From the archive: How (not) to talk to aliens, and the challenges of extraterrestrial languages Mark Newbrook The Skeptic

This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 17, Issue 4, from 2006.

Mary Rodwell runs a UFO abductee/contactee support group in Perth, Western Australia, and produces associated print materials, videos, etc., aimed at promoting and endorsing extraterrestrial interpretations of the reported experiences and at supporting experiencers who embrace this kind of interpretation. Her book Awakening: How Extraterrestrial Contact Can Transform Your Life (Rodwell, 2002) represents a recent major piece of ‘Rodwelliana’.

Rodwell is, of course, entitled to her own view of how such reports are to be interpreted and of how these matters should be handled. But the nature of the book hinders critical assessment of her claims: it has a popular and often an emotional tone which militates against scepticism or even neutral scientific analysis and discourages the consideration of alternative hypotheses. Some of her procedures simply exclude such views, and she certainly does not treat the standard sceptical points at all fairly. In fact, Rodwell seems to think that scepticism insults the reporters by treating them as unreliable or even of unsound mind, whereas she herself believes that they often have advanced psychological/psychic abilities. (Of course, this does not follow: there is a difference between taking people seriously and accepting their stories as literally true.)

In contrast, Rodwell accepts without debate many alleged phenomena which are heavily disputed for want of persuasive evidence and in some cases are rejected by almost all the relevant scholars, such as the reality of ‘ancient astronauts’, UFO-related implants, ‘missing pregnancies’, psychic phenomena and powers, etc., etc. And she often provides little or no solid evidence for her own (dramatic) claims; nor does she provide references. Scientists will gather that no careful treatment is to be expected from her, and it can hardly be seen as surprising or disreputable if they ignore her material. Linguistic issues are potentially important in this area and my own introduction to Rodwell’s work involved her video on the subject. The treatment of language in this present book is rather more limited, but some comments are in order.

Firstly, some claims made (repeated from other sources) are so dramatic that very strong evidence is required if they are to be accepted. One excellent example of this involves Leir’s claims regarding the advanced linguistic abilities of some human infants identified as ‘Star Children’. Some of these claims would, if true, revolutionise the study of child language acquisition; the most dramatic of all is the claim that some babies are able to read. But I know of no properly conducted experiments which would demonstrate or even suggest that such things occur, nor of any child language acquisition experts who take these claims at all seriously.

Secondly, forms presented as spoken and written alien language are discussed in the (largely self-reported) case studies, notably that of Tracey Taylor, who also appears prominently on Rodwell’s video. Taylor includes this material in an account of her lifelong pattern of experiences. Much of the discussion is subjective in tone, involving Taylor’s ‘feelings’ about the meanings of her experiences and her artistic and (quasi-) linguistic responses to them. The material is generated by means of automatic writing, however this may be interpreted, and Taylor links this process with an intuitively

and experientially derived ‘theory’ of the nature of the aliens whom she regards as responsible.

Unfortunately, few of the linguistic comments made here are specific enough to permit proper analysis or testing. The written material produced by Taylor and another contactee and provided here in plates (more is seen on the video) is described as ‘hieroglyphic’, although it is not clear what Taylor thinks this term means generally, or what it is supposed to mean in this context. It has the appearance of text written ‘grassstroke’ style in a range of large alphabets, syllabaries, or (parts of) logographies. There is too little material in each sample to be more confident, especially in the absence of useful translations.

Taylor is reported as being able to write in more than one ‘unusual’ script (presumably in otherwise unknown languages; but few non-linguists make this distinction clearly). She can also reportedly speak in several ‘strange’ languages and ascribe meaning to some of this material and to her experience-inspired artwork. She adds that she and other experiencers regularly acquire such languages and, in due course, the ability to translate them into human languages without conscious learning. Unfortunately, evidence that these claims hold up and that these languages are genuine is not presented here, which is a huge omission given the very dramatic nature of the claims.

