Do You Speak ‘Earth English?’ Why Interplanetary Immigrants Of The Future Will Struggle To Chat

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Do you know what “uptalk” is? 

It’s when someone makes a statement that sounds like a question purely because of the intonation they use at the end. It’s also called high rising terminal (HRT) or rising inflection.


People do it all the time now. The phenomenon began in Australia about 40 years ago, crossed to America, and now it’s common across all age groups in the entire English-speaking world. 

Now imagine a scenario where there are interplanetary settlements on other planets. Where there are isolated communities of humans. Where immigrants from Earth arrive in colonies having been in space for many years.

In a future era of generations-long, one-way interstellar space travel will humans be able to communicate with each other?

Colonists both new and old may struggle to understand one another, while messages sent to and received from those back “home” on Earth could quickly dwindle into meaninglessness.

They’re the questions explored in a new paper published in Acta Futura, the journal of the European Space Agency’s Advanced Concepts Team. 

Languages drift apart as communities grow more isolated from each other, say the authors, so not only will spoken language quickly change among colonists in an isolated interplanetary settlement, but also among passengers on arriving spacecraft. 

“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,” said Andrew McKenzie, Associate Professor of linguistics at the University of Kansas, who co-wrote “Language Development During Interstellar Travel” with Jeffrey Punske, assistant professor of linguistics at Southern Illinois University.

About 200 years is long enough for significant changes to occur if the crew is physically and socially disconnected from Earth, say the authors. Possibly just one lifetime if the community is very small. They extrapolate from examples on Earth; Polynesian settlement across the southern Pacific from 1500-1800, the settling of English speakers in isolated colonies in New Zealand in the 1800s, and the development of a unique “Texan-German” dialect in Texas over three generations up until World War 1.

“People on Earth might never know about these new words unless there’s a reason to tell them, and the further away you get, the less you’re going to talk to people back home,” said McKenzie. Generations will pass and there won’t be anyone in particular on Earth for these interstellar travellers to talk to. “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.”  

For years-long voyages, dialects will likely merge. For a generations-long mission, new dialects and even anew language could solidify.

Interstellar travelers’ and colonists’ individual connections to Earth could fairly quickly wane. “If we have “Earth English” and “vessel English,” and they diverge over the years, you have to learn a little Earth English to send messages back, or to read the instruction manuals and information that came with the ship,” said McKenzie, in what was an English-centric study merely to highlight some broad concepts.

Moreover, language back on Earth will also have changed, so the language of communication between Earth-bound humans and those in colonies will become an archaic form of language used only for that purpose. Will anyone want or need to have to learn how to communicate with people on Earth? Or vice versa? 

The authors suggest older forms of English may be retained purely for ritualistic or religious use.

They also recommend that the crew of an arriving vessel in a colony may want to learn the local language before arrival to prevent discrimination. “Every new vessel will essentially offload linguistic immigrants to a foreign land,” they write. “Will they be discriminated against until their children and grandchildren learn the local language?”

So next time you look up at the stars bear in mind that one day there could one day be a spacecraft up there containing humans desperately trying to learn to make their every utterance sound like a question.

Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes

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