The Vancouver Sun has an interesting article about the last “native” speakers of Morse Code. George Campbell, 85, believes that “(w)hen we die, Morse will die, forever”:
… no one needs to learn telegraphy or Morse code these days — not amateur radio operators, not even sailors, he said. The U.S. Coast Guard stopped monitoring Morse code for distress calls back in the late 1990s, he added. “We’ve got satellites now; we’ve got all kinds of radio that’s a lot better.
As someone old enough to remember a pre-internet world, I grew up reading, thinking about and studying morse code, and I think that their fears are unfounded.
It’s obvious that morse is now more of an interesting anecdote, an evolutionary step in communications theory and practice, than it is a practical way of communicating. But it has a number of advantages over other “dying languages”, primarily that it was used extensively within living memory in the developed world and it’s practice and structure will be recorded for future generations:
Campbell recently wrote a book entitled Good Night Old Man about his experiences as a wireless operator, and said the slow death of the Morse code is one of the reasons he was inspired to record his memories.
I’m sure that a subset of future nerds will continue to learn and practice morse in the same way that ham radio still exists, that vinyl records still exist, that any old tech still exist. There is even a strong case for it remaining in some part of our cultural memory on the chance the satellites fall from the sky or some other catastrophe occurs. And I imagine that the phrase SOS will remain the international code for distress – a fitting legacy, and a mighty cross cultural achievement.
To call it a language is problematic – while it does require study and translation, it is merely an addition to an underlying language – it has no stand alone grammer of its own. Despite this, it does show itself to be a precursor to current trends in the some ways:
Munsey said telegraphy isn’t that far removed from the phone texting younger people do now. “But we never had LOL,” he added with a chuckle. “We just said, ‘Hi.’ When you said, H-I (in Morse code), that meant you were laughing.”
But there’s no denying it’s a skill to think in this other system, even if it’s just another encoding of the underlying language, or whichever cipher that language had been processed with.