# Can the present human understand people in the past verbally?

We are at 2015 present, and assuming we travel back in time and meet the people from the same country but long ago (make it 1000 years ago). Can we communicate and understand whatever each other say?

• Would this not have been better on Linguistics SE? – Carsten S Mar 31 '15 at 12:14
• Maybe it would help if you had a specific region or country in mind? – Burki Mar 31 '15 at 14:06
• en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Vowel_Shift -- Great vowel shift started in around 1350 and would be the first signs of our modern English. Prior to then, you're pretty much speaking a different language. – Twelfth Mar 31 '15 at 16:26
• Living in the USA currently, I can guarantee there was no one here 1000 years ago that I could converse with. – IchabodE Mar 31 '15 at 21:27
• Slowly seems like their is a need for TimetravelSE xD – Zaibis Apr 1 '15 at 9:54

Well, that depends:

Salvē! Loquerisne Latine? Ovulis diabolo estis?

Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

Piece of cake, right? Well, it is if you know modern German, English, French, and preferably Dutch and Norwegian, too. It probably helps to hear it spoken, too: no intimidating foreign-looking squiggly characters.

In other words, unless

• you happen to speak an archaic language like Romanian (that's a lot like Latin, with a bit of Slavic mixed in. This is not precisely correct, but a modern Romanian would understand: Salve! Locvace în Latină? Oul diavolui ești?), or
• took 5 years of Latin (which was a bit like the English of the time - few people spoke it natively, but it was the international language of business and science) in high-school
• or whatever the ancestral lingua franca was in your corner of the world

you're in a bit of a bind.

PS: It's been years, so my Latin cases suck. If you actually know Latin, feel free to edit the Latin question and put the devil in the correct case...

• West Frisian would help too - "Rye bread, butter and green cheese is good English and good Fries." – glenatron Mar 31 '15 at 11:17
• Dutch, Frisian: you say potato, I say kartoffel. – Serban Tanasa Mar 31 '15 at 11:18
• Thousand years ago there were no potatoes in Europe so that part of the discussion is moot ^^ – Raidri Mar 31 '15 at 13:05
• +1. But there are exceptions. Icelandic sagas from 1000 years ago are perfectly intelligible to modern speakers. This is an extreme case of a small, isolated and culturally conservative population, so the language changed very slowly. More generally, 500 years seems to be about the ceiling. English speakers can understand Shakespeare and Italians understand Dante, but earlier material is hard. Canadian and European French diverged about 250 years ago and are already very different. – Royal Canadian Bandit Mar 31 '15 at 13:20
• @SerbanTanasa Sam brought all of Middle Earth's potatoes to Valinor. Then Colombo brought 'em back. – algiogia Mar 31 '15 at 14:13

If you're in Europe, your best bet is ecclesiastical Latin. Apart from minor pronunciation shifts, it hasn't changed much in the past 1500 years or more, and most of the Church hierarchy can speak or understand it. If pronunciation is a problem, you can try writing in it: the upper Church hierarchy was literate, and the written form hasn't changed.

If you're trying to talk to commoners, you're mostly out of luck. There have been huge shifts in vocabulary and pronunciation in virtually all living languages in the past thousand years.

That depends, i would say. I am pretty sure your time traveller would be completely incapable of communicating verbally right after arrival. But he should be able to learn the language pretty quickly.
Assuming he prepared for the voyage, he might have done some research and learned some of the mechanisms how the particular language has changed, which might help.
The most solid approach, though, to me seems to travel back in steps of 50 or 100 years, stay for some weeks, try to adapt to the language, then travel the next step. That way he should be able do get accustomed in a way that would allow him to communicate immediately on every step, and thus also avoid some probably nasty misunderstandings.

A thousand years is a very long time, so most likely not. It still depends on the particular languages, though. An Englishman without linguistic training would not be able to understand Old English. An Icelander however might have a chance of learning to understand Old Icelandic once he got used to the pronunciation. I imagine that it could be like getting used to a dialect. I may be mistaken on this, though.

• Welcome to Worldbuilding! – Serban Tanasa Mar 31 '15 at 12:25
• It might be noted that Persian has not significantly changed in that time, and Arabic is probably quite intelligible from that era as well. – BRPocock Mar 31 '15 at 16:29

Well, if you are american (and I mean any place in America, not just the Northern part of it) you should learn your tribal/indian languages before time-traveling, because 1000 years ago there was no european here, thus nobody spoke English, Spanish, French nor Portuguese around here.

I'm brazilian, so I speak Portuguese, and if I time-traveled to the region where Portugal is today, 1000 years ago, around 1015 they spoke a language called "Galician-Portuguese", and although the example I read in Wikipedia looks more like Spanish than Portuguese, I guess I could make do with my modern Portuguese.

So I think it depends where you're from and how much in the past you're going.

Be careful when you time-travel.

