Would a “ring language” be possible?

A ring species is a species, in which a population migrates in two directions and the population remains continuous as it migrates so that each subpopulation can breed with its neighbors, however when the two ends of the population meet they are different enough that they cannot interbreed.

I was thinking of a similar situation with a language, in which the people who speak a certain language spread out in two different directions, and as they spread everyone who speaks that language continues to be able to understand their neighbors however, when people from the two ends of the region that speaks this language meet after several hundred years they are no longer able to understand each other because their languages are mutually unintelligible, even though they are the exception to everyone in this region speaking the same language of their neighbors, and are each others neighbors neighbors neighbors neighbors . . . neighbors.

Would such a scenario be possible?

• The term you are looking for is "dialect continuum". As for what happens "when people from the two ends of the region meet after several hundred years", you do understand that some time ago (and not a very long time, less than a millennium and a half) the ancestors of the English and the Dutch spoke the same language, as did the ancestors of the French and the Romanians, and the ancestors of the Poles and the Russians etc.? You may also want to look up "macrolanguage" for the mess in IT... – AlexP May 15 '19 at 6:59
• I'm told Glaswegians speak English, I don't understand a word of it though. – Separatrix May 15 '19 at 7:03
• The question was also aksed on Linguistics here linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/30343/… – jk - Reinstate Monica May 15 '19 at 10:31
• I thought this question would be about Tolkien. – dan04 May 16 '19 at 1:07
• I'm probably being nitpicky, but what you describe doesn't sound like a "ring language", but rather like a "language ring". A "ring language" sounds like a single language that's somehow based on rings, maybe the kind that you put on your fingers, or drawn rings like magic circles. A "language ring" sounds like a ring made of languages which is like the situation you're describing. – JoL May 16 '19 at 15:21

It’s not only possible, it exists as you describe. Italian, French (Provençal, really), Catalan, Spanish and Portuguese (and many local dialects thereof) merge continuously into each other, and everyone can understand their near neighbours in both directions, even across international borders where the language nominally changes, but Sicilians and Portuguese can’t understand each other. National broadcast media are reducing this by standardising language within each country, so your world should have a lower technology level.

• Another example within a single country is German. Due to its history of roughly 300 small states in the 18th and early 19th century, the people living in Germany developed numerous dialects. Neighbors understand each other just fine, but the farther away people live, the more problems they have understanding each other (even today!). The most extreme differences are between the dialects spoken at the northern coast and in the Alps at the southern border. – Elmy May 15 '19 at 6:54
• @Elmy: The German language is a perfect example of the triumph of politics over linguistics. The basic reality is that on the continent (excluding Scandinavia) there are two families or Germanic dialects: Low German in the north and west, and High German in the south and east. Standard German is a standardized High German dialect; the standardized Low German dialect is Dutch. That the native idioms of northern Germany are considered dialects of German instead of dialects of Dutch is due only because they share a flag, an army and a navy with High German dialects. – AlexP May 15 '19 at 10:16
• @AlexP Standard Dutch is standardised Low Franconian and considered a different language from Low German comprising Gronings in the Netherlands. Historically, Low German extended all to the East up to East Prussia (now Oblast Kaliningrad of Russia) and the Baltic. BTW, HIgh German became a Dachsprache of Low German long before there was a common flag, army, and navy. – jk - Reinstate Monica May 15 '19 at 10:27
• Similar situation is in India. One of my colleagues from there said that different dialects from different parts of country are so different that people do not understand each other. They have to use English at work to communicate with each other because of this. – Daniel Frużyński May 15 '19 at 10:59
• OP is asking for a ring, that is, the languages at the end of the continuum meet again. Plain ol' dialect continua are everywhere. – Radovan Garabík May 15 '19 at 13:05

Old Norse and Old English

It's basically how languages spread in pre-modern times. Have you seen "Vikings"? There is a scene in the first season when Ragnar lands in England and meets a local landlord and his soldiers on the beach. They're not able to communicate immediately. The vikings speak Old Norse, the English - well, Old English. It's exactly the situation you described: these are both languages coming form the common proto-Germanic roots, but they are separated by hundreds or maybe a thousand years of development. The only difference from what you wrote is that no language stays the same - the "original" language of people who were left behind in Scandinavia also evolved in time.

