Languages will change significantly on interstellar flights

In his Sci-Fi novella ‘Story of your Life’, Ted Chiang takes up the question of communicating with aliens who’ve appeared on Earth. The story’s protagonist is a linguist who is hired to understand and communicate with the aliens. (The movie ‘Arrival’ is based on this novella.)

Language is a matter most science fiction works gloss over. There’s always a handy piece of technology — like Arthur Dent’s Babel Fish — that smoothens out any issue related to understanding the aliens. (Such devices already exist, and they are getting better.) But even if we don’t run into aliens, interstellar travellers — in science fiction, and perhaps in our future — would need to communicate with people back on earth. According to a recent study by a team of linguistics professors, this would pose a problem:

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.

The problem gets worse with a new generation of immigrants arriving at a distant space colony:

Last, but not least, they address what will happen when subsequent ships from Earth reach the colonized planets and meet the locals. Without some means of preparation (like communication with the colony before they reach it), new waves of immigrants will encounter a language barrier and could find themselves subject to discrimination.

The solution? No, it isn’t AI.

Because of this, they recommend that any future interplanetary or interstellar missions include linguists or people who are trained in what to expect—translation software ain’t gonna cut it. They further recommend additional studies of likely language changes aboard interstellar spacecraft so people know what to expect in advance.

Linguists among the crew. I’m sure Ted Chiang would agree.