The corroboration reported by Taylor from other members of her groups is too vague and too informal to be taken seriously. For example, the comments about ‘ancient symbols’ found in temples and pyramids and about similarities between Taylor’s material and ‘hieroglyphic text’ are far too vague to be of use, and it is not at all clear that the people who were commenting had any intellectual authority in this area.

The samples of Taylor’s spoken material on Rodwell’s video appear to resemble glossolalia (‘speaking in tongues’), in which case the material is probably merely phonetic rather than linguistic and thus is not meaningful (though such phenomena are still very interesting in themselves). It is striking in this context that some of the sequences are reminiscent of Japanese, a language to which Taylor has been exposed. (I identified this as a possibility before learning that Taylor had lived in Japan.) It is characteristic of glossolalia and the like that the vast majority of the sounds produced are drawn from languages known or familiar to the speaker. A further reason for supposing that this present case involves glossolalia or a similar phenomenon rather than a genuine alien language derives from the fact that all the sounds used are familiar from human languages – and indeed not even confined to obscure languages unlikely to be known to speakers or their acquaintances. Genuine non-human (and non-terrestrial) languages would be expected to manifest different phonetic ranges.

If useful translations (preferably morpheme-by-morpheme) were provided for any of this material (spoken or written), it is possible that this kind of negative judgment might be proved mistaken. In this case, the material might be deemed genuinely linguistic and the issue would then be whether the language was indeed from an alien source, as claimed, or was of human invention. However, as will be seen, this sort of evidence appears unlikely to be produced.

In her summary, Rodwell herself raises some of these partly linguistic issues at a more general level. She reports that various viewers of her video have stated that they recognise some of the symbolism and linguistic material, suggesting a commonality of experience transcending the often very different locales and specific events involved. Some of these viewers also state that they find speaking the alien languages which they have acquired very enjoyable and indeed more natural than speaking their own first languages. Given these very strong claims, it is again unfortunate that no better evidence for them has yet been seen.

Another passage is, however, even more unfortunate in its implications. Rodwell quotes Taylor as making a number of highly obscure and/or implausible claims about the alien languages and as drawing further conclusions from these points which are inevitably contentious in the extreme. Then, in the middle of this passage, Taylor makes a more readily interpretable claim which is apparently associated with some of the above claims and which has very dramatic upshots. She states that in these alien languages “there is no preconceived idea or concept about what a particular sound actually means because this type of language is not structured in the way the English language is”. One assumes that she means here to contrast the alleged alien languages with all human languages rather than with English specifically, because the gist of this claim is that these languages cannot be analysed as human languages can. The claim is already incoherent, because individual sounds (as noted above) are themselves meaningless in human languages too; as expressed here, the contrast is

thus invalid. But the importance ascribed by Taylor to this point suggests that she means by the term sounds to refer to morphemes; her next comment, indeed, is “a particular sound or word is not related to a particular description or meaning” (my italics). Taylor then indicates (in her own words) that this means (as indeed it surely would mean) that the meaning of each utterance could not be related to that of earlier utterances and would have to be (somehow) arrived at intuitively (?) and presumably ‘holistically’ on each occasion.

The most damaging aspect of this passage is that it is implied (and indeed this is further hinted at by Rodwell herself) that analysis of these alien languages – no matter how sophisticated and free of advance assumptions based on the nature of human languages – is most unlikely to succeed. Such analysis would be more or less impossible, because morphemes with constant meanings could not be identified, and larger morphological and syntactic structures with more complex meanings could not be analysed as composed of these morphemes in significant specific orders and relationships (linear or other). (This is the normal practice in analysing previously unanalysed human languages or – suitably modified – other communication systems.)

