indicating relationships. Perhaps it's not location that's important, but moment in time. There's be no word for "on", but there'd be words or affixes for any time relationship you could think of.
Societies influence languages. Words, ideas, and ways of speaking can become taboo and be edited out of the language. Governments can use education and the law to enforce certain forms over others. Societies that lack moral codes or have a highly sophisticated concept of direction are going to have whole sets of words, structures, and solutions that other societies won't. Similarly, living in five dimensions is going to alter your worldview.
Sentient aliens don't need a language. Communication, certainly, but not a language. Civilizations will most likely have language, though, because of the distances and degree of communication required.
It's entirely possible that an alien civilization could develop with solely non-linguistic communication or a proto-language. I'm too steeped in human linguistics to see how, but I can't discount the possibility.
When I use words like "word" and "speaker", I mean the regular definition as well as the parallel meaning for languages not based on sound waves and the human brain.
Because I am taking human languages as my reference point whether I like it or not, I will have introduced biases into this essay based on what's logical and definite to me. An alien (possibly another human) could read what I've written and prove me wrong.
It's my hope that by delineating what humans will recognize in alien languages, I'll inspire a completely non-human language. If we're not limiting ourselves to human-like biologies, why stick to human-like languages?
Bibliography and Links
Jackendoff, Ray. Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution. Oxford University Press, 2003.
This post originally appeared on I Like A Little Science In My Fiction.