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Space colonists' language could mutate over decades

Would human explorers that returned from beyond the stars speak gobbledygook?
Would human explorers that returned from beyond the stars speak gobbledygook?  

By Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- If humans shoved off this planet for a deep space expedition lasting two centuries, would their descendents be able to speak intelligibly with those left behind?

That is a question posed by a linguistics professor attempting to figure out what language space colonists would use and how it would evolve over time.

"What language should the travelers speak when starting on the voyage? For obvious reasons, it should be the same language," said Sarah Thomason of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

If the mission were to field a crew representative of the entire planet, artificial international languages like Esperanto have too few speakers to make them viable candidates for the official language mission. The de facto world language would make the most logical choice, according to Thomason.

"It wouldn't be hard to find genetically diverse English speakers in such countries as Ghana and India, in addition to European Americans, native Americans and immigrants from different parts of the world."

Even if all of the voyagers were on the same page linguistically speaking when they started, their language could quickly evolve into a dialect far different from any terrestrial cousin.

Word changes would take place because the long-term space environment would be radically different than that back home. New ones would form. Old ones would disappear.

"Basic vocabulary like mother, father, run, walk and sit will persist. But other words --such as airplane, skyscraper, car and train -- would not be useful to the space travelers," said Thomason, who has studied everything from contact-induced language changes among Montana Indians to pidgin Arabic in the 11th century.

Over the course of 200 years, a space language might not mutate much from the mother tongue naturally. But the explorers could consciously set themselves apart from their Earth-bound brethren.

This planet displays plenty of precedent: Hopping from continent to continent and island to island, English-speaking populations have established a wide variety of clearly defined vernaculars.

"This single, relatively homogeneous dialect will be noticeable with the first generation of children born on the space vehicle and will surely result in a dialect that differs from all the parents' dialect, and from every other dialect of English spoken on Earth," Thomason said.

Even radio contact with Earth might help little in keeping linguistic bonds intact.

"It looks as if there would be radio communication, but once the ship was far away, it could take several decades to transmit a message," said Thomason, who was to present her work Friday at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

And that would just be one-way. The colonists might become increasingly reluctant to phone home or decide to forgo communication with their homeworld altogether, she said.




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