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A group of English-speaking settlers travel to the Earth-like exoplanet of Rataan, which is 5 light years away. They board the generation ship Genesis that will reach Rataan in 200 years (0.25% of the speed of light). However, transmissions between Genesis and Earth are limited to text-only communications because of power costs. A new ship is built 150 years after reaching Rataan and reaches Earth in 50 years. Although the written form of English will likely remain the same over the 400 intermediate years, will sound shifts impair communication when the delegates from Rataan reach Earth 400 years later?

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  • $\begingroup$ I know that no star exists 5 light years from Earth, it's just a reason that I made up to create a storyline for the question. $\endgroup$ – Galactic Apr 13 at 23:06
  • $\begingroup$ I'm just interested in linguistics and want to see how much a language would change after being spoken for 400 years by two separate groups. $\endgroup$ – Galactic Apr 13 at 23:07
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    $\begingroup$ Not a linguist, so I won't give a formal answer, but high-tech colonists would have recordings of Earth and that would help keep the language self-correcting. I'd guess a distinct dialect, idiomatic expressions, new words, etc. but it would be similar. $\endgroup$ – DWKraus Apr 13 at 23:19
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    $\begingroup$ If they still use the same written form of the language than learning to pronounce it intelligibly is trivially easy. For example, Greeks who learn ancient Greek normally pronounce it as if it were Modern Greek, but they can easily adapt the pronunciation to make themselves undestood by western scholars (who normally use the so-called Erasmian pronunciation). Or look at English-speaking actors -- many can simulate very convincingly a wide variety of accents. Or notice how a French person will automatically switch from modern spoken French to book French when they realize you are foreigner. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Apr 13 at 23:52
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    $\begingroup$ Basically, if the only difference between dialects is pure sound shifts, chances are that people will very quickly learn to disregard them. Sound shifts are very regular. What usually happens is that sound shifts induce shifts in grammar and vocabulary, because they tend to destroy systems by making some forms sound the same; the language then innovates new grammatical forms, or new words, or new meanings, to compensate. But if the written language remains the same, they will be able to communicate, maybe after a few hours of awkwardness. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Apr 14 at 0:01
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Absolutely. Look at how different American English and British English are after only 300 years, and that was with continual contact. Same with Australian English. A real, back woods Aussie is barely intelligible by the rest of the English speaking world. And just look at Scottish twitter. Unless your ship has some grammar nazis or English majors on it, the dialect will most certainly shift drastically in that amount of time. I'm sure they'd even come up with their own words and idioms and whatnot within 100 years. The dialect on Earth would have also changed drastically in that amount of time as well. Two diverging groups of the same language with no audible contact and written contact of status reports only? That'd be like taking a peasant from 1600s England and putting them in today's Louisiana Bayou. Communication would be difficult, but not impossible if the two groups cooperate to use words and an accent that they both can understand.

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It can be an impediment if you want it to be. 400 years of linguistic drift within English is enough that linguists begin to treat it as a distinct language (Of course what is and isn't a distinct language is a fuzzy and ill defined distinction amongst linguists).

We can use this as a marker as a ballpark estimate for how much drift you can get in a 400 year span. It's enough that you can read documents and make some sense of them but not with the ease that you read the well written posts of this site.

Given that this is the amount of drift among one population and you have two to work with you have enough drift to have the populations as mutually intelligible as you like. One easy way to get the result you want is your decision about how effective their efforts to counteract this drift over the course of their voyage.

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  • $\begingroup$ Francis Bacon, The Elements of the Common Lawes of England. London, 1636. That's 384 years ago. Check whether you can read it. Does it look as if it is written in a language distinct from Modern English? $\endgroup$ – AlexP Apr 14 at 6:07
  • $\begingroup$ This is asking for pronounciation, not written language. However, it looks like a different language to me. $\endgroup$ – Galactic Apr 14 at 6:22

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