Language changes. And so there is a chance that interstellar travelers will no longer understand the earthlings (and vice versa).
Language is anything but a stable, established fact and is strongly subject to change. For example, new words are added every year and new grammatical rules appear overtime. This could become a problem during long space travel, a new study suggests . After all, what if interstellar travelers no longer able to communicate with Earthlings?
It may seem far-fetched, but it is, according to the researchers, a realistic, imminent problem. They rely on earthly examples of distant journeys, such as those of Polynesian explorers. Moreover, language and our intonation are still changing today. For example, it is increasingly common for someone to end a sentence with a higher voice than the rest of the sentence. This increasing intonation is a phenomenon that is particularly prevalent in the English language but is also heard more and more often in other Germanic languages. Although it is sometimes confused for a questioning tone, it actually has to do with politeness and aims to involve the listener in the story. This ‘talking up’ has emerged over the past forty years and has since spread from small groups of young Americans and Australians, to most of the English-speaking world. Even many elderly people who didn’t do it themselves when they were young seem to have caved in.
It’s only a small example, but if we compare our contemporary language with that of a few hundred years ago, we can certainly conclude that much has changed over time. “Over time, new grammatical forms can completely replace the current ones,” the researchers write. And that can have a detrimental effect on future space travel. Because it can mean that by the time human interstellar travelers arrive on a distant, new planet, they may no longer be able to communicate with remaining earthlings.
Language is not the only challenge that future space travelers will face. Space also has a significant impact on our health. They will face life-threatening radiation that increases the risk of cancer and also causes the gastrointestinal system to function less well. Not to mention the huge attack on your muscles and bones, which – after experiencing weightlessness for some time – become weaker and break easily.
Your body also reacts differently to medicines when you are in space. And then there are psychological consequences. Because not everyone is suitable to be locked in a small space for a long time. Some people will experience sleep problems, depression, mental stress, or get couples with huge boredom.
The researchers therefore fear a Babelian confusion of speech between different groups of people. Because not only would it be difficult to talk to earthly people, but also people who have arrived on the new planet before or later may also speak a whole different language.
“If you sit on a spaceship for ten generations, new concepts will emerge, new social problems will emerge and people will create new ways to talk about it,” explains researcher Andrew McKenzie. “A specific vocabulary will be created on the spacecraft. And it can be very different from other ones. Each new ship will be like transporting differently speaking immigrants to a foreign country,” the researchers write. “Will they be discriminated against until their children and grandchildren have learned the local language? Or can they communicate with the local colony and learn the local language before they arrive?”
These are interesting questions. But the language will have changed considerably compared to earthly laggards. “People on earth will probably never know certain new words,” says McKenzie. “Moreover, the further you travel, the less you have to deal with remaining earthlings. Generations pass by and there may be no one on earth with whom you can communicate. The connection with the Earth will therefore continue to decrease over time. And in the end, there may come a time when all contact with the earth has stopped, except for the necessary updates.”
Latin to the rescue?
At the same time, language on earth is also subject to change. And that’s going to make it harder and harder for the earthlings and the travelers to understand each other. This can lead to the creation of a system that both interstellar travelers and earthlings can use to communicate in a non-existent language. “It may be that they communicate the way we use Latin today,” says McKenzie, “and they talk to each other in a language that no one speaks anymore.”
The researchers therefore recommend that a linguist board every future spaceship, or experts who see the danger coming and know how to deal with it. “In addition, we recommend that each crew member knows the required languages,” the researchers write. “An informative language policy that can be maintained on board will be required without the need to fall back to Earth-based regulations.”
Although this is of course still far away, it is very interesting to think about it. Because as this study shows, language can become a problem. Exactly how the development of language – and how one will deal with it by then – will go is still a big question mark. But at least the study offers us insight into some of the potential challenges that people of the future might face.