However, it appears unlikely in the extreme that all this could be true. Any system which is recognisable as a language in the first place must thereby (by definition) have a complex and largely stable and well-defined structure of this kind (in general terms). That is the kind of thing that a language is. Languages (and indeed virtually all communication systems) depend upon the repetition of meaningful units. No ‘holistic’ interpretations unrelated to earlier texts are possible (although sometimes naive non-linguists using their first languages may perhaps have the subjective impression that this is happening). It is difficult to see how even a genuinely alien language could differ in such a fundamental respect and still be usable for its native speakers or for anyone else. Members of another species which really had the psychological abilities which this implies (assuming that these are possible in principle!) would presumably not need or use language. And it is not clear how they could succeed (or why they would expect to succeed) in using systems of this kind to communicate with humans, given our own psychological and linguistic capabilities and habits.

It is true that even human languages vary a great deal in structural terms, and a genuinely alien language might well be very much more differently structured, perhaps in some relatively fundamental ways in respect of which human languages do not differ. Analysis of such radically novel systems might be very difficult and error-prone (especially with access only to human learners, not to native users). But this would not necessarily be an impossible task in principle. The point that humans who are naïve non-linguists can allegedly learn and use such languages would itself suggest that the differences would not be as great as might be logically possible or even probable – or as great as Taylor and Rodwell suggest in denying that the languages are morphologically structured. In this context one should note that (as stated) the phonetics, which can be observed directly and thus described readily without any comprehension, are unremarkable.

However, it is also true that any ‘system’ which was presented as a language but which in fact really did have no largely stable and well-defined structure could not be analysed (or at least could not be analysed using any techniques currently known). In such a case, no quasilinguistic claims made about this ‘language’ (e.g. about the meanings of sequences in it) could be empirically tested, and all such claims would be immune from scientific scrutiny (unless and until wholly new principles of analysis could be developed; but this would appear unlikely to occur).

One cannot be blamed for suspecting that claims of this kind might have been developed with the aim of preventing scientific analysis of this material and thus blocking any possible demonstration that the nature of the material was (or might very well be) not as described (non-linguistic, concocted, etc). This would certainly be the actual effect of adopting such a position; nothing useful could be said about such material (other than about the phonetics).

However, once again, the onus is, in fact, upon those making these dramatic claims to justify them or at least to co-operate in rendering them testable. If the systems identified as alien languages are such that the associated claims can be tested, they should be so presented. If the claims are really untestable, their advocates must realise that these systems will be of limited interest to linguists and other scientists, and that these scholars are liable to adopt (legitimately) the default interpretation that the alien languages are not genuine. In order to determine the real situation, we must obtain a reasonably sized corpus of data in each such language and be allowed to work with those who claim ability in it, so as to determine its actual structure.

Rodwell does refer to the critical work of Gary Anthony and his associates (one of whom is myself) on

the linguistic aspects of her case. Her comments are perfunctory and somewhat loosely phrased. She seems inclined to fluctuate between what may be an over-optimistic expectation that work of this kind will ‘validate’ her claims and a defensive stance grounded in the evasive-sounding claims mentioned above. A reader might not obtain a clear idea of the real nature and force of this critical work from Rodwell’s own statements. I therefore repeat here that, as we stated in our article in the MUFON Journal (Anthony & Newbrook, 2002), we are very willing to examine any alleged language of this kind with open minds – but with suitable rigour.

In summary, Rodwell and her supporters will need to provide much better evidence – including evidence arising from such analysis as Anthony and I might conduct – before the balance of probability renders her case sufficiently interesting to warrant further focused attention. Like many writers in this area, they do not seem to realise that apparently outrageous claims such as these are simply not going to be accepted without very specific, very strong evidence. If I see such evidence,

my interest will be re-kindled.


Anthony, G., & Newbrook, M. (2002). Alien communication: An intriguing puzzle. MUFON Journal, 411

(July), 3–6.

Rodwell, M. (2002). Awakening: How Extraterrestrial Contact Can Transform Your Life. Leeds: Fortune Books. 18

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From the archives in 2006, Mark Newbrook ponders the complexities of extraterrestrial languages
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