Bridging ten millenia

Slate ran an article a few days ago on an interesting linguistic problem: how do we communicate with distant future generations?

The problem is simple enough: every country in the world that has the resources and the expertise to harness the power of the atom (whether to produce energy or to build bombs) is churning out radioactive waste. The stuff is toxic and not terribly useful, and ultimately, it all has to be sequestered somewhere. For now, we can tuck it away in secure places like Yucca Mountain and forget about it. No one is going to wander into the site, through the barbed wire and heavy signage, a century from now and inadvertently expose themselves to radiation.

But what if the encounter takes place not 100 years from now, but 1000 or 10,000? Assuming that any written symbols would still be intelligible at all, what could you possibly write that would unambiguously indicate danger?

The Department of Energy hired 13 linguists, scientists, and anthropologists to devise a conceptual plan for a 10,000-year marker system. The report  that came out of this project (Expert Judgment on Markers To Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion Into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant) presents a plan that the author calls “as elaborate as it is futile”.

From the article:

The report’s proposed solution is a layered message—one that conveys not only that the site is dangerous but that there’s a legitimate (nonsuperstitious) reason to think so. It should also emphasize that there’s no buried treasure, just toxic trash. Here’s how the authors phrase the essential talking points: “[T]his place is not a place of honor … no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here.” Finally, the marker system should communicate that the danger—an emanation of energy—is unleashed only if you disturb the place physically, so it’s best left uninhabited.

As for the problem of actually getting these essentials across, the report proposes a system of redundancy—a fancy way of saying throw everything at the wall and hope that something sticks. Giant, jagged earthwork berms should surround the area. Dozens of granite message walls or kiosks, each 25 feet high, might present graphic images of human faces contorted with horror, terror, or pain (the inspiration here is Edvard Munch’s Scream) as well as text in English, Spanish, Russian, French, Chinese, Arabic, and Navajo explaining what’s buried. This variety of languages, as Charles Piller remarked in a 2006 Los Angeles Times story, turns the monoliths into quasi-Rosetta stones. Three rooms—one off-site but nearby, one centrally located, and one underground—would serve as information centers with more detailed explanations of nuclear waste and its hazards, maps showing the location of similar sites around the world, and star charts to help intruders calculate the year the site was sealed. According to 1994 estimates, the whole shebang would cost about $68 million, but that’s just a ballpark figure based on very incomplete data.

There is also talk of creating “artificial myths” around the sites to discourage future explorers:

In the early 1980s, the semiotician and linguist Thomas Sebeok wrote a paper for the U.S. Office of Nuclear Waste Management titled “Communication Measures To Bridge Ten Millennia,” which proposes a folkloric relay system to pass along information: “The legend-and-ritual, as now envisaged, would be tantamount to laying a ‘false trail,’ meaning that the uninitiated will be steered away from the hazardous site for reasons other than the scientific knowledge of the possibility of radiation and its implications; essentially, the reason would be accumulated superstition to shun a certain area permanently.” Sebeok further suggested a Dan Brown-like “atomic priesthood” of physicists, anthropologists, semioticians and the like who would preserve the “truth.”

Clearly, this approach has its problems, but so do all the other ones. So what should we do? The author closes by advocating a different plan: leave the sites blank and unmarked, and hope that the future takes care of itself.

The article is here.

Language families, human families

Razib Khan over at ScienceBlogs has an excellent post today on the relationship between population genetics and the spread of languages around the globe. He gives a wide background of the anthropological, linguistic and biological research behind what we know about the evolution of the world’s languages. Razib quotes a 1997 paper by L. L. Cavalli-Sforza, Genes, peoples, and languages:

Most patterns found in the analysis of human living populations are likely to be consequences of demographic expansions, determined by technological developments affecting food availability, transportation, or military power. During such expansions, both genes and languages are spread to potentially vast areas. In principle, this tends to create a correlation between the respective evolutionary trees. The correlation is usually positive and often remarkably high. It can be decreased or hidden by phenomena of language replacement and also of gene replacement, usually partial, due to gene flow.*

The post also reviews a recent paper by Ger Reesink, Ruth Singer, and Michael Dunn: “Explaining the Linguistic Diversity of Sahul Using Population Models”.

The authors studied the languages of Sahul,  the continent that during the last Ice Age covered the area of modern Australia and New Guinea. Using “a Bayesian phylogenetic clustering method, originally developed for investigating genetic recombination”, the authors examine ” the underlying structure of the diversity of these languages, reflecting ancient dispersals, millennia of contact, and probable phylogenetic groups.”

The post is here, and the papers, cited below, can be downloaded by following the links in their titles.

  1. L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza (1997) Genes, peoples, and languages. Proc. Natl . Acad. Sci . USA
    Vol. 94, pp. 7719 –7724.
  2. Reesink G, Singer R, Dunn M. (2009) Explaining the Linguistic Diversity of Sahul Using Population Models. PLoS Biol 7(11): e1000241. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000241
*Errata: The first blockquote in this post was originally attributed to the Reesink paper – that was incorrect. The quote was taken from the Cavalli-Sforza paper. That has been corrected in this edited post.