Imagine it’s the year 2500, and scientists at some NASA-like space agency are waiting to hear back from the first colonists to ever travel to another planetary system. The spaceship took off 200 years earlier, and rather than put the travelers into a state of suspended animation and risk biological damage or equipment malfunction, several generations have been living and dying and reproducing on board, propagating the human line along the way. Communication with them has been minimal, given the vast distances involved: By trip’s end, a radio message at light speed takes more than a decade to reach Earth, and a reply then takes another 10 years. But based on future-NASA’s calculations, word of the colonists’ landing should be coming any day now.
Suddenly, it arrives! It’s the first message from human beings to be warmed by another sun. The scientists crowd around their screens, eager for the news.
There’s just one problem: The message is indecipherable. It’s not that it’s corrupted; it looks like real language, and familiar phrases pop out here and there. But the message is littered with strange words in unexpected order, as well as words with odd suffixes and prefixes and phrases that don’t mean anything to the scientists; the grammar, syntax, and vocabulary all seem off. Their stomachs clench as they realize the truth: The colonists’ very language has mutated, and we Earthlings can no longer understand what they’re saying.
Usually when we think about linguistics and space travel, it’s an Arrival-type scenario that requires communicating with extraterrestrials. But given the mutability of language, future space explorers could face an even more fundamental problem: Their language could shift so much on the journey out that people back on Earth sound alien to them, and vice versa. Even if we avoid the full disaster of mutual incomprehensibility, some communication issues will inevitably arise, because a spaceship is a perfect Petri dish for accelerated language change.
For one thing, language changes when people find themselves in new social situations, because they need new ways of describing their reality. Living your entire life inside a rocket ship certainly qualifies as novel. Language also mutates quickly when a small group of speakers is isolated for an extended time—and no one in human history would be more isolated than the colonists.
Finally, people often intentionally change their language as a mark of distinction—a way to brand themselves one of us, not one of them. (Even nowadays, if tensions arise during a space mission or habitat simulation, it’s rarely an issue of astronauts fighting among themselves. Rather, the astronauts tend to band together against Mission Control.) Given that they’re never coming back to Earth, space colonists would likely feel even more bound to one another and less beholden to earthly norms. Adopting new forms of language is a natural way to exhibit that.
So, given that isolation and new social circumstances will change the colonists’ language, what kinds of changes might we expect?
Some will no doubt be subtle. Consider uptalk? The habit of ending every sentence with a rising pitch? Uptalk started among certain groups of Australians in the 1980s and soon went global. But while a space analogue to uptalk might strike Earthlings as strange, it wouldn’t hinder communication that much. The same goes for new vocabulary that the colonists develop on the journey, perhaps from jury-rigged technologies or new interstellar features they encountered. If these words were derivatives or portmanteaus of familiar words, context clues could illuminate the meaning.
Other changes would take more getting used to. In a recent paper titled “Language Development During Interstellar Travel,” linguists Andrew McKenzie and Jeffrey Punske point out that people 200 years ago commonly used constructions like “The road is currently building.” Today, that sounds ungrammatical and odd. We’d say “The road is being built” instead.
Pronunciation tends to shift over time as well, they note. Between about 1400 and 1600, the English language underwent what’s grandly called the Great Vowel Shift. Before the shift, the a in tame sounded like the a in father, and teem used to rhyme with our modern fame, among other differences. Then everything shifted, for reasons that remain unclear. It’s likely that only one or two vowels shifted at first, but several others then followed suit to make each one clearly distinguishable. In total, this cleaved English into barely intelligible camps of Before and After.
As a result, while we can still understand Shakespeare four centuries after he wrote, Geoffrey Chaucer’s English from circa 1400 looks indecipherable. In Chaucer’s time, spelling was less standard and people often simply transliterated pronunciations onto the page. Then the Great Vowel Shift happened, and those old spellings and pronunciations suddenly looked obscure. As McKenzie and Punske write, “Even Shakespeare in 1600 could not have heard [Chaucer’s English] without learning a different language.” Shifts like this also help explain why English spelling is so treacherous nowadays.
