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Scenario:

20 people (men and women of varying demographics, occupations, and socio-economic classes) awake and find themselves on a deserted tropical island (with no idea of how they got there). The island is approximately two square miles and contains a freshwater river, trees and vegetation, and small game for hunting. The island is in a location such that they have literally no chance of being found/rescued but they, of course, do not know this. Upon coming to, they all circle around and attempt to discuss what the heck is going on, only to find that they all speak completely different languages(listed below)! It also just so happens that every single one of the 20 has no knowledge of any other language on the list (call it a coincidence if you want).

The languages represented are:

  1. English (US)
  2. Mandarin
  3. Hindi
  4. Arabic (Standard)
  5. Russian
  6. Bengali
  7. Malay
  8. Japanese
  9. Telugu
  10. Korean
  11. Turkish
  12. Vietnamese
  13. Yue
  14. Kannada
  15. Western Panjabi
  16. Swahili
  17. Brazilian Portuguese
  18. Javanese
  19. German
  20. Fulfulde

Questions:

Short Run:

How do you move on in a group like this without the ability to communicate effectively? What is the best way to go about attaining the things necessary to survive (i.e. food, water, shelter etc.) without communication?

Long Run:

How long would it take for them to create a singular, unified method for communication? Would one of the languages gain dominance, or would the languages present morph together into a psuedo-island-language? Will future generations (theoretically) speak both languages of their parents?

Bonus points for extra insight

Alert me if I haven't provided enough detail into a certain aspect and I will update the question as promptly as I can!

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  • $\begingroup$ Actually human are good at reading facial expressions and gestures than they do with words, if a person start picking up dry woods I'm pretty sure others will follow as they know instinctively what you are trying to achieve unless you suddenly performs 1000 somersaults in quick succession in front of everyone then my points will become invalid. $\endgroup$ – user6760 May 1 '15 at 16:43
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    $\begingroup$ This process has been extensively studied by linguists. You can google it under "pidgins and creoles". $\endgroup$ – RBarryYoung May 1 '15 at 21:37
  • $\begingroup$ Malay and Javanese can roughly understand each other. Not perfectly but there are a lot of common words. Especially if it's modern Javanese since it's influenced by Indonesian (which Malay speakers consider a dialect of Malay) $\endgroup$ – slebetman May 1 '15 at 23:47
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    $\begingroup$ Bengali and Hindi are closely related and to some extend, the western Punjabi too. A person who knows Bengali will also to a very great extend know some Hindi. But since you specifically mentioned that he/she doesn't know the other language, they need not speak the other language but they'll still understand most of it. Also, Telugu and Kannada. Both are different language. But very closely related. $\endgroup$ – You_Shall_Not_Pass May 2 '15 at 3:50
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    $\begingroup$ All the fellows learn the language the prettiest girl speaks.... $\endgroup$ – Oldcat May 7 '15 at 0:21

11 Answers 11

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A Pidgin Develops

Give it some time and the group will end up speaking a common pidgin language, mashed up from various of their languages. People will be frustrated and lonely for quite a while, but new common vocabulary will spread quickly through the group. Some of it will be from words that were already common to several people in the group, but most of it will be from a mix of the different languages.

There's an Aznat in the Camp

Let's consider a single situation where some group members might want to work together without a common language: trying to deal with a problem that's somewhere around their campsite.

One person notices something and cries out Aznat!. You're there (feeling as alone and lost as everyone else) and you hear them cry out, so you look to see what's going on. They keep saying aznat, aznat and some other things -- no one seems to understand, so they make hissing sounds and flick their tongue out, making slithering gestures with their hands, and pointing in the direction where they saw it.

aznat!

Now let's say you happen to catch a glimpse out of the corner of your eye of something red and black slithering through the bushes nearby. You think it might be a snake, and you've got half a dozen people standing around who just figured out that there's a snake somewhere nearby. What's the fastest way you could say "snake" to all of them to enlist their help in your direction? Do you cry out the word in your language and go through the whole charade again? No.

