Astronauts vs cosmonauts: Russian influence on the language of space
Happy International Day of Human Space Flight! Or, if you’re a Russian speaker: С днем космонавтики! (Happy Cosmonautics Day)!
The International Day of Human Space Flight recognizes the first manned space flight, which was undertaken by Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on 12 April, 1961. Gagarin’s 108-minute Earth orbit (орбитальный облёт планеты Земля) won the first leg of the space race (космическая гонка) for the Soviet Union, and his contribution to the success of the nation was deemed so great that his ashes were interred in the walls of the Kremlin upon his death in 1968.
In honour of Gagarin and the 554 others (as of 7 March, 2016) who have orbited our earth, let’s explore the language of space…
What’s the difference between astronaut and cosmonaut?
First things first. Why is Neil Armstrong an astronaut, but Yuri Gagarin a cosmonaut? Even in Russian, the same rule applies: Armstrong is an astronavt (астронавт), while Gagarin is a kosmonavt (космонавт. Kosmos (Космос) is the key to a lot of Russian space words: kosmonavt (astronaut), kosmonavtika, Космонавтика (astronautics), kosmodrom, космодром (cosmodrome, or space launch facility), and kosmicheskaya gonka, космическая гонка (space race), to name a few. In English and in many Romance languages, astro- is the prefix of choice, while Russian sticks with cosmo-. Why the linguistic divergence?
Research suggests that the term kosmonavtika first appeared in a paper on interplanetary space travel delivered by Jewish engineer Ary Abramovich Sternfeld in 1933. Presented at a conference in Poland, ‘Initiation à la Cosmonautique’ failed to cause a stir. In 1935 Sternfeld moved to the Soviet Union, presumably taking the word with him.
Fast-forward to 1960, and the cusp of the first manned space mission. A committee of leading experts meet and decide that kosmonavt is the most suitable name for this exciting new profession. Kosmonavt was recorded in the fourth edition of Ozhegov’s Dictionary of the Russian Language (published in 1960) – and by 12 April 1961, there was no doubting the meaning of the term.
Sputnik and other -niks
The Russian word for satellite is sputnik (спутник), which literally means ‘fellow traveller’: s– means ‘with’, and put’ means path or way. The first satellite – imaginatively named Sputnik 1 – went into orbit in October 1957. The second satellite (any guesses about the name?) is arguably more famous: launched in November 1957, it carried the first living creature into orbit. Imagine Sputnik 2 and the first dog in space as ‘fellow travellers’, crossing new frontiers as they travel deeper into space together. Just gloss over Laika’s fate!
Although not all Soviet satellites took the name sputnik, the term became a byword among English speakers for many unmanned objects launched from the USSR during the space race.
The suffix –nik had already long been borrowed from Russian (and Yiddish) to form nouns denoting a person associated with a specified thing or quality; the earliest example in the current Oxford English Dictionary entry is realestatenick, and other early instances cited include allrightnick, consumptionnick, and lodgenik. The launch of Sputnik, though, helped popularize this trend; as the American Dialect Society journal American Speech noted in 1958, ‘On learning that a dog was in the Soviet Moon, the Detroit News (and almost every other paper)… referred to the satellite as Muttnik… From then on there was no end of -niks.’ Of these, only beatnik, peacenik, and refusenik have proved to have much lasting power.
Space Station Mir, one of the largest satellites ever to orbit the earth, also carried a Russian name. Mir (мир) means both ‘peace’ and ‘world’: a fitting moniker for a spacecraft that welcomed astronauts from different countries across the globe during its time in orbit (1986-2001).
Language of the stars
These days, Russian – and occasionally Runglish – is one of the official languages of space. The Soviet-built spaceport at Baikonur (Баиконур) in Kazakhstan is one of the most active in the world. Tim Peake, the first British astronaut of the ESA (European Space Agency) blasted off from there in December 2015. Peake learned Russian as part of his training, much of which took place in Star City (Звездной Городок), a small town in the Moscow region that was once home to the Soviet space programme.
Tim left for the International Space Station on the rocket Soyuz TMA-19M: soyuz (союз) is the Russian word for ‘union’ (as in Советский Союз or Sovetskii Soyuz, the Soviet Union), and the Soyuz rockets have been carrying both cosmonauts and astronauts successfully into space since 1968. The commander of the Soyuz is always a native Russian speaker, so for astronauts it is imperative to understand the language. It’s also useful on board the ISS: Clarissa, the talking computer on the space station, is fluent in both English and Russian.
So how are you going to celebrate International Day of Human Space Flight this year? If the answer’s ‘by learning a few more words of Russian’, then – in the words of Yuri Gagarin – Поехали (let’s go)!