Future fossils: how long do languages last?

All living languages change over time, drifting imperceptibly like the seasons.

They keep their inner logic, the rules governing word order, tense, the use of inflection to denote singular and plural. But words come and go, other languages infiltrate, spellings change, and dialects rise and fall.

As Oliver Kamm, grammar columnist at The Times, puts it, ‘English is a river. Its content is always changing and it has many tributaries.’

But though languages are tough, but they do eventually die, according to most linguists surviving from around 750 to – in exceptional cases – 10,000 years.

Indeed they are dying more rapidly today than before: it’s estimated that about 50 percent of the minor languages spoken today will disappear in the next 100 years, as the major tongues become ever more dominant. But it seems hard to imagine a time when our world languages – Mandarin, English, Spanish, Arabic, Hindustani – will be gone.

The half-life of words

David Farrier, an English lecturer at Edinburgh University, takes an oblique look at how long languages survive in his fine new book Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils, an extended essay on the fossil traces our civilisation will leave far into the future, not just tens of thousands but millions of years from now.

And as Farrier shows, in a memorable discussion on the disposal of nuclear waste, the question of language’s survival isn’t just academic,

Uranium, our core nuclear fuel, is immensely old, older than Earth itself, originating in the furnaces of supernovas more than six billion years ago. As the heaviest natural element it is, in Farrier’s words, ‘so large it strains against the limits of itself’, emitting radioactivity as it decays.

There are two schools of thought as to how it might be safely buried for the thousands of years during which it will retain radioactive charge.

The first is simple: to bury it as securely as possible and say nothing. Some of our civilisation’s secrets may be better left unspoken. At Finland’s repository on a remote island on the Bothnian coast, for example, waste is sealed in copper cannisters and sunk deep in the ancient bedrook to slumber under dark forests of black alder, forever.

The second philosophy, in stark contrast, argues for the encircling of repositories with markers warning future generations against intrusion.

The challenge is that we can’t do so using today’s languages, which, like nuclear waste, also ‘have a half-life’. They are, as paleolinguists say, subject to semantic or phonetic erosion, as their words evolve and disappear, and they are infiltrated and eventually absorbed by other languages.

Consider for example how much English has changed just in the past century. Today’s English is quite unlike that spoken at the turn of the last century, and drastically different from the language used by Shakespeare and the translators of the King James Bible. Beowulf, a text 1,000 years old, a drop in the ocean of geological time, can only be understood by Anglo-Saxon scholars. The great languages of the ancient world such as Latin and classical Greek survive only in libraries. And we have had to rely on the chance discovery of fragments such as the Rosetta Stone to interpret Sumerian, Egyptian hieroglyphics and other languages that once spanned empires. Even today there are some ancient languages like Isthmian and Olmec we still don’t quite understand.

Designing dread

Farrier tells the curious story of ‘nuclear semiotics’, a sign system designed to future proof the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, built to hold waste for 10,000 years.

The system, devised by the semiotician Thomas Sebeck, attempts to transcend language by using a symbolic language intended to frighten future generations about the consequences of disturbing the site. Sebeck argues that marker systems for nuclear sites should be developed by an ‘atomic priesthood … a commission of knowledgeable physicists, experts in radiation sickness, anthropologists, linguists, psychologists, semioticians and whatever additional expertise may be called for, now and in the future’.

The New Mexico system seeks to wreath the site with an aura of dread, and even supernatural retribution, that will retain its force for tens of thousands of years. It includes the use of jagged granite markers, a disorientating, oppressive tunnel system, and iconography modeled on Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream. As a last resort an inner chamber adjacent to the repository itself is furnished with with a periodic table, star maps indicating the date of the site’s construction, and a world map showing the location of other repositories.

As Farrier notes, we just don’t know how effective such a system will be. Can any marker system, even one that tries to go beyond language, retain traces of meaning over generations? Or are we being too pessimistic: are languages more hardy than Sebeck’s theory supposes?

‘I’, ‘thou’ and ‘bark’

Recent research suggests that languages may last much longer than most linguists believe. A 2013 Cambridge University study, nicely summarised in the Washington Post, suggests that some two dozen ‘ultraconserved words’ survive from the ‘proto-Eurasiastic’ language spoken 15,000 years ago at end of the last Ice Age, the common ancestor to about 700 of today’s languages, spoken by more than half the world’s population.

It’s a short and interesting list, worth quoting in full: ‘thou’, ‘I’, ‘not’, ‘that’, ‘we’, ‘to give’, ‘who’, ‘this’, ‘what’, ‘man’, ‘ye’, ‘old’, ‘mother’, ‘to hear’, ‘hand’, ‘fire’, ‘to pull’, ‘black’, ‘to flow’, ‘bark’, ‘ashes’, ‘to spit’, ‘worm’.

To use the terminology of the researchers, these 23 words are ‘cognates’, recurring in seven of today’s major language families, meaning the same thing and sounding almost the same as they did when spoken 150 centuries ago. Consider for example the similaries the English ‘father’ has with its equivalents in Italian (‘padre’), French (‘pere’), Latin (‘pater’) and Sanskrit (‘pitar’). The study suggests that we reinforce the survival of these words through our everyday speech patterns. The words we utter at least 16 times a day are most likely to be cognates.

Some of the words are what we might expect: ‘I’, ‘mother’, ‘man’, ‘we’, ‘not’, ‘give’, ‘pull’, ‘hear’, ‘hand’, ‘fire’. And others less so: ‘ashes’, ‘bark’, ‘worm’, ’spit’.

The researchers argue these unexpected words were much more important in the past than they are today. Bark, for instance, played a very significant role in the lives of forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers, being used to weave baskets and braid rope, and as fuel, insulation and even medicine. Others, like ‘spit’ are sound words, pithy onomatopoeias hard to improve upon.

Farrier quotes other research indicating that ten thousand years from now, English – if it is still spoken – will retain around 12 percent of basic words currently in circulation: enough to allow for a good deal of interpretation.

So languages may be tougher than the theory of nuclear semiotics suggests. And it seems reasonable to suppose that our technologically advanced civilisation, awash with information and archiving systems, will not be as obscure to future generations as past generations have been to us.

Speculation about whether the English language will be understandable in the deep future, therefore, seems bound up with the wider question of how long human civilisation itself might survive – an issue outside the remit of this post.

And if, through some catastrophe or collective unforgetting, our languages will be lost, it may be some consolation to recall they have left a trace in deep space.

Alien philology

The Golden Record placed on the Voyager I and II probes launched in 1977, both of which are now beyond the Solar System, archive sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth for the benefit of any intelligent extraterrestrials whose path they may cross.

The Record, in the words of Carl Sagan ‘a bottle into the cosmic ocean’, features 115 images, a variety of natural sounds, such as those made by surf, wind, thunder and animals, a selection of music and spoken greetings in 55 ancient and modern languages.

It will then be for alien philologists to write the next chapter in the history of our language.

Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils by David Farrier is published by 4thEstate. The image above is a detail from the book’s cover.