You'd say Aznat! and gesture to where you saw it.


About ten years ago I was part of an exercise in learning someone else's language without any language in common. Coincidentally, we had about 20 people in that group as well. To this day I still know how to say a few phrases in the made-up language that we used.

You'd be amazed how well you remember language that you learned under stress, or when it proved to be useful.

Just be glad you didn't actually have to deal with an aznat while reading this post.

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Nice selection! Closest is the Arabic borrowings in Swahili, maybe a little between x-over English & German.

Mandarin provides a means of writing ideas that may be understood by literate Japanese and Korean.

After that, everyone gives their words for sand, sea, coconut, &c, and starts communicating. It's what humans do, even if they play a lot of charades for the first month

A lot will get done at first by someone gesturing "Come along" then showing what they think everyone needs to do.

I doubt one language will dominate. They will develop a pidgin that all can use: positional structures, no tones, single vocabulary, no complex consonent groups. Look at all the traditional Pacific pidgins. Swahili began as a pidgin.

Bonus vocabulary survival points to languages spoken by women: babies learn to speak from their mothers.

Why no New World languages? Mayatec or Quechua, say.

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    $\begingroup$ Mandarin is definitely more than just ideas. A lot of the pronunciation for the hanzi/kanji/hanja are very similar. For example: hanzi (Mandarin), kanji (Japanese), hanja (Korean) :P I expanded upon this in my answer. $\endgroup$ – Muhammad Abdul-Rahim May 1 '15 at 18:38
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    $\begingroup$ I think Malay and Javanese are perhaps closer since modern Malay and modern Javanese are influenced by each other. $\endgroup$ – slebetman May 1 '15 at 23:52
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Assuming they all understand the common goal of survival and realize that communication is necessary to survive, things get easier. Isolate the simplest phrases for the stuff around them, like water. In many languages, simple concepts sound simple and take one or two syllables at most. Not everybody will pick up all 20, but the more educated ones among the group (since there is a socioeconomic difference) will be able to pick up a few words from other languages, especially languages that are related.

Chinese and Japanese writing systems overlap with hanzi/kanji. Korean old style writing system also has overlap with hanja, though modern Korean doesn't see that as much due to hangeul being prevalent. For example, the character for water is 水 in Chinese and Japanese. Not only that, but they sound very similar. Japanese have Chinese-based pronunciations in their language. Korean does as well. With the above example:

  • 水 in Mandarin: súi
  • 水 in Japanese: sui
  • 水 in Korean: su

Japanese and Korean have their own native synonyms for water as well (mizu and mul, respectively), but they would understand what the above is. Others will be able to use writing to understand one another, or at least to say aloud what others write. Languages with Latin scripts can do this:

  • English
  • Vietnamese
  • Swahili
  • German

What I can see happening is for there to be groups that band together based on similarity to each other. This is based on race and language, the assumption here being that the people speaking these languages match the majority ethnicity for that language, i.e. Arabs speaking Arabic. As there is overlap between ethnicity and language, you have the potential for divides to emerge. But in some cases, it may be based on scripts used for writing, assuming people are literate. It's not an impossible scenario for them to learn how to communicate beyond just grunts and facial expressions and hand gestures. They would be able to read and, eventually, speak, but likely only within small groups of associated languages.

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    $\begingroup$ Re: "the more educated ones among the group [...] will be able to pick up a few words from other languages": I don't think that being "more educated" is likely to be relevant. In my experience, formal education does not correlate very strongly with the ability to pick up languages by hearing them. $\endgroup$ – ruakh May 2 '15 at 6:00
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The most straightforward approach that comes to mind would be in a manner similar to how our ancestors first developed languages, starting with pictograms. The hypothetical group would first establish symbols for things like trees or people, then perhaps move on to verbs such as 'give' or 'run' before approaching concepts like 'danger' or 'sadness.'

