Martian Motions: the Beginnings of the Red Planet’s Sign Languages, by Olivia Cowhig

On the 18th of April 2038 a landing craft carrying Julia Velasquez touched down on the surface of the red planet near Borealis-1. As far back as 2021 scientists had identified northern mid-latitudes as a prime colony site (Morgan et al. 2021 and Bergan 2021) – its water and oxygen availability secured by proximity to the ice on the Martian north pole.

Julia was the first Deaf astronaut and ASL signer, her decade long meteoric rise covered widely (NBC News 2019, Ferreiro 2021). Part of her job, amongst many other duties, was to bring sign language to the colony, as an unexpected effect of the dust storms was to black out their radio communications, leaving them unable to communicate over radio if one hit during a spacewalk. And thus the story of sign languages on the red planet began.

The second colony to be founded was the Castra Pavonis. Set up in the lava tubes of the Tharsis Mons volcano range, it was shielded from the deadly radiation that bathed the surface (Boston, P., et al. 2004). Borealis-1 was abandoned as a residential site in favour of living in Castra Pavonis. Mining and exporting ice from the boreal ice fields became seasonal work.

The third pre-independence colony was The City of Wisdom in 2117, laid out almost a century beforehand and spearheaded by the United Arab Emirates (World Government Summit 2019, Gergawi, Sharaf & Saeed 2019). Its main focus was long-term residence unlike Borealis-1 and Castra Pavonis’s main focus of research. While it is not clear who brought sign language into the colony, it is theorised to have been a small number of rich families who paid their way in with a Deaf family member.

The Terran Global Collapse of 2121 snapped the umbilical cord between the two worlds. In How the Solar System Shattered: A History of the Global Collapse and Its Interplanetary Effects (2190), Mwongo pinned the blame on climate change which had been taking its toll on all nations, their citizens’ quality of life gradually sinking. They claimed it came to a head when Earth entered a third great depression, deeper and harsher than the other two combined. Supply chains collapsed, including (most critically for sign languages) healthcare resources, and Mars had to rapidly catch up and become completely self-sufficient. The Castra Pavonis colony expanded to become a chain of mining towns across the Tharsis Montes – becoming the Tharsis Province, all life found in the caves be damned. The Red Planet barely scraped along.

While hearing aids and cochlear implant technology had previously been present as an excuse not to learn/teach sign languages, there was a massive dip in availability – and deafness grew and grew (Mwongo 2190). Deaf schools were set up in both Tharsis Province and The City of Hope – heralding the age of Martian sign languages.

Two families – both alike in dignity, upon fair Ares where we lay our scene.

Tharsis Sign Language (TSL)descended from ASL and came from the Velasquez Deaf School in 2133. Material produced by the school (Lügnerin 2139) shows that a lot of its vocabulary expanded and adapted to describe subterranean environments and different types of rocks, with many shades of red. Different shades use the mouth placement with the first letter of an affecting colour being the handshape. Red uses the index finger and points at the mouth, browny-red uses the B-handshape (flat palm thumb down), purply-red the P-handshape (similar to a walking person), rusty-orange an O-handshape (handshape similar to the gesture of holding binoculars), and a deep blood red utilising the R-handshape (crossed fingers).

It was also used as a second language by many mine workers, continuing a tradition set by Julia a century ago. It was useful as many were deafened by mining accidents, and it could be used to discuss things that management couldn’t listen in on over the radio. 70 years later it would be used to coordinate the Red Rebellion (Mentirosa 2219).

Wise Sign Language (WSL) had many source languages. 伪[Wěi]’s (2146) analysis of the language indicated that precise genealogy was not known as it emerged from a creole, using a lot of International Signs. It had 4 concurrent fingerspelling alphabets – used to sign the four major languages of The City of Wisdom. The English, Russian and Arabic being from their Terran counterparts’ sign languages and Mandarin written in mid-air using stroke handshapes. It was very depictive sign heavy (signers acting or drawing out scenes rather than using wordier sentences) with less correlation between it and any spoken language.

