Monday, September 27, 2004

The final frontier?

We know English is a global language, spoken with different degrees of fluency and in a wide range of varieties all over planet Earth. And now it is boldly going where no language has gone before - into space, the final frontier.

I know, I've gone all retro Captain Kirk Star Trek on you, but don't blame me, blame Richard Branson. Because today's news is that he's signed a deal to create the first fleet of spaceships for space tourism. Imagine that!... Providing you've got £115,000 handy, you too could be flying Virgin Galactic in as little as 3 years' time.

I hate flying at the best of times, so I'll not be fighting you for a ticket. Actually, I'm far more awed and impressed by our attempts to communicate with other linguistic beings. In 1977 Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, two spacecraft, set off for the outer reaches of space. They're still out there, and on board is a golden record. This was the 70s so we're not talking digital downloads here - we're talking about a round thing with grooves and a stylus. On it, there are recordings of the sounds of earth - a kiss, water, the wind - and people greeting the extra-terrestrials in 55 languages. The idea was that the record would help its finders to understand us.

In addition to the greetings, there is a longer welcome message from the United Nations Secretary-General at the time, Kurt Waldheim. Check out the link below to read it - it's in the middle of the page in italics. It's a moving piece of writing, but what's also significant is that it is in English. The collected dialects of a bunch of raiders in the 5th century becomes the language chosen to represent the planet in the 20th, and 21st, and for however much longer the spaceships last...

As achievements go, the beauty of the record's balance between linguistic diversity and a planetary lingua franca, and the enormous faith and hope with which this communication has been sent into the unknown - these things beat "space tourism" hands down. And I bet for £115,000 you still get rubbish in-flight food and headphones that don't work...

Branson reaches for the stars

Kurt Waldheim's Greeting

How the recordings were made


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