As vocabulary builds, refinement of this language would lead to shorthand for the more complex symbols, leading to a system of glyphs that become increasingly divorced from their source's picture-like appearance.

That being said, the unified system wouldn't take very long at all to establish.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think they would probably start with speaking, not writing. Speaking is less resource-intensive and gives better range, and you can do other things with your hands while you speak. $\endgroup$ – sumelic May 1 '15 at 18:59
  • $\begingroup$ @sumerlic While I agree that speech is the long-run goal, the common experience of visual media makes pictograms a better foundation to bootstrap a language from. $\endgroup$ – D Owrey May 1 '15 at 19:29
  • $\begingroup$ Well, if they're trying to survive on an island, I'm pretty sure communicating in speech is more important not only as a long-term goal, but as a short-term goal. Writing is not necessary for communication; speech of some sort (whether spoken or signed) pretty much is. There are human societies without writing systems, but none without speech. And pictograms don't really work as a way to bootstrap a spoken language, because there is no simple way to go from pictograms to a spoken sound. $\endgroup$ – sumelic May 1 '15 at 19:49
  • $\begingroup$ @sumelic No method will be simple. What is required, however, is a system to identify what is being discussed in order to establish what it is the group is attempting to achieve a common tongue. Which spoken sound will be chosen is ultimately up to the leadership structure of the group. While written languages are not required for a society, having such a system at one's disposal would make the discussions easier. Therefore, it seems likely that it would be a tool used to generate the common language. $\endgroup$ – D Owrey May 1 '15 at 20:13
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The people in the group from majority-Muslim countries ought to be able to write or speak a little classical Arabic from the Koran and Muslim religious events. I make that the speakers of Arabic, Turkish, Malay, Fulfude and Javanese. I realise that you have specified that they are all monolingual, presumably as part of some sort of experiment to see how well humans cooperate, but all of them being entirely ignorant of Arabic would need specific explanation in order to keep up willing suspension of disbelief.

I agree with earlier comments saying that other groups that might form would be those making use of Chinese script and those making use of Latin script. Add the Fulfulde speaker to the latter group. In fact practically all the people ought to have some familiarity with the Latin script.

Despite all the above, I think that given that they do not know that they have been picked for monolingualism, the group as a whole would might well attempt to coalesce on speaking English. At present, although English is not the most widely spoken native language, it is by far the language that is spoken as a second language by most people on Earth. Each member of the group would obviously know that he or she couldn't speak it, but it would be a reasonable guess that several of the others would. A wrong guess, in this scenario, but they don't know that.

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    $\begingroup$ Note that to be able to read Arabic (script) does not necessarily mean able to speak Arabic. For example I don't speak Arabic but can read it for ritual/religious purposes (read here means vocalize but without understanding). The majority of muslims in the world does not understand Arabic but can vocalize Quranic Arabic (classical) well (even perfectly). $\endgroup$ – slebetman May 1 '15 at 23:56
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I agree with Joe. The people would focus on the practicalities of surviving and from the communications relevant to that a pidgin language would naturally form.

Names for plants would come from the languages of the people knowledgeable about plants. Names for fish from people who recognize them. Or names would simply be made up.

A small group of people in survival mode does not really need a common language, gestures, actions, and a simple pidgin would go a long way. Humans are quite good at guessing what others mean. In fact we are compulsive about making such guesses even when information we have is insufficient or incorrect.

If people would be stuck there for long enough to have children, I assume a real language based on the pidgin would evolve.

As others have noted, many people would recognize words loaned from "classical" languages such as latin, classical arabic or greek, sanskrit or mandarin. But I don't think people would have time or interest in trying to communicate based on that. They would have no need for sophisticated communication and high need to gather food, secure water supply and shelter. A situation there they'd have the idle time for language study is hard to imagine.

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The answers so far have given a lot of good discussion about the specifics of individual languages.

