Sheri Wells-Jensen, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of English and Co-Director of the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) Program at Bowling Green State University (BGSU). She also coordinates BGSU's minor in Linguistics. Dr. Wells-Jensen is a linguist whose research interests are in psycholinguistics (especially errors in speech), language preservation, braille, phonetics, and xenolinguistics.
Before we can begin to hypothesize about any extraterrestrial language, we must examine our basis for understanding what language is. We should examine what we know—and, even more important, what we presume—about language.One approach linguistics has taken is to look deeply into the structure of a single language with the goal of capturing its essence in a series of descriptive principles; this approach assumes that each Earth language has within it a "universal" set of rules that characterize all potential human languages. Another approach would be to study the 7,000 or so known Earth languages to identify what all of them have in common and distill the set of descriptive principles from there.Unfortunately, both approaches are quite human-centric, and even with a dataset of 7,000 languages to work with, we still have effectively only one data point. Still, defining this single data point is useful because we can't think outside the box until we have identified the box. With this in mind, what we could do is examine those 7,000 languages to establish what is rare among them or what they all lack: That is, what presuppositions do they all make? What things are unsaid, or even unsayable, because these things are too obvious, too obscure, or somehow foreign to human cognition? We cannot know which of our assumptions about language might be natural outgrowths of intelligence and therefore truly universal, and which result from specifically human factors; the best we can do at this point is lay out the possibilities.