Many of the world’s languages are in deep trouble. There are about 6,000 of them at the moment, but they are dying out at the rate of one every two weeks as those who use them as a native tongue die and their children prefer to speak one of the major languages instead.
Indeed, the top 20 languages in the world—as measured by number of native speakers—are now spoken by 96 percent of the world’s population. One language, of course, English, is rapidly becoming everyone’s second language and is now widely spoken in no fewer than 107 countries. If the world ever settles on a single language, it is highly likely that it will be English, which has numerous advantages as a lingua franca over and above being the world’s most widely spread language.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported a front-page story on one man’s crusade to save another dying language, Morse Code.
Morse Code, of course, is not, strictly speaking, a language at all. It is a code that works perfectly well in any language that can be expressed in the Roman alphabet and, I imagine, can be adapted for other languages as well. But it is unquestionably dying. The federal government no longer requires competency in Morse Code in order to get a ham radio operating license. The Internet, cheap phone rates, and other technological advances have mortally wounded it.
Morse Code was invented in the United States, by Samuel F. B. Morse. It was the only part of the Morse telegraph system that was wholly his creation, and a brilliant one it was. By noting the frequency of letters in English, Morse assigned dashes and dots to each letter, the most frequently used getting the shortest code. So E, the most common letter, is simply dot, while Z is dash dash dot dot. To Morse’s surprise, Morse Code proved so easy to learn that it was not even necessary to write it down: a trained operator could just listen and understand it by ear without “translating” it.
Ham radio operators used to do exactly that, but there aren’t many Morse users left anymore. So a retired astrophysicist named Chuck Adams, who loved using a ham radio as a child, cooked up a software program that can translate books into Morse. If you would like to listen to, say, H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds in Morse Code, Mr. Adams will be happy to sell you a CD for a modest $10.50.
It won’t save the Morse Code from ending up in the Smithsonian as Mr. Adams’s generation passes from the scene. But at least, like the grammars and recordings being created by linguists desperate to save dying languages from being utterly lost, it will preserve the sounds and rhythms of Morse forever.
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