Communicating with the distant future

It’s sobering to imagine modern English as an archaic dialect – how the language might evolve and how our version(s) of it might appear from a position many generations into the future. That English will change radically in a few centuries or a thousand years is beyond doubt: read a few lines of Old or Middle English and you’ll get an idea of how much.

This presents a problem when communication with people in the far future is an absolute must. Whatever about literature becoming ever more impenetrable, how do we warn future humans about dangerous contaminants that we’ve buried for safekeeping? It’s not enough to isolate these materials now; they may need to be kept isolated for a very long time.

Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us (which I featured in a recent bookmash) describes such contaminants as “a big enough problem that we contemplate hollowing out entire mountains to store them”. There’s one in New Mexico called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), operating since 1999. Described by Weisman as a “boneyard for detritus from nuclear weapons and defense research”, it’s used to store waste from the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility, for example:

Anything at Rocky flats too hard or too hot to move was covered with concrete and 20 feet of fill, and will remain off-limits to hikers in the wildlife preserve, though how they’ll be deterred hasn’t been decided. At WIPP, where much of Rocky Flats ended up, the U.S. Department of Energy is legally required to dissuade anyone from coming too close for the next 10,000 years. After discussing the fact that human languages mutate so fast that they’re almost unrecognisable after 500 or 600 years, it was decided to post warnings in seven of them anyway, plus pictures.

Those seven languages are Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish – the official languages of the UN – plus Navajo, with space for “translation into future languages”, according to Wikipedia. Apparently the US Department of Energy has been working since 1983 with linguists, archaeologists, materials scientists, anthropologists, science fiction writers, and futurists to devise a warning system.

On the similar problem of sequestering greenhouse gases, Weisman reports:

Each year since 1996, Norway’s Statoil has sequestered 1 million tons of carbon dioxide in a saline formation under the North Sea. In Alberta, CO is being sequestered in abandoned gas wells. Back in the 1970s, then federal attorney David Hawkins joined in discussions with semioticians about how people 10,000 years hence might be alerted to buried nuclear wastes at what today is New Mexico’s WIPP site. Now, as director of the Climate Center of the Natural Resources Defense Council, he contemplates how to tell the future not to drill into sequestered reservoirs of invisible gases we might sweep under the rug, lest they unexpectedly burp to the surface.

Usually I don’t have a bad word to say about language change, but here it becomes part of a serious potential problem for any life forms on the planet in the semi-distant future. Given the rate and effect of language change, it makes sense to use pictures in such cases, even as a complement to multilingual warnings (whatever they’ll be worth).

2007 radioactivity danger logoFor all the communicative potential of Blissymbols and similar systems, not least for people with language difficulties or disorders, we’ll likely need a set of ideograms more detailed and unambiguous than that (and less cute than emoji) for warning future humans about dangerous substances over which we’ve backed ourselves into a perennial corner.


The radio show 99% Invisible has a detailed post and podcast on this. Thanks to Nigel for alerting me to it in a comment.



17 Responses to Communicating with the distant future

  1. romayka says:

    What a brilliant observation it is that the language is changing. But as we are submerged in it on a daily basis, we do not notice it, until someone like you brings our attention to it. It is similar to being a parent who suddenly realizes that the newborn is already a grown woman with a family of her own.

  2. anne says:

    Maybe the solution will involve “translating” the text every 100 years or so, updating it so it will be linguistically current to that moment. We can read texts from 100 years ago pretty easily.

    I guess they chose Navajo because of the site’s location in NM? I like it.

  3. Nigel says:

    For those interested in a little more on this, I warmly recommend Episode 114 (Ten Thousand Years) of the podcast 99% Invisible which is about the communication problems faced by the WIPP project.

  4. Stan says:

    romayka: Yes, it is similar, though we can train ourselves to notice language change in action.

    anne: I wondered about this. I imagine there will be periodic updates: those future translations Wikipedia mentions. It would require considerable financial and logistical commitment and perhaps also political will and stability. Yes, Navajo was chosen because it’s a significant local language.

