ISS Astronauts Speak In A "Space Creole" Called Runglish

When English-speaking American and European astronauts work alongside Russian cosmonauts, how do they communicate? Creatively, it turns out. On the International Space Station (ISS), crewmembers often communicate in an English-Russian hybrid dubbed "Runglish." It just goes to show that even Earth's best and brightest still face basic human challenges.

Universal Language

Let's back up. If astronauts are already doing all that training to go into space, why don't they all just learn a single language and use that on the ISS? Well, they do. English is the official working language of the International Space Station. The problem is that the astronauts have to get there first, and—thanks in part to the end of NASA's space shuttle program in 2011—the only way to do that is aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. What language does Mission Control use to give commands to the Soyuz? You guessed it: Russian.

For that reason, all English-speaking astronauts have to learn not just conversational Russian, but a specialty Russian that includes technical language. That way, they can understand commands like "monitor propellant consumption" and "perform deorbit burn"—a far cry from your average "which way to the library?" It's no easy feat. British astronaut Commander Tim Peake said it was the single hardest part of his training. "I felt like walking out halfway through," he told The Telegraph. "I'm not a natural linguist and Russian for me has been particularly hard. It's probably the part that I've found the toughest, and at times, the least enjoyable."

The Best Thing Since Slaysayushiy Chiz

But official commands are one thing. Once the astronauts are up there, technical lingo sometimes takes a backseat to friendly conversation. That's when crewmembers start speaking the language fusion Lauren Gawne, host of the Lingthusiasm podcast, calls "space creole." Co-host Gretchen McCulloch explains that to be as clear as possible, most astronauts will try speaking to one another in their non-native language—the English speakers in Russian, the Russian speakers 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. The result is slow and deliberate, but results in better communication overall.

Of course, astronauts weren't the first to use Runglish. Russian immigrants to the United States have been doing it for decades. A New York Times article describes how even when speaking to Russian shopkeepers, many new immigrants would rather use English terms, leading to deli orders of "potyaytoaz" (potatoes), "tyurki" (turkey), and "slaysayushiy chiz" (sliced cheese). "Space creole" it may be, but there's nothing space-age about the way ISS crewmembers communicate. They're just people connecting the way people always have.

Hear linguist Arika Okrent discuss Runglish and other lingua franca on the Curiosity Podcast. Stream or download the podcast using the player below, or find the episode everywhere podcasts are found, including iTunesStitcher, and Gretta.

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. Astronauts aboard the ISS used "no rinse body bath pouch assy" to wash their hands. 00:22

  2. Chris Hadfield demonstrated washing hands aboard the International Space Station: 00:33

Written by Ashley Hamer March 24, 2017

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