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Space travel could create language unintelligible to people on Earth
A new study looks at what would happen to human language on a long journey to other star systems.
- Researchers proposes that language could change dramatically on long space voyages.
- Spacefaring people might lose the ability to understand the people of Earth.
- This scenario is of particular concern for potential "generation ships."
Given the mounting crises of 2020, wouldn't it be nice to just get on a giant spaceship and leave this troubled planet behind? While we don't yet have a surefire candidate for the new Earth, and our tech is probably still decades if not centuries behind, proposals and achievements in interstellar travel are stacking up. A new study makes the fascinating case that if a group of humans were to venture out on a space journey that lasted generations, their language would likely change. It could evolve into something the people of the original Earth would not understand.
Let's say a contingent of people boards a so-called "generation ship," a fully-stocked world-onto-itself spacecraft that can sustain generations of humans in space, slowly traversing the heavens towards another possibly inhabitable planet like Proxima b in the Proxima Centauri star system. We cannot yet build such a ship (which might have to fly for thousands of years) unless we invent some type of warp-drive or use antimatter as has been imagined in science fiction, but there have been some initial studies on the subject.
Cylindrical space colony
Credit: NASA Ames Research Center
Such a journey could be subject to a variety of dangers and unforeseen circumstances like viruses, asteroids, computer malfunctions, you name it. New research, carried out by linguistics professors Andrew McKenzie from the University of Kansas and Jeffrey Punske of Southern Illinois University, shows what might also happen is that the language of the travelers would mutate. The study highlights the fact that when communities become isolated from each other, conditions are ripe for language to transform. Over time, the spacefaring colonizers would not be able to understand their original language.
In the study, the linguists use examples of effects from long-distance voyages on Earth, like the changing languages of Polynesian island explorers, to show how much language can change, even within one's lifetime.
Professor McKenzie described a likely (and somewhat sad) scenario in a press release:
"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," McKenzie explained, "and these will become the vocabulary particular to the ship. People on Earth might never know about these 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. Generations pass, and there's no one really back home to talk to. And 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."
What might also happen is that the language of people on Earth would change. So it's possible, given the distance, and the dwindling reasons to communicate, that both parties might simply not be able to speak to each other as time passes.
One way to prevent this issue – have a member of the crew trained in linguistics or make other accommodations to remember the language of Earth. Thinking even further ahead, the professors propose that each new ship of people coming over to a faraway space colony would essentially contain "linguistic immigrants" and an effort would have to be made to train them in the changed language to help them avoid discrimination.
In case you're deadset on going to Proxima b, recent research found that using currently imaginable tech, such a trip would take 6,300 years and would need to start out with a crew of at least 98 people.
- Michio Kaku forecasts the future of space travel - Big Think ›
- Chris Hadfield: How space travel expands your mind - Big Think ›
- Five reasons future space travel should explore asteroids ›
- MEGA drive could enable interstellar travel, says Jim Woodward - Big Think ›
Scientists used CT scanning and 3D-printing technology to re-create the voice of Nesyamun, an ancient Egyptian priest.
- Scientists printed a 3D replica of the vocal tract of Nesyamun, an Egyptian priest whose mummified corpse has been on display in the UK for two centuries.
- With the help of an electronic device, the reproduced voice is able to "speak" a vowel noise.
- The team behind the "Voices of the Past" project suggest reproducing ancient voices could make museum experiences more dynamic.
Howard et al.<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"While this approach has wide implications for heritage management/museum display, its relevance conforms exactly to the ancient Egyptians' fundamental belief that 'to speak the name of the dead is to make them live again'," they wrote in a <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-56316-y#Fig3" target="_blank">paper</a> published in Nature Scientific Reports. "Given Nesyamun's stated desire to have his voice heard in the afterlife in order to live forever, the fulfilment of his beliefs through the synthesis of his vocal function allows us to make direct contact with ancient Egypt by listening to a sound from a vocal tract that has not been heard for over 3000 years, preserved through mummification and now restored through this new technique."</p>
Connecting modern people with history<p>It's not the first time scientists have "re-created" an ancient human's voice. In 2016, for example, Italian researchers used software to <a href="https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/hear-recreated-voice-otzi-iceman-180960570/" target="_blank">reconstruct the voice of Ötzi,</a> an iceman who was discovered in 1991 and is thought to have died more than 5,000 years ago. But the "Voices of the Past" project is different, the researchers note, because Nesyamun's mummified corpse is especially well preserved.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was particularly suited, given its age and preservation [of its soft tissues], which is unusual," Howard told <em><a href="https://www.livescience.com/amp/ancient-egypt-mummy-voice-reconstructed.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>.</em></p><p>As to whether Nesyamun's reconstructed voice will ever be able to speak complete sentences, Howard told <em><a href="https://abcnews.go.com/Weird/wireStory/ancient-voice-scientists-recreate-sound-egyptian-mummy-68482015" target="_blank">The Associated Press</a>, </em>that it's "something that is being worked on, so it will be possible one day."</p><p>John Schofield, an archaeologist at the University of York, said that reproducing voices from history can make museum experiences "more multidimensional."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"There is nothing more personal than someone's voice," he told <em>The Associated Press.</em> "So we think that hearing a voice from so long ago will be an unforgettable experience, making heritage places like Karnak, Nesyamun's temple, come alive."</p>
Inequality in wealth, gender, and race grew to unprecedented levels across the world, according to OxFam report.
- A new report by global poverty nonprofit OxFam finds inequality has increased in every country in the world.
- The alarming trend is made worse by the coronavirus pandemic, which strained most systems and governments.
- The gap in wealth, race and gender treatment will increase until governments step in with changes.
People wait in line to receive food at a food bank on April 28, 2020 in Brooklyn.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Credit: Oxfam International
A supernova exploded near Earth about 2.5 million years ago, possibly causing an extinction event.
- Researchers from the University of Munich find evidence of a supernova near Earth.
- A star exploded close to our planet about 2.5 million years ago.
- The scientists deduced this by finding unusual concentrations of isotopes, created by a supernova.
This Manganese crust started to form about 20 million years ago. Growing layer by layer, it resulted in minerals precipitated out of seawater. The presence of elevated concentrations of 60 Fe and 56 Mn in layers from 2.5 million years ago hints at a nearby supernova explosion around that time.
Credit: Dominik Koll/ TUM