If language is constantly evolving based on influences from other languages and contact with people who speak differently (among other things), then what happens when these external factors are removed? Languages that form in total isolation — or “language isolates” — pose complex questions for linguists working to figure out their origins. And exciting new research suggests language isolates don’t have to be strictly earthbound. If a group of humans partakes in long-term interstellar travel, a sort-of space language could form. One that may become unintelligible to those of us who are left behind.
So far, there hasn’t been any truly long-term space travel, so there is no way to know how language would change in that exact circumstance. But there are cases of language isolates right here on earth to learn what exactly occurs when language is left alone. By exploring our Earth-bound past, we can get a peek into our interstellar future.
What Are Language Isolates?
Language isolates are languages with no known relatives. In other words, they are the descendants of a proto-language ancestor with no other descendants — an only child, if you will. Though they’re often perceived as rare and mysterious languages, and there may be as many as 129 language isolates in the world.
The most widely spoken language isolate is Korean, though there is some disagreement on whether it can actually be considered one. But many people are unaware that Korean is a potential language isolate, so generally the most commonly cited isolate is Basque, also known as Euskara.
Basque is spoken by about 537,000 people, almost all of whom live in the Basque region of Northern Spain and Southern France. Ancient cave drawings show that people have lived in this region for at least 14,000 years, and the original Basques probably spoke a proto-language from which present-day Euskara descended. When the Indo-European language family arrived in Europe around 3,500 years ago, they somehow missed the geographically isolated Basque region altogether, which enabled Euskara to remain a language isolate.
What does any of this have to do with how language could change in space? One study on space language, which we’ll get more into in a bit, examined cases of languages developing in isolation on earth and extrapolated from them what might occur in outer space. These future space-travel languages aren’t technically language isolates, but isolates provide the only clear testing ground for what happens when a language is largely cut off from other languages.
One such case was that of a group of Polynesian sailors who settled on faraway South Pacific islands like Hawaii and Easter Island between 400 and 1000 CE. These were the first humans to live on these islands, which were quite difficult to reach, so the Polynesian languages they brought with them developed in isolation. New, mutually unintelligible varieties of these languages emerged over time, which were vastly different from the Proto-Polynesian ancestor language they descended from. This suggests that when language is isolated it can change beyond recognition.
How Could Language Change In Space?
Interstellar travel would be the ultimate test of language development in isolation. Imagine a crew traveling through space for many years — perhaps even generations — completely cut off from most earthly communication. Let’s say this crew speaks English.
At first, the crew might invent some specified lingo that would be useful for them. They may start calling night “lights out” because the concept of “night” wouldn’t exist in the same way on the spaceship once you leave Earth. Over time, there would be more and more of these little deviations from Earth English. Eventually, it would develop into a dialect of English with its own unique slang and ways of phrasing things that differ from any varieties of English that exist on Earth. If the crew is large enough, multiple dialects may emerge as members identify with different sub-groups. And if a new generation is born aboard the spacecraft (or in a colony on Mars, say), these dialects will continue to shift as they’re passed down.
This is essentially the scenario laid out in the study by linguists at the University of Kansas and Southern Illinois University, which attempts to predict what might happen to language in this situation, drawing from cases like the Polynesian sailors.
Perhaps the most mind-blowing potential outcome is that upon returning to Earth, the crew’s descendants and those who stayed behind may not be able to understand each other very well. Depending on the length of the journey, it’s possible for two entirely different human civilizations to form. Language change is very real, and isolation can have fascinating (and far-reaching) impacts.