I wrote an article about it for a Polish linguistic website woofla.pl, but it's in Polish. All I have in English is an animation showing the development of Germanic languages: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UzYjsuvHx4c

In short, Germanic people settled in about 2000-1500BCE in the area of the modern Denmark and southern Sweden, and lived there in relative isolation until around 500-200BCE. The isolation contributed to the differences between Germanic and all other Indo-European families of languages. At the end of that period a dialectal continuum emerged with people who dwelt in southern and western parts on one end of the spectrum, and population in the Scandinavia on the other. From the first group, Western Germanic languages emerged, from the second, Old Norse.

Western Germanic languages were also a continuum for a long time (even until the modern times to be precise - even in the 18th century the border between Dutch and Low German was kinda fuzzy). In the south, close to the Alps, Old High German started to develop. In the north, Low German dialects. One of them was Saxon which was probably close or the same as the languages of Angles, and together these two peoples invaded Britain in the 5th-6th century CE. Old English developed as a merger of Old Saxon, Old Frisian, and some other, smaller dialects of people who joined the invaders. Some of them might have even spoken the northern dialects.

In the same time Old Norse was developing as well, but in a more conservative fashion. In the times of Ragnar, late 8th and early 9th century, it was still one language with just some differences between east and west Scandinavia. Even now Danish, Swedish and Norwegian (which has its own interesting story and is divided into two main "versions", Bokmal and Nynorsk) are quite intelligible.

Anyway, when the vikings invaded England it was as if the linguistic history made a full circle. And now both peoples needed translators. But not for long: the languages were still similar enough that probably after a few years of learning a Dane was able to speak Old English quite well, and vice versa. Only the later Norman invasion introduced a lot of (Norman) French vocabulary and put English on a very different track.

• It's unfortunate that early answers get all the glory. This is the only one I've seen so far on this thread that not only seriously addresses the OP's question but clearly lays out an example. A couple others come close but most others ignore the "ring" part. – Cyn says make Monica whole May 15 '19 at 14:27
• This answer might get a bit more glory if the wall-of-text masquerading as the 3rd paragraph were broken up a bit. – npostavs May 16 '19 at 2:31
• @nopstavs : How about now? – makingthematrix May 16 '19 at 14:07

It's almost like Slavic languages, though the reason has more to do with history of literacy, political changes and assimilation.

Slovak is mutually intelligible with modern heavily Slovakized Rusyn, which is mutually intelligible with Rusyn as spoken in Transcarpathia, which is almost mutually intelligible with standard Ukrainian, which is mutually intelligible with Surzhik, which is mutually intelligible with Russian, which is mutually intelligible with Belarussian, which is not really, but somewhat mutually intelligible with Polish, which is almost mutually intelligible with Góral language (at the Polish side of the border), which is basically the same as the Góral language at the Slovak side of the border, which is kind of mutually intelligible with standard Slovak.

Apart from the broken link between Belarussian and Polish (which in an alternative history of surviving Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth could exist), there is almost a complete ring.

Going the southern route, central Slovak has some tenuous connection with Croatian (though mutual intelligibility has been already lost to history); Croatian blends into other (neo-štokavian) Balkan languages, transitions into Macedonian, which is mutually intelligible with Bulgarian, which is surprisingly close in lexica to Russian, because of the heavy influence of Old Church Slavonic on Russian. From Russian, the usual route via Surzhik->Ukrainian->Transcarpathian Russyn->Slovak Russyn->Slovak closes the ring.

There is the missing step from Croatian to Slovak, and the connection between Bulgarian and Russian is rather weak. But still.

• I'm a little bit confused. Which of these languages are not mutually intelligible? OP asks about the case when two ends of the chain can't understand each other. ... when people from the two ends of the region that speaks this language meet after several hundred years they are no longer able to understand each other .. – default locale May 16 '19 at 3:07
• @default locale Well, I for example, speak Serbian, which is extremely similar to Croatian, mentioned in this answer, and can sort-of understand Slovakian, but am unable to understand Czech and Polish. – AndrejaKo May 16 '19 at 7:03
• @AndrejaKo ahh, now I see it, thanks. It looks like this answer tries to build a more specific and interesting example than the question required. – default locale May 16 '19 at 7:10
• @default locale: you are right, I was mislead by the "ring" word. OP asks for a mundane dialect continuum – Radovan Garabík May 16 '19 at 18:48

I think that what you are asking is more or less what happened with Latin and neo-Latin languages.

