Languages will change significantly on interstellar flights

July 12th, 2020 by It's a captivating idea: build an interstellar ark, fill it with people, flora, and fauna of every kind, and set your course for a distant star. The concept is not only science fiction gold, it's been the subject of many scientific studies and proposals. By building a ship that can accommodate multiple generations of human beings (a generation ship), humans could colonize the known universe. But of course, there are downsides to this imaginative proposal. During such a long voyage, multiple generations of people will be born and raised inside a closed environment. This could lead to all kinds of biological issues or mutations that we simply can't foresee. But according to a new study by a team of linguistics professors, there's something else that will be subject to mutation during such a voyage—language itself. The study, "Language Development During Interstellar Travel," appeared in the April issue of Acta Futura, the journal of the European Space Agency's Advanced Concepts Team. The team consisted of Andrew McKenzie, an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Kansas, and Jeffrey Punske, an assistant professor of linguistics at Southern Illinois University. In this study, McKenzie and Punske discuss how languages evolve over time whenever communities grow isolated from one another. This would certainly be the case in the event of a long interstellar voyage and/or as a result of interplanetary colonization. Eventually, this could mean that the language of the colonists would be unintelligible to the people of Earth, should they meet up again later. For those who took English at the senior or college level, the story of Caxton's "eggys" ought to be a familiar one. In the preface to his 1490 translation of Virgil's Aeneid (Eneydos) into Middle English, he tells a story of a group of merchants who are traveling down the Thames toward Holland. Due to poor winds, they are forced to dock in the county of Kent, just 80 km (50 mi) downriver and look for something to eat: "And one of them named Sheffield, a merchant, came into a house and asked for meat and, specifically, he asked for eggs ("eggys"). And the good wife answered that she could speak no French. And the merchant got angry for he could not speak French either, but he wanted eggs and she could not understand him. And then at last, another person said that he wanted 'eyren." Then the good woman said that she understood him well." This story illustrates how people in 15th-century England could travel within the same country and experience a language barrier. Well, multiply that to 4.25 light-years to the nearest star system, and you can begin to see how language could be a major complication when it comes to interstellar travel. Read more:

Language matters in science and mathematics – here’s why

November 18th, 2016 by What do you get when you cross a mafia mobster with a sociologist? An offer you can’t understand. It’s an old joke, and you could substitute “sociologist” with just about any other “ologist” - the broader point being that professions use language in ways that make it hard for outsiders to understand. So, do sociologists, mathematicians, scientists and lawyers use language to be elitist and exclusive? Or is the language necessary to describe the specifics of their field? And what role does school play in initiating students into the language of these different disciplines? Read more: The Conversation

Scientific language is becoming more informal

November 9th, 2016 by We are not supposed to use first-person pronouns, and contractions aren’t allowed. These rules also discourage unattended anaphoric pronouns and say that split infinitives should be rarely used. And to start a sentence with an initial conjunction is as bad as to include a listing expression, and so on. Exclamation marks are forbidden! The rules of academic writing are many, but they have one intention: to avoid informal language, in all its forms. Blogs and social media may encourage authors to write it as they say it, but much of what passes for scholarly and scientific prose is simply not designed for human ears. Academic writing is code, with freedom of expression and emotional range curtailed in favour of explicit meaning and a necessary lack of ambiguity. If nothing else, it (by which we mean academic writing, for those still on the watch for unattended pronouns) is writing that knows its audience and gives them what it (the audience) expects. But, to use a direct question, another stylistic tool on the banned list, is this academic supply and demand still in place? Do the academics of the Internet age still communicate as stiffly as their colleagues did at the time of the Apollo programme? Or, heaven forbid, has some scruffy informality crept into scholarly discourse? Read more: Nature

How do new elements get named?

February 1st, 2016 by It is highly unusual for words to become the subject of avid discussion—and even of consideration by lexicographers—before they have even been coined! This is the curious situation at present in the world of science, where the announcement of four new chemical elements has created something of a stir. They can now take a permanent place in the Periodic Table of Elements, and for that they will need officially approved names. These names will have the rare distinction of being eligible for the Dictionary’s candidate list as soon as they are published. But how are their names chosen, and who makes the decision? Read more: Oxford Dictionaries‎