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, CO₂ 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).
For 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.