Why Astronauts Speak in ‘Space Creole’

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Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

If you ever want to go into space, you may wish to start studying your Cyrillic.

That’s because, as Gretchen McCulloch explained on the Lingthusiasm podcast, English isn’t the sole language of space — it’s also Russian. Until Elon Musk starts flying to the moon, all astronauts are flown to the International Space Station on Russian Soyuz rockets. (RIP Space Shuttle.) The commander of the Soyuz, appropriately enough, is always Russian, so everybody taking a ride into space needs to learn it, too.

Once they’re up in space, things take a turn toward fusion. McCulloch says that the native English speakers speak in Russian, and the Russians in English. “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,” she says. “Whereas if you both speak the language you’re not as fluent in, then you arrive at a level where people can be sure that the other person’s understanding.”

And by now, the ISS has developed its own hybrid English-Russian speech. Not a fully formed language, but a “space creole,” as co-host Lauren Gawne christens it. Astronauts (and cosmonauts) like to call it Runglish. This reminds McCulloch of the original “lingua franca,” a pidgin French that functioned as a trade language for sailors and assorted roustabouts hanging around the Mediterranean Sea during the Age of Sail. No matter the vessel, a common tongue is essential.

Why Astronauts Speak in ‘Space Creole’