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Interstellar space travel will have language complications for astronauts

An artist's illustration depicts a future starship under construction in Earth orbit using a ring-type construction facility.
An artist's illustration depicts a future starship under construction in Earth orbit using a ring-type construction facility. (Image credit: Adrian Mann)

The first people to colonize a world beyond our solar system may have trouble describing their new home to the folks back on Earth.

The nearest star to Earth, Proxima Centauri, lies 4.2 light-years from us — so far away that it would take tens of thousands of years to get there using current technology. And most stars, of course, are much more distant than that; our Milky Way galaxy is about 100,000 light-years wide.

So, barring a huge breakthrough — the development of matter-antimatter engines, for example, or the mastery of wormhole travel, or suspended-animation tech — any crewed interstellar mission is going to be a multigenerational affair. (The outlook is a bit rosier for robotic interstellar efforts. The first such mission could launch just a few decades from now, if the $100 million Breakthrough Starshot project is successful.)

Gallery: Visions of interstellar starship travel

The inconvenient length of crewed interstellar voyages could end up having a large bearing on communications, the recent study argues, noting the malleability of language. 

"Chaucer in print is extremely difficult for modern English speakers to make out," linguists Andrew McKenzie and Jeffrey Punske, of Kansas University and Southern Illinois University, respectively, wrote in the study, which was published in April in the journal Acta Futura. (Geoffrey Chaucer, most famous for "The Canterbury Tales," was an English poet and writer in the 14th century.)

"If it’s read aloud, few would recognize it at all," the duo wrote. "Even Shakespeare in 1600 could not have heard it without learning a different language — and Shakespeare’s dialect is quite different from modern ones as well."

Linguistic divergence might be even more dramatic for interstellar voyagers, given that they'll be physically isolated from their home world and will likely communicate with it only sparingly. After all, you can't hold a conversation with someone 10 light-years away. It would take 10 years for your "How are you doing?" to get there, and another decade to get the response.

"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," McKenzie said in a statement

"People on Earth might never know about these words, unless there's a reason to tell them," McKenzie said. "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. And there's not much you want to tell them, because they'll only find out years later, and then you'll hear back from them years after that."

As a result, colonists and homeworlders might have to communicate in a "preserved" version of English (or Chinese, or Russian, or whatever the chosen language is), the linguists said. 

"Such preservation may be viewed as analogous to the preservation and use of dormant languages in liturgical or other religious settings, like the use of Latin by the Catholic Church, Biblical Hebrew in Jewish traditions, Classical Arabic in Islam or Sanskrit in the religions of India," the researchers wrote in the paper.

It's too early to map out a detailed strategy to combat interstellar language divergence, McKenzie and Punske said. But they did stress that interstellar crewmembers should be made aware of the potential problem and receive extensive linguistic training before launch to help stave off its worst effects.

"There will be need for an informed linguistic policy on board that can be maintained without referring back to Earth-based regulations," the linguists wrote in the study. "Not to mention, the voyage would provide a significant natural experiment for linguistic science, if crewmembers are capable of conducting it. Metalinguistic awareness would not only crucially aid the mission but would add to its scientific value as well."

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook. 

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Mike Wall

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.