What language would we speak in space?

Jun 25, 2017 · 5 min read
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Gretchen: On the International Space Station, you have astronauts from the US and from other English speaking countries and you have cosmonauts from Russia. And obviously it’s very important to get your communication right if you’re on a tiny metal box circling the Earth or going somewhere. You don’t want to have a miscommunication there because you could end up floating in space in the wrong way. And so one of the things that they do on the ISS — wait, first of all every astronaut and cosmonaut needs to be bilingual in English and Russian because those are the languages of space.

Lauren: Yep. Wait, the language of space are English and Russian? I’m sorry, I just said ‘yep’ and I didn’t really think about it, so that’s a fact is it?

Gretchen: I mean, pretty much, yeah, if you go on astronaut training recruitment forums, which I have gone on to research this episode…

Lauren: You’re got to have a backup job, Gretchen.

Gretchen: I don’t think I’m going to become an astronaut, but I would like to do astronaut linguistics! And one of the things these forums say, is, you need to know stuff about math and engineering and, like, how to fly planes and so on. But they also say, you either have to arrive knowing English and Russian or they put you through an intensive language training course.

But then when they’re up in space, one of the things that they do is have the English native speakers speak Russian and the Russian speakers speak English. Because the idea is, if you speak your native language, maybe you’re speaking too fast or maybe you’re not sure if the other person’s really understanding you. Whereas if you both speak the language you’re not as fluent in, then you arrive at a level where both people can be sure that the other person’s understanding. And by now, there’s kind of this hybrid English-Russian language that’s developed. Not a full-fledged language but kind of a-

Lauren: Space Pidgin!

Gretchen: Yeah, a Space Pidgin that the astronauts use to speak with each other! I don’t know if anyone’s written a grammar of it, but I really want to see a grammar of Space Pidgin.

This was an excerpt from Episode 1 of Lingthusiasm: Speaking a single language won’t bring about world peace. Listen to the full episode below, on iTunes, or on wherever else you get your podcasts, or keep reading for more Space Pidgin.

Gretchen: If you look at what kids actually do when they’re exposed to fragmented or incomplete linguistic input, they actually create full-fledged languages from kind of bizarre or difficult linguistic circumstances.

Lauren: A really famous example is Nicaraguan Sign Language. The fact that we’ve taken until episode 7 to talk about it is actually pretty impressive, because it’s such a great go-to anecdote for linguists, and it’s such an amazing thing that happened. In the 70s and 80s in Nicaragua there was a change in policy that meant that a lot of deaf children suddenly came together at school, instead of being isolated and using their own home sign or maybe a local village sign language.

Over the course of a couple of generations, these children went from all having kind of only a rudimentary communicative system to developing what is now considered to be a fully fledged language, which is Nicaraguan Sign Language. There are around three thousand users of that sign language now, and the language has been studied since its birth since the 1970s. There have been people watching the evolution of this language and how children can use limited resources and inputs to create something really sophisticated.

Gretchen: It teaches us a lot about human children’s capacity for language. It’s not just that kids aren’t speaking some “bad” version of English now, but it’s actually that if ever we have disrupted linguistic transmission, it’s going to be the kids that save us. They’re not going to bring us back to what we had before, but they’re going to make a fully fledged linguistic system that’s capable of complex ideas and complex thoughts, even if the adults mess it up!

If kids were just doing exactly what adults do, then language would be brittle and fragile. But because they change it each generation, language is incredibly resilient! And this brings us back to a point from episode one, where we talked about the language of space.

Lauren: And Space Pidgin!

Gretchen: And how the American and the Russian astronauts and cosmonauts use each other’s languages, and end up using this hybrid English-Russian pidgin to communicate with each other. But because all the astronauts so far have been adults, this is kind of an incomplete, fragmented English-Russian hybrid space pidgin. However, if and when we go to Mars, if the astronauts and the cosmonauts got together and had some space babies….

Lauren: If there were children…

Gretchen: Then these Space Babies would grow up exposed to Space Pidgin and they would turn it into Space Creole.

Lauren: And it would actually develop more sophisticated grammatical structures. The children would take the input that they get and turn it into a more fully fledged linguistic system. So the kids in space are going to be okay.

Gretchen: The kids in space are going to be okay, the kids on earth are going to be okay, we’re all okay! Also, someone needs to write this story about space babies, I would like to read it.

Lauren: I would definitely love to read about babies in space standardising English-Russian pidgin into a creole.

This was an excerpt from Episode 7 of Lingthusiasm: Kids these days aren’t ruining language. Listen to the full episode below, on iTunes, or on wherever else you get your podcasts.

Lingthusiasm is a lively podcast about how language works, featuring memes, science, words, and more with Gretchen McCulloch and Lauren Gawne. Here’s how one of our listeners describes it:

Check out our website for monthly episodes, full transcripts of all episodes, and bonus content.

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