I've read several of the questions about language shifting and diffusion here, and it has unfortunately left me more unsure of things than I was before.


Colonists on an arid planet speak two major languages, Hindi and American English, there are also spacers who speak English as well.

There is a disaster and around thirty thousand people survive split up into groups all over the planet in groups ranging from a few dozen to about a thousand, with the low hundreds being the average. They are based around oases, springs, and along the coastline of a polar sea.

Due to being cut off by arid and hostile land, most of these groups are fairly isolated from each other for the first five hundred or so years. Only the people on the sea which has the largest population interact and trade in large numbers. After that point trade caravans would spend the next five to six centuries reconnecting the towns and cities together, until even the smallest settlement sees a caravan once a year and major cities have a steady flow of travelers.

The only written documents saved from before the fall are technical manuals, a few scrapes of books, and what the survivors write down.

Realistically, after 1500 years how much would the language have diverged among the settlements.


Would the various towns and cities be able to talk to each other easily, would they speak a creole that everyone can pick up in a few hours, or would they have totally different languages?

Edit 2:

English was the language for administration purposes. Hindi was more for cultural purposes amongst half the colonists.

Edit 3

The initial tech level after the fall is limited. Due to loss of satellites, and most infrastructure, almost all radios are handheld and only really of use within short distances of the camps. If conditions are just right some radio communication can occur several hundred kilometers away, but this is beyond the ability of most survivors.

Communication is largely by foot or short range planes and ground cars, with no way to maintain them, these fail within a decade.

After this point people stay in touch via camel, horse or wagons pulled by animals. They know how to do everything they need, but don't have the capabilities, by the time they start getting the capability most of the knowledge is gone.

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    $\begingroup$ 1500 years ago are there French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian or are there only dialects of latin? Note Europe is not that large $\endgroup$
    – jean
    Mar 1, 2018 at 17:21
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    $\begingroup$ What is the tech level of colonies after the split? Do they maintain contact by radio? $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Mar 1, 2018 at 17:59
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    $\begingroup$ In 5 centuries Latin evolved into one or two dozen different Romance languages, and common Slavic evolved into a dozen or so Slavic languages; and those are well-known examples, where the starting point, the divergent end points, and a lot of intermediaries are well documented. While all Romance languages are visibily related, mutual intelligibility varies a lot; for example, an untrained Romanian would understand Italian well enough to communicate in simple sentences, spoken French would be perfectly opaque for them. And 1500 years ago Dutch, English, and Friesian were the same language... $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 2, 2018 at 0:42
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP: Yet despite all the vernacular Romance languages, Latin remained as a lingua franca, used by people & institutions that needed to deal internationally. Just consider how many scientific and English legal terms are Latin-based. So the OP's colonists are likely to use English in the same way. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Mar 3, 2018 at 19:15

5 Answers 5


Something to keep in mind is dialect shift. If the dialect shifts enough, it can become another language. One of the most amusing things that ever happened to me was watching a movie in Portuguese, not realizing it was Portuguese, and thinking it was the lousiest Spanish dialect I'd ever heard. I understood 85% of it, and assumed any words I didn't get were those that had just been slurred by the "crap" accent, and then I turned the subtitles on and realized it was Portuguese.

If you know a second language, say, in the Romance family (Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese) listen to one of the near relatives and you can pick out what sounds/words remain consistent across languages so you can get an idea of what vowel shift sounds like.

If you don't know a second language the website here can help: Romance Language Comparisons by showing you the similarities between Romance languages for given vocabulary and phrases

So, for example "Good Morning/Good day" in English is:

Bonjour in French, Buongiorno in Italian, Buenos dias in Spanish, Bom dia in Portuguese. Note the way "Bom"/"buom"/"buen"/"Bon" hangs on as part of the greeting. That can give you an idea of what sorts of sounds will remain and become part of a new language.

It is also worth considering what might get lopped off, or changed as linguistics shift. Disclosure: I have a contract job evaluating standardized test response for an educational company. Lately the tests have expanded to include short essays. But these are essays written as English as a Second Language from native Spanish speakers. So, Spanish rules about spelling and word order are applied to English vocabulary, due to.... well, shit teaching methods focused too much on getting the right accent than syntax rules. The resulting essays.... are weird.

