So, I was thinking, if we have the tech to store information for billions of years (which we strangely enough do - I'm talking about the 5D storage devices), what if we store a vast collection of books, only for some intelligent life(AI, extraterrestrials, or even humans) to find the information( retrieve said 5D crystals) to realize that they have no idea about the language, whatsoever?

Can they hope to translate the information? My guess would be not, but then, can we write a book (or video, other media etc.) that can teach you fluent English without using any other language - just English and pictures, sounds, videos, math formulas and such?

  • The Rosetta Stone Language Learning courses attempt to teach languages without translation. They are somewhat effective for some people. But your question is unanswerable because we have no idea what kind of language faculties these hypothetical beings would possess.
    – Juhasz
    Commented Apr 27, 2021 at 20:56
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    In the 1950s and 60s, I A Richards wrote a series of language teaching books called (language) Through Pictures, which attempted to teach languages in just that way. I have no idea how successful they were. I do remember working through Hebrew Through Pictures and giving up when I encountered a page of impenetrable text that I later learnt was laying out the paradigm of a Hebrew verb.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Apr 27, 2021 at 21:23
  • I remember that one. It's filed in my memory as Ivrit bitmunot
    – jlawler
    Commented Apr 27, 2021 at 23:01
  • As far as the question is concerned, the answer is that it all depends on who encounters it. If they're H. sapiens, our species, they have a prayer. If not, it's conceivable, but very unlikely, that some other species could decipher human language or text without some representative human to explain, or at least to examine. We encounter aliens every day but we still can't speak daisy or bacteria or even ant. See Ursula Le Guin's story "The Author of the Acacia Seeds"
    – jlawler
    Commented Apr 27, 2021 at 23:07
  • View these two questions and their answers: linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/34083/… and linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/19837/… It is an extremely hard task for humans and human language, adding another species makes it even harder. Commented Apr 30, 2021 at 11:37

2 Answers 2


Perhaps. The strategy for doing this involves incrementally developing shared knowledge, starting with the document itself (establishing "letters", "pictures" and "sounds"), so that they will know that 11100110 is the letter "W" (I assume that EBCDIC will have made a comeback by the time this project is undertaken). The Arecibo Message took a stab at constructing a short message that could be deciphered by any being with advanced knowledge of mathematics and chemistry. Thereafter, the task is to present pairings of pictures that resemble the referent, and some linguistic string (perhaps a phonetic transcription or spelling).

Communicating the referent of "dog" will be challenging and would probably take a number of chapters, since just a picture of a husky would not inform the recipient that a samoyed or chihuahua is also a dog, and a coyote, wolf or cat is not a dog. The ability to embed mp4's in the book will be especially important to convey the meaning of most verbs. The reason why I think that an intelligent species can figure out sound-meaning correlations from noticing that the sound "dog" is correlated with certain pictures is that human children learn their language from observing such correlations.

There might be cognitive impediments to the aliens understanding this document, for example the Talosians might not understand that some species communicate using a sound-based code rather than direct thought transfer. It might be difficult to grasp words like "eat" in case the recipients are photovoltaically-enabled amoebas that just absorb energy directly from the sun.

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    And perhaps not. As Wittgenstein put it, "If lions could speak, we couldn't understand them." Human language has H. sapiens splashed all over it, from the sonic range to the social habits to the body images in metaphors. Too many presuppositions.
    – jlawler
    Commented Apr 28, 2021 at 22:57

I will give my answer to my question, the way I see it, but bear in mind that I am not a linguist, or even a mathematician or a physicist, I am just a computer programmer who likes to learn about futurism.

In my opinion, we can definitely conduct any scientific knowledge we wish, as long as it is not related to our psychology and culture.

As showed by the voyager spacecraft, and the Arecibo message, which I didn't thought of at first. But yeah, we start by a calibration circle, then with some universal constant, then we define all the math and physics, we show chemistry of life, pictures of blueprints and stuff. Sure, if it is aliens that find the info cache, they would have a hard time figuring out how we used some of our inventions, but they will have the inventions none the less, and with a good system of organization for all human knowledge (witch we still lack by the way), we can describe it all, we can even describe the syntax of a language by using the Backus–Naur forms.

But we will not be able to conduct the meaning of most of the words of a language, especially of verbs and adjectives, as those tend to be mostly related to our inner motivation and our perception of the world. We can try, and with some success probably, but their understanding of our culture and the way our minds work will be, at best, very rudimentary and misguided. That is, until we figure out a way to perfectly map human brains into neural networks they might simulate, in order to have the next best thing to living humans, that can be thought their language and teach them about our culture, and while at that, why not save genomes, that can be used to recreate the actual human beings?

Bottom line, I believe that most of our scientific knowledge can be preserved in a readable manner for other species to decode, but our culture can't, nor can languages be thought well without translation to beings that are not very similar to us - that is, human languages that involve more than just pure logic - programming languages and other descriptive languages can.

On the other hand, I don't know how feasible it is to teach humans a language by examples, but I think it is very difficult, even if somewhat feasible.

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