Monday, November 14, 2011

Morse Code: A Dying Language?

S.O.S. in Morse Code
Extinct and threatened languages are discussed often in this blog. Usually, the culprit causing their disappearance is the advancement and expansion of more dominant languages, leading to the isolation and reduction of people who speak unique, rare tongues.

In cases where attempts are made to rescue dying language, technology such as computers and audio recordings are the tools being used to help turn the tide. When it comes to Morse Code, though, advancements in technology and audio broadcasting/recording are leading to its death.

Morse Code is a method of transmitting text data as a series of tones, lights, or clicks that can be understood by a skilled listener or observer. The International Morse Code encodes the alphabet, numbers and punctuation as standardized sequences of signals called "dots" and "dashes". It was developed in the first half of the 19th century and was used extensively during the first half of the 20th century, particularly for communication with the front lines during World War II.

Now, with smart phones, satellite technology, the internet and texting, the Morse Code language has become obsolete. Until a few years ago, it was mandatory for people taking amateur shortwave radio exams to know, but that section has been removed from the test. The Coast Guard stopped seeking and translating Morse Code distress messages in the late 1990s.

The slow death of Morse Code was partly the inspiration for George Campbell to record memories of his life as a landline commercial operator in a book entitled "Good Night Old Man." He was only 19 years old in 1945 when he passed on the coded message that Germany had surrendered. His aim with the book was to bring awareness of the language to younger generations, who no longer have need to learn it.

Though some might argue that Morse Code shouldn't be counted out yet, technology continues to rush forward. The LOLs and emoticons of texting are drowning out the dits and dahs of Morse Code. It is probably the only language quietly slipping into extinction that the world won't someday miss (but certainly don’t quote me on that).

[Update: The book "Good Night Old Man" can be purchased through Dream Write Publishing.]


  1. Thank your for your post, Sara. Well written. We appreciate your reference and referral to the web site where people can order George's book. It is a wonderful story that not only tells something of history but the feelings and day to day of someone working in telegraphy and loving it!
    Take care,
    Dream Write Publishing Ltd.

  2. Please correct your mistake in calling him a wireless operator. I was a land line commercial Morse operator. Wireless -- for only 10 months in my entire career, while briefly serving in the RCNVR during WWII.

    signed George Campbell

  3. You are welcome! Someone asked where they could buy it as a gift and I thought other people might want to know, too. And thank you for your comments, the correction has been made :)