The most historic moment in mankind’s history had finally arrived: the first face-to-face meeting between human and alien.
Her expression inscrutable, the President of the Global United Nations waited as the spaceship descended. All heads of nations were in attendance, crowded into the purpose-built amphitheatre. Hundreds of film crews jostled for space in media sections. Security and military personnel, strategically-placed, patted their weapons nervously.
The alien appeared at the spaceship entrance. Thousands present, and billions watching on every available interface around the world, inhaled. A quadruped, the size of a calf, with a snake-like neck and thin, long snout walked slowly down the ramp and up the red carpet to the waiting President. She smiled warmly and extended a hand. No one breathed.
The alien paused, then walked behind the President. Confused, she turned to face it. Security gripped their guns. Once more, the alien walked behind the President. She spun round again, looking anxiously towards her cultural advisers, who were huddled in a group, whispering. The alien hesitated and looked back towards its ship. Seemingly resolving to give it another try, it walked quickly behind the President a third time. Finally, the penny dropped (this woman wasn’t head of the Global United Nations for nothing). The President bent forward and parted her cheeks. Relieved and pleased, the alien delicately sniffed her behind.
Science fiction tends to assume that intelligent extra-terrestrial beings are not only likely to be humanoid, they’re also likely to communicate as humans do, through speech. And also, miraculously, in English, in the same way that many English-speaking tourists believe that wherever you go, someone’s bound to understand you, providing you speak slowly and loudly enough.
Our reasoning behind our assumption is weak: we’re an intelligent species, and we communicate through speech, so probably another intelligent species use speech, too. While for the foreseeable future we’re unlikely find out for sure, we only need look around at other species for some ideas as to the possibilities.
One reason humans evolved to use sound as a communication medium is because, with its wide frequency and volume range, sound can hold a large amount of information, so it makes sense that highly intelligent aliens with lots of information to convey might use sound, too. But there’s no particular reason they should speak as humans do, by exhaling through vocal chords then shaping the formed sound with throat, tongue and lips. Many animals produce sound using other body parts, rubbing, banging, vibrating or rattling themselves to convey meaning…
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