Take Romanian, French and Italian. They are all from Latin origin: an Italian can understand some French and some Romanian (actually Romanian sounds really similar to some South Italian dialects, while some Northern Italy dialects sound really close to French), but I doubt a Romanian and a French would had the same level of partial understanding.

• True, we Romanians do not understand French at all without actually learning it. (But many of us learn it.) We do understand quite a bit of standard Italian. Northern Italian "dialects" are usually considered different languages. Linguistically, Italy is divided by the La Spezia–Rimini line, the most important demarcation between Romance languages; for example, south and east of the line you have plurals in -i and -e (e.g., uomini, femmine), north and west you have plurals in -s (hommes. femmes). – AlexP May 15 '19 at 7:09

This situation exists in Japan. While the dialect of Tokyo has become the standard language via radio and television, each region also has local dialects. As described, occupants of neighboring regions can understand one another, but travel any significant distance, and the local dialects become mutually incomprehensible. I recall a conversation with a man who was about 7 years old when evacuee children from Tokyo arrived and lived in local temples. He said they could not understand one another at all. He also said that he preferred to speak the local dialect; that he felt more himself while doing so.

• OP is looking for a ring, i.e. the language continuum extends in two opposite direction, but they meet at the end. – Radovan Garabík May 15 '19 at 13:02
• @Radovan, I don't get your point. If it has been shown that in Japan neighboring populations can understand each other, but if you move far away from your starting position you cant understand anything, have you not proven the ring theory? Take someone from the north and pair them with someone from the south and now you have your theoretical ring. – Tyler S. Loeper May 15 '19 at 14:04
• @TylerS.Loeper The point is about geographics. You're talking about people living far from each other. It's natural they wouldn't understand each other. The ring is a literal circle of people who move away from each other then eventually meet again, hundreds of years later. – Cyn says make Monica whole May 15 '19 at 14:15

Czech-Polish dialect continuum

(Wikimedia Commons, GDFL)

Czech and Polish are, for most native speakers of both languages, not mutually intelligible. However, in the easternmost corner of the Czech Republic, there is a transitional Cieszyn Silesian dialect (G2 in the map above). It is mutually intelligible with the Silesian dialect spoken on the Polish side of the border (G1) and, to a lesser extent, also with the Lachian dialects (C4) on the Czech side. So, there seems to be a well established dialect continuum in this region.

However, this continuum does not exist all along the Czech-Polish border. In fact, there are basically no transitional dialects outside the Cieszyn region.

The thing is, most of what is now the Czech-Polish border region used to be a predominantly German speaking area. After the expulsion of Germans from Czechoslovakia, new settlers from all over the country arrived to the region, bringing their own dialects, which eventually merged into what is now described as the mixed dialects (C5). A similar process took place on the Polish side where the so called Recovered Territories were settled from central and eastern Poland, again creating mixed dialects (B4). These new dialects of Czech and Polish are about as far apart as the respective standard languages are. So, no cross-border mutual intelligibility. Not without a significant exposure to the other language, anyway.

• finally, a true ring! – bukwyrm May 16 '19 at 19:14

Definitely possible, although I don't know real examples from our world.

The Slavonic languages on the Balkans form a somewhat broken ring, almost encircling the Hungarian and Romanian language area: Going counterclockwise from Ukrainian via Ruthenian and Slovak to (first gap in the ring) Slovene, Croatian, Serbian, Macedonian and Bulgarian there is a dialect continuum. Between Bulgarian and Ukrainian is the second gap in the ring, when it were closed along the Black sea coast, Bulgarian and Ukrainian would exhibit a hard language boundary.

• OP is asking for a mutual intelligibility ring, not geographical one – Radovan Garabík May 15 '19 at 13:03
• You seem to interpret the question in a different way, at least in biological ring species a geographical ring formed distribution is implied, see the picture on this question linguistics.stackexchange.com/q/30343/9781 – jk - Reinstate Monica May 15 '19 at 13:35
• @RadovanGarabík OP is asking for a geographic ring, though it wouldn't have to be an exact circle. – Cyn says make Monica whole May 15 '19 at 14:17

I would like to add another comparison in a lateral direction - time. This is exactly how language development over time works. Grandparents and their grandchildren can communicate, but if you were to move through a few generations, you wouldn't be able to understand your ancestors anymore and vice versa, even though every 'temporal subset' was able to understand each other.