A few further observations:

personality goes a long way

Given that each language is represented by a single person, accidents of personality and linguistic facility will go a long way towards determining the makeup of the shared vocabulary. For example, let's say that:

  • The Turkish speaker is a horse trainer. She will be of necessity an alpha personality who does not hesitate to enforce dominance in any given situation, because that's how you prosper (and avoid getting kicked) when you are around horses. Turkish will be presented to the others in something of a "my way or the highway" fashion, reliably and repeatedly.

  • The English speaker is a philologist of Native American languages, who is not an assertive personality, but who is quite skilled at picking up a working knowledge of other tongues. He will naturally be interested in the languages of others; at the same time, he will not be predisposed to shout domineering linguistic demands (NSFW) at the rest.

This imbalance will result in a much greater preponderance of Turkish than of English in whatever spoken language the islanders settle on.

This example can be generalized. Some personality types are much more likely to enforce their vocabulary on the group.

gestures will probably persist

Given that gestures, facial expressions, and pantomime are the initial means of communication between people who are trying to survive, a fast-developing vocabulary of well-understood basic gestures is likely to be hammered in hard, and would probably prove too useful to discard, even when the spoken vocabulary is converging on a stable form.

The likely result: a persistent mashup of spoken and gestural communication.

Combining the two points, you have a generic template for the mode of communication that your castaways will adopt: common gestures and somewhat arbitrary multilingual spoken vocabulary.

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As many here have said, sign language will prevail for some while, while another method of communication gets going.

That said, with some extraneous signing to each other, they might be able to organise it so that each person teaches a few simple phrases in their language, such as:

  • "Help me."
  • "Need food/water/etc."
  • "Yes" and "no" (although those are easy in signs so maybe not so essential).

The idea is that if more than one person has at least a basic level of understanding of each language, they may be able to facilitate communication.

Unfortunately, it looks like these people won't get the chance to fully develop a new language - that takes hundreds to thousands of years, and they don't seem to have a viable gene pool to sustain a society.

However, discounting that, the language they eventually develop by miscommunications, signing, botched explanations, facial expressions, body language and all those factors will be one of the most diverse languages the world has ever seen, taking its influences from all these different places.

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If these people are all trying to communication, I don't think the process would be particularly difficult. Tedious, but not difficult.

They could surely teach each other nouns by pointing to objects and saying their word for it. Like, if I was trying to communicate and the other person pointed at a banana and said "frangbar", I'd take it that "frangbar" means "banana". Etc. Similarly one could mimic simple actions. like jump up and down and say your word for "jump". Etc. Once we'd established those we could start working on adjectives. Like take a big banana and a small banana and say "big banana" and "small banana", etc.

Of course there would be ambiguities and mistakes, but you work through them. I'm reminded of a lecture I once heard from a missionary explaining how he learned the language of a previously unknown tribe. He mentioned that on one occasion he pointed to a hut and asked "what is that?", and the other person gave the word for "finger", because he thought he was holding up a finger rather than pointing at something. Etc.

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I'd like to add to the (great) answers so far, based on the real life experience of being part of a multilingual group in several occasions.

Common words

While Joe's example would happen rather frequently in real life scenarios, I believe that the group will start using the most common / easiest to memorize or pronounce sounds from the collective vocabulary. With the help of miming and drawing, this could go a long way in a relatively short time, and I believe that a group with the prospect of a long term forced stay with each other will have at least one smart person in it who will make sure that some time is dedicated to building a common language. In this scenario I imagine this leader figure to be smart enough to try and form a vocabulary that everyone can pronounce easily enough.

