In the not-too-distant future, humans will begin to spread out into the solar system — and not just for fleeting visits. The ultimate goal of space exploration (apart from finding aliens) is to set up human colonies on other worlds to learn more about our cosmic neighborhood and search for new resources that could help us thrive on Earth.
The first human space colonies will likely take root on the moon and could emerge within the next few decades. But the bigger, long-term target is to put a colony on Mars, which will become a more realistic goal once we’ve established a permanent presence on the moon.
The idea of human groups living away from our planet opens up a litany of questions about future colonists for experts to solve, such as how they will grow food or access water and how will they adapt to living with less gravity.
However, one query has long been overlooked: What might future space colonists sound like? Or, more specifically, what kind of accents might they develop?
Human accents are a fascinating topic of research in themselves. Every person has at least some sort of accent, regardless of whether they realize it, and all of these accents can be traced to specific times, places, languages or groups of people here on Earth. But with the dawn of space colonies on the horizon, the way future interplanetary settlers will pronounce their words is uncharted territory.
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“New accents emerge by imitation,” Jonathan Harrington, director of the Institute for Phonetics and Speech Processing at the Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich in Germany, told Live Science. “We remember the sounds and words of a conversation, and these can have a small influence on the future way that we speak.”
These changes are subconscious and occur only when we interact with people who have different accents from us over long periods, Harrington said. This is why people who have lived in a new country or region for long periods develop subtle changes to their accents without realizing it.
But when people with different accents become isolated from the rest of the world, the entire group will start to mimic one another, creating a brand-new blend of the available accents, Harrington said. This can start to happen very quickly, especially in small groups, he added.
In 2019, Harrington led a study that analyzed the phonetic changes of 11 researchers who spent a winter isolated in a laboratory in Antarctica. The group comprised eight people from England (five with Southern accents and three with Northern accents), one from the U.S. Northwest, one from Germany and one from Iceland. Throughout the experiment, the researchers noticed that each individual displayed phonetic changes and that the group collectively started pronouncing specific sounds differently — and used different parts of their mouths to make those sounds. These were the first steps of a new accent forming.
“Exactly the same thing should happen in any environment in which individuals are isolated together over a prolonged period, whether this is in Antarctica or in space,” Harrington said. “In fact, accent change should be even greater in space because contact with the home community is even more difficult.”
On Mars or the moon, colonists could start to develop subconscious-yet-audible changes to their accents within a few months — especially on Mars, where conversing with people on Earth is even more challenging due to the roughly 20-minute delay it takes for messages to travel between the two planets, Harrington said.
However, for unique, long-lasting accents to emerge, the colony likely would need to be big enough for colonists to reproduce, so that the accent could be passed on to future generations.
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If new colony members were added to a colony in the early stages of habitation, they could shift the trajectory of that group’s accent. However, once an accent were fully established, new colonists would likely have a minor impact on how that accent evolved and would slowly change their accents to match that of the rest of the colony.
Any new accents that developed in space colonies would likely be shaped by the most abundant accent within the group, Harrington said. A good example of this is the Australian accent, which has lots of similarities to London’s “Cockney” accent because most of the original settlers had that accent, he added.
If the initial accents were evenly split, then the new accents would be a mix of them all, rather than resembling one particular accent. As a result, unless future colonies on Mars and the moon are made up of groups with an identical mix of accents, they would likely develop different accents, Harrington said. The different environmental factors on the moon and Mars would likely not impact either accent in a major way, he added.
Without knowing the accents of the astronauts that will make up future Martian and lunar colonies, it is hard to predict what these accents might sound like. However, as soon as the colonists are selected, it could be possible to predict how the accents will evolve.
During the 2019 study in Antarctica, the study team used a computer learning program to predict how the participants’ accents might change during the study. To their surprise, the team found the vocal changes they observed matched up very well with what the program predicted.