• ... and the closure of the ring are than time travellers meeting old timers and they cannot understand each other? – jk - Reinstate Monica May 15 '19 at 13:56
• We all know time makes these changes but the OP is asking about a geographic spread of languages in a particular way, which you don't address. – Cyn says make Monica whole May 15 '19 at 14:18
• Time is an interesting angle, and in a worldbuilding context could fit with the requirements of the question given some time-travel elements such as suggested by @jknappen. I'd be very interested to see this answer built upon and explored more deeply to answer the question - it's the kind of out-of-the-box thinking I love reading here! But as it is, I must agree with the votes to remove. – Dewi Morgan May 15 '19 at 16:00
• If the rule for Riverworld (P.J.Farmer) were that everyone wakes up near their ancestors, most of the world should be a dialect continuum! – Anton Sherwood Jun 3 '19 at 2:35

More examples for you to use for research, since everyone has answered this well: Quebec French, Creole French, and French are all completely distinct.

In China, there are over 104 (?) dialects. They are distinct enough that not even neighbors can understand each other, so they communicate in English instead.

In Japan, the main island has it's form of Japanese, with a dialect in the Osaka prefecture being like American Southern English, as well as the Ryukyuan Islands having distinct languages that are Japonic, however are also unintelligible to Japanese-speakers.

Not only can it exist, it does, with Quebecois to Acadian/Chiac to true French/Parisenne

People from Paris cannot (easily) converse with those from Quebec as the dialects are quite different. People from Atlantic Canada (Acadians) can converse with people from Quebec, or from Paris.

Historically, Acadians and Quebecois were both from France; almost 400 years ago. The language in France has remained very much unchanged due to the Académie française. The language in Quebec evolved naturally.

In Atlantic Canada, though we speak a different dialect (a lot of unique words, and a lot of English*) we're taught Parisian French and expected to speak it in school. As Quebec is also part of Canada, and is the only province between Atlantic Canada and the rest of Canada, the dialects are geographically and politically related.

Probably related, about 350 years ago Lousiana French diverged as well, due to Le Grand Dérangement. My understanding is that "Cajun" is a bastardization of "Acadian" and that the dialects are very similar. That being said I would doubt that French Education in the American South follows 'Académie guidelines.

• "J'ai allé a la wharf pour fishé en ma boat" is an example of a "French" sentence with English syntax and words introduced.
• Not quite correct in the history. A good rundown is here: youtube.com/watch?v=A9rh3lqdtT0. Incidentally, having grown up on the northern end of l'Acadie, the proper example is "Nous sommes au parking de McDonalds d'avoir des burgers et fries dans nos chars, tabernouche." – Keith Morrison May 15 '19 at 20:05

For such a language to exist, it is sufficient that the dialects differ on at least two dimensions (principal components). Given the complexity of language, this is obviously possible. For example language L1 could share set of words S1 with L2. L2 shares S2 with L2. L3 shares S3 with L1. S1, S2 and S3 are all disjoint.

This sort of dialectal ring continuum might happen naturally for a population with homogeneous language origins living on a contiguously traversable, toroidal world with very limited travel distances. Essentially, a people speaking one language landed as one group on a donut without any great oceans separating its land masses. You might also be able to pull this off on a world which can only be traversed or inhabited along its equatorial zone, so long as it remains reasonably contiguous.

The more you increase the distance the average person travels, the more you dilute the dialects. To get the most varied continuum, reduce the average person to a walking distance (cf. "God Emperor of Dune").

Speakers of neighboring dialects will tend to retain mutually intelligibility and, since no one lives in a vacuum, there will be some "cross-pollination" of dialects across the spectrum. As these people spread across the face of this world, the dialects will diverge.

Eventually, the population will expand until one extreme meets the other. The first encounter would likely be between mutually unintelligible dialects. Whether they initially meet with war or trade, those two groups will gradually reach a point of relative stasis and a pidgin will emerge. This will develop into its own dialect and start propagating along the continuum. Of course, so long as the average person doesn't travel very far, these propagations will rapidly diminish with distance.

Yet another real world example: Arabic is widely spoken, but Moroccans and Iraqis cannot understand each other's (spoken) dialects.

The film industry in Egypt thrives in part because all native speakers of Arabic can understand the Egyptian dialect.

However, if migration patterns around, say, a large ocean caused speakers of incompatible languages or dialects with a common root to live next to each other, there would likely be Creolization within a generation unless there were significant cultural barriers.