We see words words like "yogurt" getting written like "llogul" (ll in Spanish has a sound like an English g or j or in this sense y), "horse" appears like "jors" (the starting h in a Spanish word is silent, 'habichuelas'[beans] is pronounced like "abichuelas" with the ch -depending on the speaker- sounding like ch from "choo-choo" or "sh" like 'shush'; "daughter" comes out as "dotar'. We have an informal competition about who gets the 'zinger', the one word/phrase that just makes the reader ready to tear their eyes out at the fail. (Last year's "winner" was "nospiki/Ynospiqui" which took steps to break down as: "Y No spiqui" > "I No speak" to mean "I don't speak" as in, the non-answer, "I don't speak [English]." ('Y' being used in a really weirdly pronounced way as a way to transliterate 'I', because sometimes here I gets pronounced as eI, which sounds similar to y (not like "why" but as "ee" as in "Eek, a mouse!" in Spanish)

So, once these people of yours are isolated from each other,you're going to get linguistic shifts just due to bottlenecking factors. If you have a group where everyone pronounces'horse' like 'jors', then that's probably going to be how they write it too. This is sort of found in the difference whether the Pepsi soft drink is called "pop", "soda" or "coke" depending on where you are in the United States. All in all, lingual shifts are fascinating to watch happen. In short, start listening to where native Hindi speakers start to butcher English and use that as seeds for dialect/creole shifts, from there, follow the shifts to a logical and stable conclusion. "Nospiqui" ended up being an extremely consistent and common non-answer across school locations, down to the spelling.

If you'd like to read up on linguistic shifts, the book The Story of English by Robert McCrum et.al, starts at where English began as a Germanic dialect to today. The BBC did a nine-episode hour long series on the book as well, so that could be a way to fast-track learn about it.

English itself developed in that fashion from it's ur-germanic predecessor. This link is to the page hosting this chart, but it's a whole website This chart shows samples of the changes in English. #1 is Old English or Anglo-Saxon (circa 450-1066 CE). #2 is Middle English (circa 1066-1450 AD). #3 is Modern English from about the time of Shakespeare. #4 is another sample of Modern English, but it is more recent than #3.

Edit: In the "nospiqui" example, I forgot to mention that another learner problem was not being able to tell where one word ended and another began when they were listening to English. That's how 'I don't speak' merged into 1 word.

Edit2: In the horse to jors example. Consider how the language would further evolve from that base as it moves away from it's source material. H and J are given here to have the same H sound, following the Spanish pronunciation rules. However, an English group then pronounces J like "jar" so in reading the new writing for 'horse' call it a 'jors' (djorse or djyour with a silent final s, while another group reads j like a d and calls it a 'dor'). So, in three iterations 'horse' has become 'dor': horse > jors > dor(s).

Edit3: I really can't believe I forgot this paper. So, in addition to above mentioned pure dialect shifts, seems there is a correlation between climate and tonal languages. A 2015 paper found that climate factors such as aridity have effects on vocal cord movement. So complex musical vocal tones are unlikely to develop in arid climates, due to drying effects of having to lose so much moisture by breathing outwards (if you've ever given a lecture or speech, a dry throat is painful). The paper is: Climate, vocal folds, and tonal languages: Connecting the physiological and geograpic dots by Everett, Blasi and Roberts. Published in PNAS, it's available for reading here: http://www.pnas.org/content/112/5/1322


1500 years ago old english was just starting to be a distinct. Now it's mutually unintelligible with the its modern form and the languages it's closest related to. That's with 1500 years of close contact, trade, and diplomacy between each language.

It stands to reason that if you want your much more isolated settlements to be unable to speak to each other that's an entirely plausible assumption. It could also be possible that much less linguistic drift happened, medieval Icelandic manuscripts can still be read today by modern speakers of the language.

Pick what makes sense for your story between these two extremes.


1) A starting point speaking two different languages doesn't make sense. Space travel/colonization requires close collaboration. There would be one common language. The other, at best, would be culturally spoken in the home.

2) The culturally spoken language has the greater chance of being preserved with the fewest modifications due to the natural desire to preserve heritage. However, without books and over the very long timespan you're proposing, this might be an irrelevant fact.

3) Let's consider the Saami languages. "Saami" (made up at one time of at least a dozen dialects) was not a written language. Add to this that the rugged northern landscape kept groups of Saami-speaking people very isolated for very long periods of time. What resulted is that many of the dialects were appreciably unintelligible to others. And this only over the course of hundreds of years. Since the late 70s linguists have been phonetically mapping the languages.


A) People in high isolation will alter their language faster and more thoroughly than anyone else.

B) If the area has a common element, the language will often build around that element. For example, the Saami people have a great many (a great many) words involving snow, ice, and reindeer. So many that an attempt to translate even into a similar language would be frustrating due to all the definitional subtleties. Similar language focus would occur with communities heavily focused on lumber, fish, military, trade, the sea, mountains, plains, etc., etc., etc. (I can easily believe dozens of words describing the gentle Susurrations of the wind across plains grass). In other words, your communities may develop specialized vocabulary due to the specific location, climate, or trade they enjoy.

