What happens when we lose the sounds of the past?
Thousands of years of human stories have been told in paintings, and sculptures, and sheet music, and text; in shards and shells, and other fragments of things left behind. But because the history of recorded sound is only 160 years old, the original sounds of the distant past are lost to time.
“And the history of recorded sound, it’s not even very high-quality recorded sound,” said Christos Kyriakakis, the director of the Immersive Audio Laboratory at the University of Southern California.
Kyriakakis is part of a team of researchers who recently set out to analyze the acoustics of Byzantine era churches. “You think about wax cylinders from the Edison era [in the 1890s],” Kyriakakis said. “But we’re talking about trying to analyze sounds that were happening in the fourth century.”
This may be especially relevant in our age of texting and increasingly limited sentence structure. After all, if languages disappear, how will we remember what was really said, let alone its meaning? What, for example, will the words of history’s speeches sound like to future generations not familiar with the language? Will they sound as strange yet oddly familiar as the language of Shakespeare, or be more inaccessible, like Old English? Consider the differences:
Her for se here of East Englum ofer Humbremuþan to Eoforwicceastre on Norþhymbre, ond þær wæs micel ungeþuærnes þære þeode betweox him selfum, ond hie hæfdun hiera cyning aworpenne Osbryht, ond ungecyndne cyning underfengon Ællan; ond hie late on geare to þam gecirdon þæt hie wiþ þone here winnende wærun, ond hie þeah micle fierd gegadrodon, ond þone here sohton æt Eoforwicceastre, ond on þa ceastre bræcon, ond hie sume inne wurdon, ond þær was ungemetlic wæl geslægen Norþanhymbra, sume binnan, sume butan; ond þa cyningas begen ofslægene, ond sio laf wiþ þone here friþ nam.-The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
And now, Chaucer:
Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
Bifil that in that seson on a day,
In southwerk at the tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage
To caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At nyght was come into that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye,
Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle
In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle,
That toward caunterbury wolden ryde.
The chambres and the stables weren wyde,
And wel we weren esed atte beste.
And shortly, whan the sonne was to reste,
So hadde I spoken with hem everichon
That I was of hir felaweshipe anon,
And made forward erly for to ryse,
To take oure wey ther as I yow devyse.
But nathelees, whil I have tyme and space,
Er that I ferther in this tale pace,
Me thynketh it acordaunt to resoun
To telle yow al the condicioun
Of ech of hem, so as it semed me,
And whiche they weren, and of what degree,
And eek in what array that they were inne;
And at a knyght than wol I first bigynne.-Canterbury Tales prologue
More recognizable, yes? But those were changes that took place over the course of centuries, what with invasions and surviving older languages being assimilated into newer ones. But what of the future?
There is a famous case of a 13-year-old Scottish girl who began a school essay: “My summer hols wr CWOT. B4, we used to go to NY 2C my bro, his GF and thr 3 :-@ kds FTF. ILNY, it’s a Gr8 plc.” The rest of the essay continued in a similar vein.
For the record the simple translation is: “My summer holidays were a complete waste of time. Before, we used to go to New York to see my brother, his girlfriend and their three screaming kids face to face. I love New York, it’s a great place.”
So it might not be the language of Shakespeare, or even their parents, but is it language at all? But perhaps science fiction predicted this somewhat:
The Internet never forgets. But will it remember the right words?