Maken Thy Rymes Seken Undeedlyness

The half-life of irregular verbs is proportional to the square root of their frequency.
–Erez Lieberman

There’s a whole sect of poets who write in pursuit of immortality. This has always struck me as unrealistic — a touchingly human attempt at postponing the inevitable — but still, many proudly proclaim this as their goal. They find solace in the idea of their poems outliving themselves.

Even in a universe destined for cold, black oblivion, it makes some sense to think this way. Our poems are our children — maybe not so child-like as a higher family pet, but at least as filial as a goldfish — and there’s certainly solace in the thought of our children outliving us. But children only live 70 years…Chaucer’s got 16 or so generations of little kiddies running around “Naked out of my fadres hous,” still close enough to modern English that you can kind of understand it if you read out loud.

Unforutnately it turns out that writing into eternity is harder than it used to be. In the March 29th issue of New Scientist (I know, I’m behind), the feature article explains why the English language is changing more quickly than ever.

The central problem for prescriptive grammarians is simple: More people now speak English as a second language than speak it as a first. 80% of English conversations now occur between two non-native speakers. As the dominant language in the global marketplace, it’s starting to follow the path of Latin, which spread through Roman imperialism, and then broke apart into regional dialects that form the modern-day romance languages–or maybe more like that of Arabic, which split into dozens of regional dialects, but remained cohesive through the Koran.

Linguists are still trying to predict what the results will be, as more and more people come to English through other languages. The best guess is a hyper-simplification, as our verb conjugations become more regular (the past-tense of “help” used to be “holp”, not “helped”, for example), and non-native speakers try to find common ground with a more limited vocabulary.

What does this mean for poets who want to see their fountain pen as a fountain of youth? In 500 years, will anyone even be able to read your poems? Maybe we can make like H.G. Wells and try to project our language into the future: “I runned to ze forests n finded all ze trees is gone.” Doubleplusgood?

Eh, maybe not. But it’s always interesting to think about the evolution of language, which breathes and grows and sings and dies like all of us do. You can think of it as a complicated meme, or a short string of genes. A generational telephone game. It’s temporal, but as with life, that’s part of the beauty.

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