• "1000 years ago there was no european here" - how about the vikings? – John Dvorak Apr 1 '15 at 9:27
• @JanDvorak +1 because yes, my mistake. The vikings reached North America in the 10th century. – João Victor Oliveira Apr 16 '15 at 16:24

Language drifts and changes significantly over time and there is no definitive answer for that for any given language, but as an interesting example, this article shows how English has changed over 1500 years or thereabouts.

It partly depends where you are as well- if you were in the US then you would need to have an understanding of the people living in your part of the country a thousand years ago and there is a good chance that they have died out altogether by now, so even finding a close language could be very challenging. If you are in China then the people would be quite similar and even if the spoken language had changed significantly ( and I don't know much about the linguistic history of the Chinese languages ) from my understanding you would still be able to understand the written word as that has changed very little over time.

• Lets say China? China has thousand of years history... Can people from the present visit the past and understand each other (Present Chinese and Past Chinese?) Because I watched a movie a chinese guy travel back to 2000 years and he only had a bit of problem with some words he used include English inside, apart from that ppl understand him well, and he understands others too...that makes me wonder. – Le Anh Tai Apr 1 '15 at 4:24
• Every time we watch a historical movie somewhere a historian sheds a tear :) they aren't always very reliable as sources. For most of history there were many Chinese languages and most people only spoke their local dialect which would almost certainly be very different to modern Mandarin. More, as ever, on Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Chinese_language – glenatron Apr 1 '15 at 8:51
• The case of Chinese is quite interesting. Obviously the spoken language changed a LOT (2500 years ago it likely even wasn't a tonal language yet), but written Classical Chinese was still used well into the last century. – MauganRa Oct 25 '16 at 18:35

Yes, they would. The trick is that verbal communication also includes some non-verbal bits.

I remember an excellent exercise where the school group I was with read a scene out of a Shakespeare play (understanding none of it), then watched actors play out the scene. Our understanding of the scene was dramatically better than that of our reading.

• Exactly. Whilst the question does specifically say "verbally", non-verbal cues plus speaking a modern version of the relevant language give a good chance of understanding without fluency. – Keith Apr 1 '15 at 4:13
• OTOH, I find Shakespeare much easier to understand than much of the argot of contemporary popular culture. – jamesqf Apr 1 '15 at 5:18

# Emphatic YES.

With one caveat...

Arabic has been preserved for over a thousand years both in writing (using harakat and midoon vowels) and in spoken language. Yes, it has diverged slightly, but the written has been strictly preserved in the Quaraan - even the inflections of vowels. The Quaraan is not considered legitimate if it has been translated or altered and has strict phonetic structure. Absolutely an Arabic speaking, educated person in Morocco could understand a 10th Century Arabic speaking, educated person in, say, present-day Iraq.

An Arabic-speaking person, even my own elementary Arabic, would be able to understand: بناء عالم بالنسبة لي even if it didn't make much sense, literally translated ("build a world for me"), in the 10th Century Renaissance.

I do not know about Hebrew, if someone wants to chime in. Also, I am living in Abu Dhabi, so I hope this means 'our country,' in your question.

• Although this is true for Arabic, isn't there accent or variation between modern and past Arabic? Remember that the question ask about conversation, that is spoken language. – Vylix Apr 20 '17 at 1:32
• Yes, it is a truly phonetic, spoken language. Just like a stereotypical southern US accent and, say a Scottish accent: Spoken with the littlest bit of effort, it will translate. Particular bonus in 10th century Arab world was an emphasis on education even for the common men AND women. They will work through your protagonist's needs. – Mikey Apr 20 '17 at 2:49

That's a curious question, never thought of that. I searched the web about my language (portuguese) and found out that 1000 years ago, we spoke latin. This language was perfected over time and eventually substituted by our actual portuguese. If a portuguese time traveler came to this date and tried to talk to me, there would be no way I could understand him. An history or language student, however, would be able to. Same thing with any language. So it's really a matter of who the traveler would talk to. If we managed to understand so many tribal languages, why wouldn't se be able to communicate with our antecessors?

well it depends on how old the language is and the history it have. few languages originated even before christ, such languages may have undergone numerous changes and might have modified way too much, but as per my knowledge and thinking any language we speak now it might be , it will be having its root from that past now also.

Read this article Wikipedia about languages it gives you a clear picture about how old are the languages and if you go on searching for the roots of languages one after the other most of the languages are created more than 1000 years ago.

so assuming time travelling as you said, yes we can communicate with the people who existed 1000 years ago using the language we speak now.

• Most languages were never created, as far as we know, but have been spoken continuously since before the start of history. All languages develop as people speak them. It's an arbitrary distinction to say that once a language has changed enough, it becomes a new language. For that reason, it's completely a matter of opinion what the "oldest" languages are, and not a fact at all. – sumelic Mar 31 '15 at 12:22