Interstellar Language Evolution

In a galaxy far, far away…

…there might be humans that don’t understand the phrase “in a galaxy far, far away”!

Given the dramatic effects of isolation on language, interstellar space travel is sure to influence the evolution of language in significant ways. How will language change as humanity explores the final frontier?

Will Languages Get “Lost in Space”?

To answer this question, we need to consider the logistics of interstellar travel. Many scientists (and science fiction writers) have envisioned creative ways of safely transporting humans to other galaxies despite the staggering distances to be covered.

One of the most popular theories involves the use of a generation ship—a spaceship that houses several generations of human travelers. If it takes the mission hundreds of years to reach its destination, the generations that live to see it will be the great-great-(great…) grandchildren of the original travelers. These spacefarers are bound to form their own language after so many years in isolation.

Language Complications in Space

 According to a recent linguistic study, there are certain areas of language that are almost guaranteed to change during lengthy space travel. The authors of the study analyzed unusually long sea voyages on Earth to make some predictions about language evolution beyond the Milky Way.

Take syntax, for example: space travelers are likely to develop completely different grammatical constructions from those used here on Earth. History already has numerous examples of syntactical change, such as the 15th century shift from “verb-second word order” (“Never have I”) to a modern word order (“I have never”). While the archaic versions aren’t totally indecipherable, they still sound odd to a modern ear.

Pronunciation and spelling will also see a drastic shift. The study’s authors encourage readers to compare reading Old English, like Beowulf, or Middle English, like the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, to today’s English. Due to a massive linguistic event known as the Great Vowel Shift, the original spelling of Chaucer’s English is extremely difficult to read for modern audiences.

Finally, interstellar space travelers will develop their own vocabulary that references their life on board. If you’ve ever tried to navigate the differences between American and British English—is it chips or fries? Lifts or elevators?—you can imagine how dramatically different the vocabulary of a new generation of space humans could be.

Implications for Communication

Houston, we’ve got a problem: it takes a long time for light and sound to travel through space, so it may be uniquely difficult for interstellar voyagers to communicate with friends and family back home.

If the spaceship were to send a radio message back to Earth, it could take decades of Earth time in light-years for that message to reach us here. Plus, since language change is also an ongoing process on Earth, both sides might have a difficult time understanding the other’s replies.

Instead, off-worlders and Earth residents might have to communicate using a “preserved” form of whichever Earth language is chosen as the lingua franca of galactic travel. This language would function more like the Latin preserved for use in the Catholic Church, or the use of Sanskrit as a ceremonial and ritual language in India.

So, when you look up at the stars tonight … try to imagine what they might be called in an “alien” English of the future.

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