Humanity hasn’t yet made contact with extraterrestrial life, but that hasn’t stopped some people from thinking about how aliens might communicate. A few linguists have gone as far as creating constructed languages (a.k.a. conlangs) that imagine what alien languages, or exolangs, could sound and look like. Here are six exolangs that, rather than being created for pop culture media—such as Star Trek’s Klingon—have been crafted to test the limits of language, to talk to potential interstellar beings, or simply for fun.
Some exolangs adhere to the universal properties of human grammar, so Jeffrey Henning decided to, in his own words, “invent a language that specifically violated linguistic universals and could never be spoken by a human in actual practice.” His inspiration for how to break grammar standards came from two places: postfix notation calculators (which require users to type “2 4 +” instead of “2 + 4”) and the computer language Forth (from which Fith takes its name), both of which use a Last-In-First-Out stack structure.
That structure means that words in Fith are often spoken long before their meaning and role in a sentence is defined. While it’s possible for humans to translate Fith in its written form, we could never speak or understand it being spoken in real time because of the limitations of human memory. Spoken Fith is also combined with a hand signal, which humans can’t mimic because Fithians have two thumbs on each hand (they also happen to be marsupial-like creatures!).
Here’s an example from Fith: Zhong hong lin lo, which literally translates to “nation man loyal of.” The positions of the words in the stack—zhong on the bottom, lo on the top—tell us how they relate to each other. Adjectives modify the noun directly below them, so lin (“loyal”) right above hong (“man”) means “loyal man.” With a postposition like lo (“of”), the nearest noun below it will come before it. The second-nearest noun below it will come after it. So it’s loyal man of [the] nation. That four-word phrase is short enough that you could probably translate and reorder its components in your head—but it gets exponentially more complicated the longer the stack gets.
A visual representation of this specific stack can be seen on the website of linguist David J. Peterson, who has created languages for movies and TV shows including Game of Thrones and The Witcher. Peterson gives out an annual award called the Smiley Award for the best conlang; Fith took the trophy in 2019.
Jörg Rhiemeier created a simplified version of Fith, called Shallow Fith, which could be spoken by humans (although it would sound reductive to Fithians). Shallow Fith removes most of the grammatical conjunctions and limits the depth that stacks can reach.
Rikchik was thought up by Denis Moskowitz and is the language he conceived would be spoken by rikchiks, imaginary, green, one-eyed aliens from a planet in Alpha Centauri—the closest star system to Earth at a little over four light-years away. Moskowitz’s rikchiks can’t hear, but they do have a lot of tentacles—49 total!—seven of which are used as arms instead of legs, enabling them to communicate via sign language.
Humans, who lack the necessary number of appendages, would only be able to communicate with these creatures using their logographic written language. Each Rikchik word is made up of four parts: the “morpheme,” or basic meaning, goes in the center; the “aspect,” which indicates whether the word is a verb, a place, animate or inanimate, etc., goes in the bottom left; the “collector,” which explains how the word is connected to other words in the sentence, is on the bottom right; and the “relation,” similar to case, is at the top.
Unlike human sign language, which often uses the motion of gestures to give meaning, Rikchik signs are static (at the 2009 Language Creation Conference, however, Moskowitz said he’s “not ruling [motion] out”). Rikchik won the 2012 Smiley Award, with Peterson commenting, “it’s rare to come across [a conlang] that strays so far from the norm as to be completely unique.”
Dritok, created by Don Boozer, grew out of a simple idea: “I wonder if you could actually make a language that sounds like that little chipping noise you do when you imitate a chipmunk.” Boozer proved that it was possible, but the result isn’t so simple. Dritok is a voiceless and vowel-less language that uses clicks, hisses, snorts, and fricatives instead of creating sound by vibrating vocal cords. When questioned by Michael Norman of cleveland.com about the word Dritok containing vowels, Boozer explained that it’s “the way neighboring cultures would say it.”
Dritok is spoken by creatures called Drusheks, which lack vocal cords, have large tails, and are great leapers. Handily, another species, called Tylnor, has a phonetic system that’s closer to human language, and so there are two transcription systems. Phonetic-Gestural Transcription (PGT) is as phonetically close as possible to Dritok as spoken by Drusheks, while Umod Phonetic Transcription (UPT) pronounces the language as well as most humans (and Tylnors) could manage. The name of the language is tr’.z*w in PGT and dry.tok in UPT [PDF].
