Famous last words

bath ruinsWe had our first house guests at Casa de Stanchak a few weeks ago and we used the company as an excuse to finally go check out Bath. The town is close enough to Reading that we could theoretically visit it whenever we want — which in practice means we need companions to give us an excuse to go there.

I was a little skeptical — Blair kept saying it was a famous spa town* and I’m not what you’d call a spa-friendly guy. Of course, it turns out she meant that Bath was a famous spa town in Roman times**. We weren’t going there to get our backs rubbed. We were there to go back in time.

Bath is the only natural hot spring in all of Great Britain, and so people have always traveled there to take a dip in the water. During the Roman period, an elaborate series of pools were built, along with a temple to Sulis Minerva and all that goes with that.

My love of ruins is well-documented at this point. But I’m starting to think I like small ruins better than large ones. The smaller the site, the more likely you are to come across a personal story or two. The ruins at Bath are full of inscriptions and tombstones and little artifacts that shed light onto how Roman citizens lived out there, on the outskirts of empire.

gorgon carving at bathThe best items on display in Bath are the odds and ends that ordinary people left behind. Usually, these little deposits are accidents. There are intricately carved gems that were found at the bottom of the spring, left behind by bathers who waded in with their jewelry on, only to find the glue that held the stones in place dissolved by the hot water. But sometimes, things were left behind on purpose.

The Romans had no compunction about praying for divine vengeance. Some would write*** curses on little pewter scrolls and toss them in the spring to be received by the gods, only for the scrolls to end up with us instead. Most of the slights mentioned on the scrolls are relatively small — a lot of them involve stolen clothing — and many ask for disgusting punishments to be heaped out upon the guilty. Getting your pants stolen was a bigger deal back then.

One of those scrolls is now the only example of written British Celtic to survive into modern times. It’s written in Latin letters, but no one has been able to translate it so far. From the context, however, we can surmise that the text is a prayer, probably written in anger, possibly asking for something hideous to happen to a shoe thief. That’s all that’s left of an entire language.

From my little office in 2013, it’s hard to imagine that Earth will ever see a day that isn’t described in English, at least somewhere in the world. But I know it will happen. English won’t be abandoned, at least not at first, but it will almost certainly be transformed over the centuries into something completely unrecognizable, the way Latin gave way to Italian. In time, the English of 2013 will be a historical dialect, then a dead language and finally a forgotten one. The world will be a very different place by then, and the words and phrases we have now will have little to say to denizens of that far-off future.

minerva headI can hear you saying, “Oh, but things are different now. We have so many records, so much text and audio and video. Those things will keep the memory of English alive forever.” And for a while, you’ll be right. As long as people continue to read and watch and listen to English, it’ll endure, the way the English of Shakespeare endures in his plays. But eventually, every cultural relic we have worth keeping will be ‘translated’ into modern dialects, and then only diehard fans will seek out the originals, the way only the determined read Chaucer in the original now. Then it’ll just be for academics, and then their numbers will dwindle.

And when interest fades, we’ll stop preserving copies of things as well as we should. Then there will be fires and floods and wars, just as there always are. Things will be lost, no matter how tightly we hold them. Forever is a mighty long time.

The day will come, thousands or tens of thousands of years from now, when English as we know it is a rumor. And all any one will have left is a bit of data or a fragment of a page or bit a stone with carvings on it. Maybe it’ll be a line of scripture, or a Simpsons quote or someone’s shopping list. Or maybe it’ll be a note left on the inside of long-buried refrigerator that just says, “Dave: So help me God, if you eat my lunch again, I’ll kill you in your sleep.”  And people will wait in line for hours to peer at it from behind glass and wonder what it means.

* It’s also famous for it’s Jane Austen connection, but that doesn’t do much for me either.
** Scientific fun fact: The phrase, “in Roman times,” makes every sentence it appears in 840% more exciting.
*** Or, more likely, get someone else to do the writing.

About Jesse Stanchak

Just another American ex-pat living in up in England. During the week I edit a social media newsletter, but on the weekends I travel around the U.K. and continental Europe having adventures with my darling wife. I'm also a runner, an animal lover and an aspiring professional fat kid.
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