Words for Water Being Sent to the Moon Europa

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"Water", "water", everywhere — and it's pronounced differently wherever you go.

See the dozen or so US and UK phonetic and phonemic transcriptions and audio clips provided by Wiktionary here.  The last of the US audio clips even has the trace of an initial "h", as some people pronounce "wh-" interrogatives.


From Marc Sarrel

I recently heard about an engraving that is attached to the Europa Clipper spacecraft, to be launched to the moon of Jupiter in October of this year.  Europa likely has a large liquid water ocean underneath its shell of water ice.  There is more liquid water on Europa than on Earth.

The vault plate features waveforms for the word “water” in 103 spoken languages, plus a symbol that represents the word in American Sign Language.  If you scroll down a bit on the page, you can choose one of the languages, see the waveform and hear the spoken word.

I think this is a really compelling way to represent the common link between Earth and Europa.

I agree with Marc.

Now, let's explore some (just a few) of the features of the vault plate (here's NASA's website for Europa Clipper’s Vault Plate if you want to follow along and do some exploring of your own).  Those that struck me most powerfully included, first of all, the Waveform Generator.  On the left side, it has a menu of 103 spoken languages, from Abkhaz to Yorùbá. Each language has an audio recording that you can play, together with the word for water in the script for that language, if it has one.  On the right side, the generator displays the requisite wave form of the language under consideration.

The second language on the list is American Sign Language (ASL).  The circular symbol representing the sign for water in American Sign Language was created using a technique in image processing and data compression, called a Fourier transform.

On one side of the plate is an array of all the waveforms of the "water words" created by Waveform Generator.  For those who are capable of "reading" the waveforms of words, it must be quite a thrill in one gaze to see more than a hundred words for water "written" in a single universal "script" that presumably could be used to record the languages of extraterrestrials, if any exist.

Speaking of writing, one thing that astonished me as I was examining both sides of the plate is that the poem by U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón, titled "In Praise of Mystery:  A Poem for Europa", is engraved in her own cursive handwriting.  Given that practically everything else on the plate is so technist and presentist or futurist, it is a pleasant surprise that the creators of the plate cared enough about the arts to include this touch of the traditionalist and humanist.

To match Limón's poem, though taking up much less space, is the Drake Equation:


    • N = the number of civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy with which communication might be possible (i.e. which are on the current past light cone);


    • R = the average rate of star formation in our Galaxy.
    • fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets.
    • ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets.
    • fl = the fraction of planets that could support life that actually develop life at some point.
    • fi = the fraction of planets with life that go on to develop intelligent life (civilizations).
    • fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space.
    • L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

Engraved in the handwriting of astrophysicist and astrobiologist, Frank Drake (1930–2022), 

…the Drake Equation is a tribute to the visionary idea that the probability of finding life in the cosmos is something we can estimate. The Drake Equation is a mathematical formula for the possibility of finding advanced, communicating civilizations in the Milky Way. This equation has guided and inspired scientific research in various fields related to astrobiology, which is the study of the origin, evolution, and distribution of life in the universe.


A neat feature of this NASA website is that the two-sided image of the Europa Clipper vault plate is in 3D and is ingeniously designed so that you can spin it around in every direction (up, down, left, right, obverse / reverse), all the while carrying the intricate contents of the two surfaces, no matter which way you turn it.  The plate is about 7 X 11 inches in size and .4 inches thick.  It is made of tantalum (Ta; atomic number 73).

To conclude, I will bring this post back down to language as it is actually spoken on earth, at least by one person, my granddaughter Samira.  When she was young (let's say, ages about 2-8), I thought she had a speech impediment.  I knew she was smart because of the clever things she would say and do, but — no matter how patient I was with her and how long I worked with her — simply couldn't get her to pronounce things correctly.  For example, once she told me that she wanted a "marmay tay".  For the life of me, I couldn't figure out what she wanted.  Finally I had to ask my son to interpret.  "Oh," he said, "she wants a 'mermaid tail'".

Directly germane to this post, however, is the way she pronounced "water".  From Samira's mouth, it came out as "wadduh".  Thinking that other people would make fun of her, I despaired.

I said very, very clearly in enPR (like AHD): wô'tə(r) (including the "r", which is the way I pronounce the word.

"Yes, grampa," she said, "wadduh".  That went back and forth many times, but she just couldn't hear what I was ever so patiently saying, it was impossible for her to utter the word I begged her to say.  That continued for several years of visits, and I would always go back to Philadelphia crestfallen.

Then the pandemic struck, and I was unable to see Samira in Dallas for four years.  When I at last had a chance to visit her, Samira was already a teenager, or close to it.  I was stunned when I heard her say, "Granpa, would you get me a glass of water?"


I have gone on at such length about Samira's pronunciation of "water", because what the audio of the Waveform Generator says is pretty close to what she said when she was still a little kid.  Listen for yourself here.

Now, after all these exertions, I need a cup of wô'tər.


Selected readings



  1. Chris Button said,

    March 12, 2024 @ 10:47 am

    More than one British English speaker has told me how hard it is for them to be understood in North America when they say "water".

  2. Cervantes said,

    March 12, 2024 @ 1:36 pm

    Water you know . . . .

  3. Chas Belov said,

    March 12, 2024 @ 2:58 pm

    Some of the words seem quite at odds with their spelling. I know Cherokee uses a syllabary that has some characters which look like Latin letters, so wouldn't expect those to match. However, Kala is shown as Wai but sounds like "ah-ri". French is "eau" but sounds like "doe" (I'm guessing the speaker said "d'eau"). And "mni" in Lakota becomes three syllables. There seem to be a lot of these mismatches. ¿What's going on here?

  4. Rakau said,

    March 13, 2024 @ 4:55 am

    No Polynesian languages on the list. These languages are spoken right across the largest ocean on the the planet; the Pacific. There are many different languages but there is one word only for water from Hawai’i to (Easter Island) Rapanui – Te Pito o te Henua to Aotearoa (New Zealand); wai or sometimes vai. It is used for fresh water (wai Maori) and salt water (Waitai), for place names (eg Waikiki) and personal names (my wife’s name is Wai). The list is Eurocentric and global north centric.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    March 13, 2024 @ 6:15 am


    Thank you so much for apprising us of the ubiquity of wai for "water" across the Pacific. That is one of most astonishing facts about language usage I have ever heard. I'm going to have to stop and think about how it happened — the mechanisms for dispersal, temporally and spatially, and where the ur-etymon originated.

  6. KeithB said,

    March 13, 2024 @ 9:10 am

    "Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink."

  7. Terry K. said,

    March 14, 2024 @ 11:25 am

    For the French, it's "de l'eau" that's being said. That's what I hear.

    Due to a combination of how French grammar works and the particular word for water, /o/, I think you can't just say /o/ to convey the idea of water in French. So when the word is cited, it's not cited by itself, just /o/ but as /do/ (d'eau) or /də lo/ (de l'eau).

  8. Rodger C said,

    March 14, 2024 @ 11:37 am

    Hence the Kreyol word for water is dlo. Whence the deity Maman-Dlo, or in North America, sometimes Mama Glow.

  9. stephen said,

    March 14, 2024 @ 7:36 pm

    I wish they'd included the Hittite word for water, waatar.

    Here's a discussion of it.

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