The other component of the language is hand gestures, of which there are 50 variations. These are written in upper case, so a full sentence looks like this: “tr’w.cq.=P4=C3^Q3-pln.t’.” (“The Drushek, he holds a cloak.”) At the 2007 Language Creation Conference, Boozer gave a demonstration of how the language sounds.
Lingua francas are languages that act as a bridge between people who don’t share a native tongue, such as Plains Indian Sign Language. Mathematician Hans Freudenthal took this idea further by creating a lingua cosmica, or Lincos for short, which was intended to act as a bridge to communicate with extraterrestrials.
Freudenthal detailed his seminal math-based language in the 1960 book Lincos: Design of a Language for Cosmic Intercourse. Lincos aims to explain to aliens how humans see the world and begins by sending pulses that correspond to numerals: “·” for 1 and “· ·” for 2. Basic mathematical symbols would then be transmitted: “· · > ·,” for example, represents the phrase 2 is greater than 1. The complexity ramps up until ETs should be able to understand complicated subjects and behavior, like love.
The caveat to this cosmic bridge language, as admitted by its creator, is that the alien must be “humanlike as to his mental state.” This may seem like a tall order, but in The Equations of Life: How Physics Shapes Evolution (2018), astrobiologist Charles Cockell argues that the laws of physics guide biological evolution and as those laws apply across the universe, life on other planets wouldn’t be too dissimilar to life on Earth. But there isn’t scientific consensus on this; paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for example, took the opposite view: “We are just one of an infinite number of possibilities,” he told The New York Times in 1989.
Regardless, Lincos has formed the basis of real messages sent out into space by SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) scientists. “The metalanguage par excellence is mathematics because it is the base of science, and any civilization that has built a device to listen to radio waves knows science,” astrophysicist Stéphane Dumas explained to The Atlantic in 2016. Dumas, along with Yvan Dutil, beamed Lincos-inspired radio signals into the stars in 1999 and 2003.
Peter Bleackley’s alien language iljena was actually inspired by another exolang, Sylvia Sotomayor’s Kēlen. Often described as a verbless language, Kēlen actually splits the syntactic and semantic functions of verbs. Bleackley went in the other direction with his language, making every noun also act as a verb.
At the 2015 Language Creation Conference, Bleackley said that he imagines the speakers of his language, called “Leyen,” as having “sensory hairs—vibrissae—all over their bodies, similar to cats’ whiskers.” This biological trait makes them hyperaware of even subtle changes in airflow and so “they see themselves as being immersed in an active world.” As a result, to them, “everything is doing something, and the structure of their language reflects that.”
The noun part of an iljena word takes the form of a triconsonantal root—which is borrowed from Semitic languages, a group that includes Arabic and Hebrew—and is viewed by Leyen as the word’s body. These three consonants are interspersed with vowels, which form the verb (or spirit) of the word. For example, the word iljena is a combination of the body (or noun) ljn (“Leyen”) with the spirit (or verb pattern) i12e3a (“speak”). “Leyen say that human words are like corpses and ghosts, because the bodies and spirits of the words are separate,” Bleackley explains on his website.
The roots of Austrian psychoanalyst Wolfgang John Weilgart’s language aUI go back to his childhood, when he supposedly had a vision of an alien that spoke to him in a language of semantic clarity. Then, when Nazi propaganda swept Germany in the 1930s and ’40s, he believed—and disliked—that the slogans used associative sounds to subconsciously influence people. For instance, in the phrase Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer! (“One People, One Nation, One Leader!”), the word Volk has a similar pronunciation to folg, which means “follow” or “obey.”
Weilgart thought a transparent language that lacked the inconsistency caused by sound and meaning not always aligning—such as homophones not always being synonyms—could help his patients find mental clarity. In a 1958 issue of International Language Review, he outlined aUI, which he believed could be learned in a matter of hours, even by aliens. He dubbed it “the language of space.”
aUI comprises 31 symbols representing core concepts that can be combined to create other meanings. Take the name of the language, for example: aUI (pronounced “ah-oo-ee”), which can also be written as “O△~,” translates to “space-mind-sound,” with mind-sound combining to mean “language.” Weilgart expanded his explanation of aUI in the books Cosmic Elements of Meaning (1975) and aUI: The Language of Space (1979).