This post was originally posted on blogspot.com on June 13, 2012
In this post I will discuss the very important question of which language a space colony should have? I will argue that a constructed language would be our best choice, but I will first explain why this question is as important as I claim. Sequentially I will sketch the problems of selecting a natural language for a space colony and finally I will explain how these problems are solved by selecting a constructed language.
The first point we have to consider is why we should agree on a common language. There are a lot of countries which do well without an official language, for instance the USA and the Netherlands. But these countries have de facto a national language, in a traditional homogeneous society newcomers have to learn that society’s language in order to be fully functional. So countries with a historical common language don’t need to formalize this.
A common language in a society, which is widely understood by its members, enables useful communication within it, think for example about the law. People has to be able to know the law and as matter of fact, the law has to be written in some language. It’s true that some multilingual countries write their laws in multiple languages, but most of these countries are bilingual, so the costs of translating laws and other official documents are quite modest. If the number of recognized languages increases, then also the associated costs will increase. The most clear example of this is the European Union, which has no less than 23 official working languages and as a result a large part of the budget of the EU goes up to translating (for instance the instant interpreting in the European Parliament).
It’s clear that Space colonists would want to avoid this absurdity, we have better use for our money (lower taxes would be for example a nice idea for attracting new immigrants), so they should rationally choose for one single language (important to note is that this will not mean that other languages are not allowed). So the next question is which language to pick?
For the sake of the argument I will assume that the official language of a single Space colony will be decided by democratic procedures, like a referendum (a practical consequence of this will be, of course, that several colonies will each pick another language). It would be a nice exercise to see whether this could lead to a situation in which a Space colony should decide to become deliberately a multilingual society and if so under what circumstance, and therefore contradicting my “theorem of unilingualism“. My hunch will be that it depends on the specific decision procedure, but I don’t think it will be appropriate to discuss this question here, so for those who are interested I will place this discussion in a comment of this post.
This will bring me to my main argument. At this moment, there some 7000 natural languages in the world, most of them are rather small. Although mandarin Chinese has more speakers, English is more widely spread (this is the main reason why this entire blog is in English) and has also more non-native speakers. This combined with the fact that a large part of the Space advocacy movement is located in the English-speaking world, has led by some to assume that English would therefore the logical choice for Space colonies.
Well, I have to disagree. English, like all other natural languages, is associated with a specific culture, in this case the Anglo-Saxon culture of Britain, North America and Oceania. So by choosing for English as official language, a Space colony is willingly choosing for the Anglo-Saxon culture, at least in the eyes of outsiders. It is my personal conviction that Space colonies should develop their very own cultures, which are clear distinct from any terrestrial “culture”. And the most important tool to realize this is by selecting a language which is not related to any other culture. As a corollary of this, I also believe that different Space communities will distinguish of each other by choosing different languages.
An other problem of choosing English, the same applies for every other natural language, is that it will discriminate against non-native speakers. Those who are native speakers are in an advantageous position in comparison of those who are not. Since I believe that Space colonies will not be established by cultural homogeneous groups, I consider this as unnecessarily unfair. In order to avoid the creation of unjust advantages for native speakers, we should choose for an artificial or constructed language. Since no colonist will be a native speaker of this language, all colonist will be equal in this respect.
Over the course of history, there have been many proposals for so-called auxiliary languages, with Esperanto as its most famous example. Because of its popularity, I will strongly advice against the selection of Esperanto as an official language of a Space colony, since in the last 120 years the Esperanto culture has developed its own distinct culture. I believe that the association of the Space colonization movement with the Esperanto movement, will be bad for both movements. But nevertheless those who are in charge of designing languages for Space colonies, can learn much from Esperanto and related projects like Ido or Interlingua.
Although it is not the purpose of this essay to provide guidelines for creating a language, it would advisable that Spacer languages should be based on the principles of international auxiliary languages. This because the type of constructed languages is aimed at easiness to learn, and since the population of (early) Space colonies is likely to be multicultural.
As I have promised, I will discuss here the question of multilingual Space colonies. First I have to note, that since most early space colonies will be multicultural, their citizens will speak many different languages in private relations, that is not where I am talking about, instead I will concentrate only on official languages.
Although it would be the rational choice to select one and only one official language, I believe there will be Space colonies which will be multilingual. Mostly as part of a comprise between different groups. Suppose that the citizens of the colony Bernal Alpha have to vote on an official language and have three choices: Esperanto, Interlingua and Novial. Let the result of this vote be as follows: 45% for Esperanto, 45% for Interlingua and 10% for Novial. Then there are two possible solutions: 1. a second vote between Esperanto and Interlingua, or 2. making both Esperanto and Interlingua official languages.
It will depend on the specific circumstances whether which option will be selected. How strongly are the voters “attached” to “their own” language?