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How would language change if some of us moved into the interstellar?

By Harriet Piercy

Jul 13, 2020

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Imagine Noah’s ark, but floating in a sea of stars. If worse comes to worst and we really do have to abandon Earth, we’ll have to take our generation with us in order to save the next—the new generation would then become the ‘generation ship’. In order for us to save the human race,  a variation of ages would be sent to space. How could a potential move to space alter the way we speak?

First things first, we would need to take our environment with us. Everything will be on board—everything alive, that is. Maybe we’d be allowed to bring the odd memorabilia, but all packing has a priority order as we know, meaning that the heavy bits and pieces at the bottom of your shopping bag would usually go first. In this case, other than ourselves, the minuscule would take a predominant lead with bacteria, seeds and gases.

The long journey we would be embarking on also means that we would inevitably evolve over time. People will continue to be born, raised and, eventually, die. Interstellar travellers would probably have a lot less space to live their lives. Biologically, this could lead to all kinds of issues or mutations that cannot be foreseen. One other thing in particular will have to evolve too: language.

A team of linguistics professors, Andrew McKenzie and Jeffrey Punske, published an ongoing study based on Language Development during Interstellar Travel, in the April issue of Acta Futura, the journal of the European Space Agency’s Advanced Concepts Team.

In the study, they discuss how languages evolve over time as communities grow isolated from each other. In this case, our entire population couldn’t possibly fit on the ship—which sparks another discussion altogether—we would have to leave humans behind. If the ship were to come back to Earth, would the two groups still be able to understand each other, having evolved separately?

One would hope that Earth and the vessel would keep in contact with each other, but time warps in space, so communication of any kind will eventually lag. “If you’re on this vessel for 10 generations, new concepts will emerge, new social issues will come up, and people will create ways of talking about them and these will become the vocabulary particular to the ship. People on Earth might never know about these words unless there’s a reason to tell them. And the further away you get, the less you’re going to talk to people back home. Generations pass, and there’s no one really back home to talk to,” explains McKenzie.

The paper is concluded by the statement that on the generation ship “Eventually, the language or languages of the crew will diverge from those on Earth. If they start out with multiple languages, those will perhaps converge towards each other,” whereas on Earth, the opposite may happen. Language is formed by finding mutual understandings for the purpose of communication or translation. So, with a significant sum of our population subtracted and shipped away, the geography of our population would be dispersed further. The world as we know it would be, for a time, underpopulated—which may lead to more distinct language barriers and divergence.

We could argue that because of the internet, distance doesn’t control our differences in language as much as it would have in the past. Would the generation ship evolve technologically faster than Earth? It’s hard to decide without knowing exactly what resources they would discover out there  compared to our current rate of advancement.

Time on our beloved planet has proven thus far that most of the imaginable is possible. What’s stopping us from imagining a little more? Furthering our understanding is arguably humankind’s greatest trait, but it’s also the misunderstandings that push our drive to understand further. We’re aiming high to test this out, quite literally. Turns out science and fiction really are yin and yang, but their language is different.