C) People enjoying large amounts of trade will have the lowest rate of unintelligibility, but that might be deceptive. The tradesmen will enjoy it (or, more accurately, their ship/caravan captains or negotiating reps will), but not necessarily the general populace. The people will have a greater exposure to vocabulary ("Did you enjoy the Rabins? They just came on on the last caravan! Heck if I know if that's how you pronounce the word, it's what I thought the trade master called them.") But that's generally going to be nouns, not verbs, which means their actual ability to communicate is only moderately better.

D) What would change all this would be the development of schools and universities (and, of course, books) in the key trading towns and the ability for people to travel (more or less) freely along the trade routes. That would substantially increase the intelligibility between groups who enjoy trade as, over time, more and more people of each community return from their great educational adventure. It would also sharpen the distinction between trade-bound communities and isolated communities.

  • $\begingroup$ English was the administrative language, and for use when talking among different groups. Hindi was used by half the colonists at home and among each other. Great answer, thanks. $\endgroup$
    – Dan Clarke
    Mar 1, 2018 at 16:52

Several things may prompt changes in language:

Region-specific features

Think the great plains (where I live). The vast majority of the world's tornadoes happen here. In the 1700s, Europeans had barely any documented tornadoes and most people thought they were a superstition. Fast forward to American colonization, and more and more tornadoes are spotted. Now, people generally accept tornadoes as a fact. This arid desert could also have new flora, fauna, weather, and environment. Each would have new words, possible idioms (?). However, you mean a divergence in grammar and other fundamental components.


On the wikipedia page for the Indo-European language tree, Anatolian, Tocharian, and other proto-languages separated over a period of time comparable to your time period. We can set this as a reasonable upper limit for language divergence. Meanwhile, the separation of American English from British English should be a minimum, because the period of time is shorter and the degree of separation is smaller. So, you should expect the language to develop into dialects like Chinese, where everyone speaks Mandarin, but there are many other dialects. From wikipedia:

Mandarin (66.2%)

Min (6.2%)

Wu (6.1%)

Jin (5.2%)

Yue (4.9%)

Gan (4.0%)

Hakka (3.5%)

Xiang (3.0%)

Huizhou (0.3%)

Pinghua, others (0.6%)


First, you have to take in consideration that English is not a "same" language everywhere, and has various language variations. Take in consideration just contemporary times - i know American folk who can barely understand Scottish or Aussie people with thick accent. Then where are "newer" local or demo-graphical variations of English like Jive talk and some localized variants in Caribbean.

Just to paint how different variations of one language can be - My mother language is Serbian, i live in the north, and sometimes can't fully understand people from the south if they speak too fast between eachother, because they don't use all 7 cases, some tenses and so on. And its a small territory, much less people using it, along with constant interactions between them.

So, imagine that only on way broader scale, for English and Hindi language (i dont know anything about Hindi so i won't talk about it).

So, you have to ask yourself one more question - the demo-graphical background of the colonists (at least that half that only uses English) - they might all speak English, but its less likely that English is indeed their culturally 1st language of choice, especially in the age of colonization of new planets. And people with similar cultural background tend to stick together in "new" environments, as proven.

So, yea, in isolation, depending of the people in the settlements, they would create a localized variants, but i would never call it a completely different language. The base of each of those language is the same, so they would be able to understand eachother, with difficulties perhaps, but i wouldn't call it a completely different language, and that language will be influenced a lot by the ethnos of people living there.

Only case when they wouldn't be able to understand eachother at all is that if one group of people switches completely on English or Hindu (or some variations of it), and totally neglect the other one, which, in those 1500 years period (or even less) is enough to completely disappear. So a trader comes from English based settlement, and tries to interact with Hindi based settlement - well, you go into northern India now with no knowledge of language there and try to negotiate and trade.

And claim that i read in other answers that people in isolation will alter their language faster and more thoroughly is not true. It is COMPLETELY THE OPPOSITE. People in isolation will preserve as much as possible of the original language, unlike people who have contact with other sources. Example - Scandinavian languages - all derive from the same base - Proto Norse. To not go overly into details - Icelandic and Faroese people have been the most isolated - and their language is the most similar to the base language all came from. Old-Icelandic and Modern Icelandic are, grammatically, very very similar. I've been using Old Icelandic on work before i learned normal one, and everyone understood me. But on the other hand, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, they changed a lot because of influences from abroad, due to trade, wars, conquests and so on, so in those languages today you have words that are not Germanic or Scandinavian in origin.

Hope this helps. Cheers.


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