Languages will change significantly on interstellar flights

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.

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