Making Alien Languages Alien

Last week I had the privilege of giving a small class as part of the GenCon Writer’s Symposium. The topic was some variation on the title above, and for about an hour’s time I went through just a few of the ways in which a writer could create the feeling of aliens through language (both the one they spoke and the way they managed to utilize ours). While these ideas are still more or less fresh in my head, I thought I’d share a portion of them with you here.

Perhaps the most useful thing to keep in mind in your quest to make your aliens sound alien, is that Language (note the capital letter) can be viewed not simply as a set of rules for communicating to one another (that’s what language without the capital letter is for) but rather as the methodology by which we organize reality and determine what is and is not important in our world. Sit with that idea for a moment, really roll it around inside your head. Because if you do, you’ll quickly discover the trick to it all. Namely:

    the key to having your aliens think and act in a truly alien fashion is to tweak their language and change how they understand reality.

I recommend you attack the problem on two fronts. Select a single difference and examine how it alters the way your aliens view the universe (relative to our own organization of it) and by extension how it influences their comprehension of our own view, and the errors in understanding that result. If you’re writing humor, alien language contains everything you need for farce. If you’re writing a more serious tale, you have the seed for interplanetary conflict and annihilation. Fun either way, right?

So, if you only need to change one or two things, where do you start? Well, I’ll give you a couple gross categories (sadly, I don’t have time or space to do more) and a few examples under each of these.

Let’s start here, because really, once you’ve gone meta, you never go back. Figurative language includes not simply using simile and metaphor (two types which I’m going to assume you already have a passing familiarity with) but other forms of speech including personification, allusion, and puns, to name just three. These are all so commonplace in our language that many of you may not even realize that you’re not speaking literally at all.

Personification effortlessly violates the selection restriction rules of language and so much more. Inanimate objects suddenly possess agency. Abstract concepts acquire base human attributes. But what if your aliens lack this miracle of the nonliteral speech act? Such an alien, presented with a phrase like “opportunity is knocking at your door” would be confused to find no one at the entrance to their space craft and struggle to literally parse these words (and likely go looking for this elusive knocker of doors, who is all the more wondrous if the vessel is in space!).

Likewise, allusion works for native speakers of a language because of common experience, allowing large chunks of knowledge from popular culture to be compacted down into a single word or phrase, evoking more words than a thousand pictures. Alas, none of those words are apt to be contained in the aliens’ literal grammar. While you and I might utilize an allusion like “Darmok and Jelad at Tenagra” to indicate an anticipated success at working with our newly arrived visitors from space, at best they’ll process that reference to mean here are three proper nouns that might as well be X, Y, and Z. Useless.

And don’t get me started on the confusion and error inherent in homophony, ambiguity, and other forms of wordplay that qualify as puns because of multiple interpretations of meaning. You can’t expect your visiting aliens to have mastered all these subtleties, so be wary of the chaos that follows when you unleash even a minor double entendre. The classic example of course involves a book that is less a manual for our enlightenment as a guide to culinary adventure.

Another approach is to take a look at the requirements we have for a system to even qualify as a language. Decades ago, the linguist Charles Hockett put forth a list of likely requirements (mind you, this list was not met with complete agreement by other linguists, but then we can’t get everyone to agree on climate change even as the waters rise around our ankles). It’s a long list but sharing even a few will make the point that any of them can give you a truly alien language; all you have to do is posit that your aliens don’t have that particular feature in their language and don’t see the need for it in ours. Consider just three of them: prevarication, traditional transmission, and displacement.

Prevarication means lying. Languages allow us not only to communicate with one another, but to communicate untruths. A popular conceit for telepathy is that it lacks the ability to prevaricate (though I’ve never really understood why, when self-deception is such a popular thing). Several authors have had a lot of fun with aliens who lack any understanding of lying (C.J. Cherryh’s amazing Faded Sun trilogy immediately comes to mind), and having human beings lie to aliens creates everything from comic scenarios of selling them bridges to propaganda that incites wars. Too easy!

The idea of traditional transmission is just as simple. It refers to the notion that language is passed down from parent to child. That’s all well and good for humans who typically rear children one at a time and have years to teach them about nouns and verbs, but what if your aliens spawn by distributing thousands of fertilized eggs and moving on, leaving their potential young to be born and fend for themselves (and presumably acquire language). What does this do to their world view, or their appreciation of ours?

And last of the three I have time to share here, displacement, is the ability to speak of things that are not in front of you. It allows you to invoke referents that are not at hand. Displacement is what lets us get beyond the old adage ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ But what if your aliens cannot? What if they require the thing in front of them (or at least a symbol standing in for it) to talk about it? How will we manage to speak to the aliens if at its most basic level, their language strikes us as one big game of ‘peekaboo’?

I could go on and on (and maybe in a future post I will) but my point here is a simple one: you don’t need to be Tolkien or Okrand and create an entire language to make your aliens sound alien. You just need to pick one aspect of language — out of the thousands that exist and which we take for granted every day — and turn it on its head or just turn it off. The results will contradict much of what you know about how language is supposed to work, and just like that the aliens will have arrived.

Lawrence M. SchoenLawrence M. Schoen holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology, has been nominated for the Campbell, Hugo, Nebula, WSFS, and Cóyotl awards, is a world authority on the Klingon language, operates the small press Paper Golem, and is a practicing hypnotherapist specializing in authors’ issues.

His previous science fiction includes many light and humorous adventures of a space-faring stage hypnotist and his alien animal companion. His most recent book, Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard, takes a very different tone, exploring issues of intolerance, friendship, conspiracy, and loyalty, and redefines the continua between life and death. He lives near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with his wife and their dog.

Follow him at and on Twitter at @klingonguy.