By Fred McNamara, British Science Festival

For decades, science fiction has tasked itself with projecting a vision of the world that traverses fiction and reality. Whether that be the socialist, utopian space exploration of Star Trek or how the Supermarionation worlds of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson depict futuristic technology as the great unifier, sci-fi has always had fun fusing the reality of science with the fantasy of fiction.

Beyond depictions of the future, science fiction can help us to understand linguistics of the present and the past. That’s the argument Dr. Hannah Little of the University of the West of England made during her talk on sci-fi influences on evolutionary linguistics. Throughout her lecture, Hannah made use of aliens and zombies as examples of how human beings develop communications between each other. However, before diving into faraway worlds and apocalyptic landscapes, we first must clarify how human beings establish a communication system in the first place.

Hannah explained that communication isn’t the most tangible aspect of the human mind to unbox. It isn’t fossilised, so it can’t be simply dug up and examined. Instead, we must make use of other human beings around us to discern the mechanics of communication. Establishing communication between two people is dependent on a variety of factors – the age of the two people, their gender, social background etc. A person can forge instant and easy communication if they share the exact same qualities as the second person. Therefore, communication trickles down into more restrictive means when more of these barriers are placed between the humans.

This segues into the largest of barriers one can place between two people – worlds. An alien and a human being could have the most complicated time in communicating with each other, due to neither party having any prior information as to how each other communicates. Without a shared language, we may attempt to establish a link by drawing or gesturing an activity, but an alien may communicate through any sort of sensory capabilities.

Our own understanding of communicating through sound and gesture is the source of debate among scientists, boiling down to the age-old argument of which came first - sound or gesture?

Hannah proceeded to turn the audience into guinea pigs as she demonstrated an experiment devised by Marcus Perlman. Marcus developed an experiment in which he offered £1,000 to anyone capable of creating specific sounds for individual words. His argument was that a sound exists for every meaning in the English language. Hannah extended this mentality by suggesting that when humans reproduce sounds made by other humans, it loses its uniqueness, the result being that recreating sound has perhaps less to do with how something may genuinely sound and instead is based on how comfortable it is for the individual to produce the sound.

Moving onto language, Hannah combined Star Trek’s Klingon language with ‘universal grammar’ by explaining how linguistics are often split into two camps – those who believe every language that currently exists is the same, and those who do not. She expanded upon Noam Chonsky’s suggestion of ‘universal grammar’ by asking if humans could learn language if it was different to what we have on Earth today. She suggested we abandon the human tongue and opt for the alien one, which Hannah often uses when conducting experiments with her undergraduate students. Hannah used Klingon as an example due to it being an alien language despite being produced by, and for, the human tongue to project. Hannah’s experiments involving alien language then demonstrated what humans are capable of and how we have evolved linguistically.

From aliens to zombies, Hannah went on to use the Urban Dead, a massively-multiplayer zombie browser game, to further demonstrate human’s linguistic capabilities. Anyone familiar with a zombie apocalypse scenario may instantly think of the humans, with their in-tune powers of communication, far and above the zombies, who we think of has having no communicative abilities whatsoever. When showing the audience the game however, Hannah revealed how fans of the game had developed a serious of languages to communicate with when playing as zombies within the game. Zomban, Zombese, Zombish and Zamgrh are all languages commonly used within the Urban Dead.

Concluding the experiment with a Zamgrh translation of the Rock Astley classic ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’, Hannah’s delightfully entertaining lecture demonstrates how languages used by aliens and zombies can be utilised in dissecting a more human approach to understanding linguistics.

Find out more about the British Science Festival here.