Its status was tenuous for the first years of its existence as many parents preferred oralist teaching methodologies – limiting deaf children to spoken language, which they cannot fully understand, and restricting their access to sign language. In zir report to the Mars Health Care Association, كذاب [Kadhaab] (2140) theorised this was due to the City of Wisdom not having the same Deaf influences as Tharsis Province historically: “the mental health dangers of oralism and benefits of sign language are not widely known”. However in 2144 a WSL department was set up within University of Wisdom, the first Martian university, which secured its place within education and academia.

The divisive politics between the sign languages roughly mirrored division between the two colonies. In her book Anghywir (2160), being fluent in both languages, described each group’s opinion of the other. Amongst WSL communities, the language was the “premium pure language” and TSL was positioned as a “lower language polluted by English”. They used this to shore up their status with the emerging Wise aristocracy and sell their language, the first native language of Mars. On the other hand, DHH people from Tharsis Province thought of themselves as a historically rich language group amongst the working people of Mars. “Tharsis deafies sometimes mock those from Wisdom as snobbish puritans who get a twisted enjoyment out of snubbing others.”

Both claimed to be Martian Sign Language (MSL) and arguments between signers as to which is the true MSL were common (Anghywir 2160) – although the similarities of their life experiences still outweighed their differences. It was in this fractious manner that Deaf people secured the future of their languages amongst the stars.


NBC News (2019) ‘Space Without Sound: One Woman’s Journey To Become America’s First Deaf Astronaut | Mach | NBC News’ [Internet video] Available from: [Accessed 12/07/2222]

Ferreiro, E. (2021) ‘First Deaf Aspiring Astronaut: Julia Velasquez’ Unusualverse [Internet Article] Available from:,determination%20is%20admirable%3A%20Julia%20Velasquez [Accessed: 12/07/2222]

World Government Summit (2019) Mars المريخ 2117 , [Internet] Available from: [Accessed: 12/07/2222]

Gergawi, S. A., Sharaf, O., & Saeed, N. A. (2019) Mars 2117 [Online Booklet] Available from: [Accessed:12/07/2222], World Government Summit

Bergan, B., (2021) ‘Where should we settle on Mars?’ Interesting Engineering [Internet Article] Available from:’Near’%20polar%20regions%20best%20place,likely%20to%20find%20subsurface%20ice [Accessed: 12/07/2222]

Boston, P., et al. (2004), System Feasibility Demonstrations of Caves and Subsurface Constructed for Mars Habitation and Scientific Exploration [Online Document] Available from: [Accessed: 12/07/2022], USRA Reports, NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts.

Morgan, G. A., et al. (2021) ‘Availability of Subsurface water-ice resources in the northern mid-latitudes of Mars’ Nature Astronomy 5, pp. 230–236 Available at: [Accessed 12/07/2222]

Anghywir, Ll., (2160) Red Sky at Night: The Case for a Unified Deaf Mars, Borealis-1, Borealis Independent Publishers

Mwongo, G. (2190) How the Solar System Shattered: A History of the Global Collapse and Its Interplanetary Effects, Tranquillity Station, Artemis’ Library

كذاب Kadhaab, Dh.  (2140) ‘Deaf Health and Social Care Improvements’ City of Wisdom Health Board Systematic Review of Care Provision, Wise Health Holy Mandate Inquisitor Bureau, Mars Health Care Association

Lügnerin, ß., (2139) Martian Sign Language for Dummies! Tharsis Province, Velasquez School for the Deaf

Mentirosa, J. (2213) Underhanded Dealings; How Sign Language Facilitated The Red Rebellion, Phobos, Publishers Two The Moon!

伪说谎 Wěi, S. H. (2146) Wise Sign Language: A Sociolinguistic Overview, City of Wisdom, University of Wisdom

(citations pre-2022 are real and available online, citations post-2022 are fictitious)

Olivia is a Hard of Hearing student of BSL, Deaf Studies and Linguistics at YSJ. She is a polyglot and conlanger (constructed languages) – her favourite conlang being toki pona. She is also an avid Trekkie and all-round nerd.