    Nigel: Thanks very much. I’ve edited the post to include this, with credit, and have downloaded the podcast for later.

  5. bevrowe says:

    I think we’re exaggerating this. Printing, digital technology and globalisation have changed everything: two hundred years after Chaucer, he was already impenetrable; Shakespeare is still readable after four hundred years.

    The language will change, of course. Thousands of words will come and go. There’ll be some changes in syntax. But the amount invested in keeping English recognisable is probably more than ten orders of magnitude greater than in, say, 1500. And growing fast all the time.

  6. Ray Ward says:

    I’d suggest using a dead language, such as Latin. The limited vocabulary might prevent communication about the specific danger (is there a Latin word for “radiation”?), but a dead language will have words for ideas like “danger” and “death” and “do not open.”

  7. Stan says:

    Bev: Shakespeare is still readable, but not entirely, and such uncertainty becomes critical in life-or-death situations, which this would amount to. There’s no guarantee that digital resources will still be available a millennium or ten from now, etc.; far from being catastrophe proof, we sometimes seem hell-bent on it.

    Ray: I think including Latin would be a good idea. It’s not going to change in the interim, and many languages derive heavily from it.

  8. bevrowe says:

    Stan: “Millennium or ten” is a pretty loose time scale. I know disaster might happen but I’d suggest that the chances of English still being around in a recognisable form in 1000 years time is greater than 5%. 10,000 years time: silly to even guess.

    You’re being picky about Shakespeare but I’ll rephrase: after 200 years few people could read much of Chaucer; after 400 years educated people can read 98% of Shakespeare. And – global disasters apart – I’m confident that will be largely true still in two or three hundred years.

    • Stan says:

      In a recognisable form, yes, probably – that is, if people are still around. But the point is whether it will be clearly intelligible, and that is significantly less certain. As for Shakespeare: how about two or three (or twenty or thirty) thousand years? The time scales I mention are deliberately loose.

  9. wisewebwoman says:

    I read “The World Without Us” several years back. Riveting. As to posting intelligible danger signs for the future, I am not as optimistic as the rest of you as to the continuation, ad finitum, of the human species.


    • Stan says:

      WWW: Our current scale of living is unsustainable, and I think there’s too much inertia, denial and apathy to sufficiently change our course. The book was an intriguing extrapolation of the implications of that.

  10. Roger says:

    I take “ten thousand’ to mean “a whole lot”, with no specificity.
    For ex, Minnesota’s “land of 10,000 lakes”, which a minister of highways in neighbouring Manitoba thought to upstage with licence plates reading “land of 100,000 lakes” on all Mb vehicles.
    That was thought a crass misunderstanding of what Minnesota’s
    ten thousand was supposed to suggest.
    In the first Star Wars, Han Solo is menaced by a low-life who tells him he owes Jabba “ten thousand” in no specified currency.
    “To a poet a thousand years hence” does it just as well with less.
    As phrases go, they’re about how to be as vague as one can possibly be, and still say something.
    Cp. “hundreds /and/ thousands” vs. “hundreds /of/ thousands”.

  11. adamf2011 says:

    If governments or even local institutions that can assume responsibility continue to exist, then signage can be periodically updated, and updates would of course include revisions to the texts. I think however that those are both awful big assumptions to make given the time periods in question (i.e., both that governments will remain in existence continually, and that they will continue to take responsibility for the hazardous substances buried by their predecessors). Should this not be the case, the problem may be less language change, and more the simple fact that signage, like all physical objects, won’t last: how long can a sign stay before being damaged, stolen, or simply fading away, regardless of whether the sign uses words or pictures to convey its warning?

    To my mind, producing such long-lasting poisons and leaving them to posterity is clearly a sign of wishful thinking at best, and an IBGYBG mentality at worst.

    It’s crazy.

    • Stan says:

      Adam: I agree that those are enormous assumptions – too big to make, really. The project has considered other approaches, such as altering the landscape to try to make it scary or ominous, or putting warnings into folklore and songs that might be sustained by posterity. Neither is reassuring; it is a crazy situation.

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