Such shifts aren’t all cordoned off in the distant past either. Text-speak (wtf, lolz, brb) spread remarkably quickly over the past few decades but looks like gibberish to an outsider; it’s all but indecipherable unless someone tells you what the acronyms and abbreviations mean. As for spoken language, the Great Lakes region in North America is currently in the midst of the so-called Northern Cities Vowel Shift: The vowel in bat is shifting to sound like the vowel in bet, for instance. Meanwhile, bet is shifting to sound more like but, which itself is shifting toward bought, and so on. McKenzie and Punske also point out that “many linguists … consider spoken and written French to be distinct dialects” now, since what French people say in conversation doesn’t always follow the rules for “proper” writing. If splits like those can arise within a single population in a relatively short time span, how much greater are the odds of a split among two groups of people billions of miles apart?
Linguist Sarah Thomason has also explored the idea of language shifts among space colonists, especially in their vocabulary. (Her paper, “Language Change and Cultural Continuity,” appeared in the book Interstellar Travel and Multi-Generational Space Ships, which is not available online.) Again, the colonists will need new words to describe their radically new world. Meanwhile, words that we use all the time on Earth will likely atrophy and decay. As Thomason points out, what use will people in a rocket ship have for words like “snow, windy, river, ocean, mountain, sunburn, summer, winter, horse, tiger … boat, truck, airplane, skyscraper, tunnel, [or] bridge”? Colonists might still encounter such words in books or stories about Earth, but they will be relics at best and their resonance will likely fade.
Extending that idea, a life of permanent, cloistered space travel will likely give rise to new metaphors—and perhaps even a new metaphysics, as new religious practices develop. The arts will no doubt morph as well: Will epic war stories or sun-dappled Vermeers really resonate with someone trapped in a tin can? New art will emerge to speak to new experiences, and all of this will change the colonists’ language.
Things get even messier if you consider the possibility of language blending. Right now, space travel is largely a monoglot enterprise: Russian is the official language aboard the Soyuz rockets that deliver astronauts to the International Space Station, but once they arrive, English is used in most situations. That might not be the case on a colonizing mission. For political reasons, and especially to ensure as much genetic diversity as possible, space colonists could be drawn from several different continents. In that case, the mission would likely have at least two official languages; children born on the journey would grow up speaking both.
That split wouldn’t last long, though. People who grow up speaking two different languages don’t always keep them in separate compartments in their head. The languages blend and influence each other: Spanglish is a prime example. There’s nothing wrong with this, and the blends can in fact enrich both languages. But if the parent languages have markedly different grammar or syntax, and the hybrid language combines aspects of both, it will make communication with people back on Earth more difficult.
All of this will be complicated by the fact that while the colonists are hurtling along and developing their new language, language on Earth won’t stand still either. Both the colonists’ language and the Earthlings’ language will be shifting simultaneously, so a 200-year mission effectively means 400 years of language change. Similarly, consider what would happen if Earthlings decide to send several waves of colonists to a single planet, on ships spaced a decade or two apart. Each ship’s language will evolve separately, and the later colonists could step out onto their new home planet having no idea what the prior inhabitants are saying.
So is there any way around these problems, or is space language doomed to deteriorate into a Babel?
McKenzie and Punske recommend training future astronauts in linguistics, to make them aware of potential shifts and help minimize the friction that arises. To be sure, linguistics will always be secondary to, say, keeping crops alive or keeping generators running. But as Thomason points out, poor communication is a waste of time at best and a real danger at worst, given how precarious survival will be in space. A second wave of colonists arriving on a new home planet could immediately do something stupid and endanger everyone there, simply because they didn’t understand some subtlety about what was going on.
But the real solution here might involve a throwback to the distant past. Inevitably, the children being raised on the spaceship will need to attend school and learn something. We could take advantage of that schooling to teach them a lingua franca—a frozen form of Spanish or Chinese or English.
This frozen language would essentially function the same way that Latin did for European scholars during much of the previous millennium. No one spoke Latin organically, but many people communicated with it. We often deride the old, Gradgrindian-school systems of yesteryear, with their emphasis on rote learning and “perfect” Greek or Latin. It seems so stuffy and outdated in our high-tech world. But something similar could be our best hope for ensuring smooth communication on the most high-tech adventure that humankind will ever undertake.