The end of language as we know it?
Jamie McKittrick looks to the future of language, typography and design.
4 December 2014
These are words. If you are reading this it is because you have been taught to recognise that letters, when strung into certain arrangements, form words which are understood to mean things. In this way we are able to share ideas, feelings, truths, lies and adventures both real and fictional. But words only have the power of the meanings we assign them. Break them back down into letters and see that they are merely symbols with an arbitrary link to sound, utterly meaningless on their own.
The written word itself is estimated to be only about 8,000 years old. In the last 1,000, English has changed so dramatically that we require full translations for most texts from that period: Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, and Piers Plowman all bear little resemblance to our contemporary English. There are texts, such as those of the Indus Valley Civilization, which are already illegible after only 5,000 years. By comparison the half-life of a small percentage of radioactive wastes stored underground is estimated to be upwards of 10,000 years.
In the late 1980s the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico put together an incredible panel comprised of anthropologists, semiologists, designers, astronomers and a variety of experts from other fields tasked with “developing design guidelines for markers and messages to communicate with future societies about the location and danger of the buried wastes”. The idea was that the radioactive waste they had stored underground would outlast our current understanding of civilisation. The words and symbols we would associate with danger and radiation may not be intelligible to future generations and any signs we may put up could be either meaningless to or misinterpreted with the likelihood of any message conveying its meaning in 200,000 years diminishing almost to nil.
One panellist suggested displaying images of Edward Munch’s Scream all around the site as a universal symbol of horror and warning. Another panellist broadened the idea of a symbol of deterrence by proposing the creation of series of huge concrete needles jutting up from the ground around the waste disposal site to create an imposing “landscape of thorns”. But there is no way of knowing that these wouldn’t become an attraction akin to the Pyramids of Giza or the atomic bomb worshipped by the subterraneans in Beneath the Planet of the Apes.
The WIPP report is a fascinating read and there are articles available which detail the smorgasbord of concepts developed by the WIPP and other quangos to warn the future. These include (taken with a pinch of salt): an Atomic Priesthood; DNA-encoded plants; and colour-changing radiation cats which would have their importance codified into human consciousness through folklore and song.
But outside the immediate danger of radioactive waste, the WIPP panel seemed to be most interested in the idea that language itself has a half-life. Only a century-and-a-half ago Charles Dickens was writing run-on sentences of 140 words. These days we have entire novels being tweeted out in comparatively miniscule portions of 140 characters. With such obsolescence of language (and the inherent treachery of the symbol) it is no great leap to think that in 10,000 years the three-pronged radiation pictogram (pictured) could be reinterpreted as the figure of an angel with wings outspread, inviting pilgrims to a grim demise instead of warning them away.
Language, like all forms of technology, can be outdated and supplanted by newcomers. The floppy disc has gone the way of the dinosaur, dwindling numbers of people can play the VHS tapes stored in their lofts, and the DVD, Blu-Ray and cloud storage will follow. We live in a world of planned obsolescence and technological supersedence: I have no means by which to listen to my dad’s old music cassettes, once a defining part of our Saturday afternoon drive. I scan through my bookmarks online only to discover the pages that once interested me have vanished. All things tend towards entropy: the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Look to Ozymandias, MiniDisc, Ancient Sumerian, or you and I for proof of that. “We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture,” proclaims Level II of the WIPP warning. Terrifying, humbling.
It is the nature of language to change and if we are still around in 200,000 years the languages of today will bear little resemblance to their decedents. Likewise the technologies of the future will be incompatible with those of our times. Will we have devices that are able to interpret this text? Will these very letters bear any meaning to people or will they be the mystic babble of the past? What is the point of writing anything if it will eventually be lost to the ages? The head can spin till it comes off when thinking about these questions. These are words, yes. But they will not last.
Our latest exhibition Type Motion features over 240 outstanding examples of text and typography used alongside the moving image. Click here for more information.