Using the example of the snake again, I imagine that in an alternative timeline where the word "aznat" hadn't been incorporated in the common language due to necessity, the group would gather together at some point of the day, possibly around lunch - snake stew? - and compare their terms for the creature... *[I am using the transliteration conventions I am used to, apologies if this creates confusion to anyone. Also, most translations are Google based, I cannot guarantee they are correct. ? mean that I couldn't find a translation for a *specific language.]

snake

(shé)

साँप (Sām̐pa)

ثعبان (tẖʿbạn)

змея (zmeya)

সর্প (Sarpa) -> to which the English-speaker might add "serpent" as an alternative term, happy to recognize a familiar sound

ヘビ (Hebi)

పాము (Pamu)

뱀 (Baem)

yılan

rắn

?

ಹಾವು (Havu)

?

nyoka

serpente

ula

schlange

?

Most likely after the first times, they won't go around all 20 people for each term, but rather try different languages until someone recognized a familiar sound, and then work from there. At this point I would expect the group to use a word starting with or including a sibilant sound, most likely ending up with either the Bengali term itself, or something like s*(r)p* (my guess is serpe/selpe/sepe). This is somewhat similar to the process used for the creation of some artificial languages (I'm thinking about the semi-failed esperanto and europanto).

Easy sounds

While general sounds might be very similar, I expect this group to either 1) shift towards a more limited number of sounds than their own languages, limiting the new pidgin to sounds accessible to everyone's mouth, or 2) to include words that are pronounced somewhat differently by different people with groups of sounds that can be used alternatively without changing the meaning of the word.

So in the example above I would expect the word for "snake" to be: 1) sepe (I am assuming here that all 20 people can pronounce the "s" sound in a manner that is common to everyone) 2) §e*pe (with § indicating s/sh/ts/..., and * being either omitted or something close to r/l)

While I believe case 2 to be initially more likely as it's simpler to agree on, with some attention to avoiding homophones, I would expect 1 to prevail in eventual future generations, or after a long period of time.

Some members of the group will realize that others are not as accustomed to the large number of vowel sounds, therefore the community will shift towards the use of a reduced number of vowels, pronounced with some differences, but likely rather easy to distinguish as A, E, I, O, U. I don't think any of these languages has a more limited number of vowels or if their speakers would be likely unable to distinguish among these five.

Tones as used in mandarin will likely be ignored after a short time, as those familiar with them should notice how others are almost entirely unreceptive to them.

Very peculiar sounds - I am thinking clicks in the Khoisian languages as an example - might still be included in a simplified version that makes limited use of them, in short words.

(...and letters?)

With the number of possible phonemes being reduced, it will also be possible to settle on an alphabet common to all 20 members of the group. I believe that the chosen system will be the latin alphabet with possible modifications for extra sounds, being the most common within the group, and quite well suited for a language composed of simple sounds. It helps that most symbols are rather easy to discern and memorize, assuming uppercase letters being used.

...and some grammar

While most people will tend to follow their own grammar, as words for people, animals, objects, actions, and so on are agreed upon, I would expect a simple necessity driven-based grammar to prevail at first. There would be no articles, the language would be mostly genderless, and singularity/plurality, gender, time, etc., would mostly be expressed through adjectives and adverbs. The fist word in sentences would be a vocative (to attract the attention of the intended receiver of the message), the general argument of the message, or the subject; especially at first sentences may begin with a series of terms gradually specifying the subject, e.g.: "about food, today, midday: we now berry many gather".

Gestures

Gestures will be very important at first, and while they won't be as necessary as time goes on, I expect the future of the group to look somewhat similar to communication in Italy: some concepts are expressed via sounds, some via gestures, often both go together. I will not elaborate further as Bill Blondeau already did so. People from cultures with a more rare use of gestures will pick up on what other members of the small community do.

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With such differences in language families, picking up words may be a problem. I cannot distinguish the tones in Mandarin, for example. Differences in what part of the sound is significant can make it frustrating and impossible to pick up let alone repeat.

You may end up with a situation where (only) the native English speaker can understand everyone's use of recently learned English words, because of the simplified phonetic structure caused by it being a (recent) language of immigrants. A New Yorker would be the best in that regard.

I'm more worried about who you get to make dinner. OTOH, it might provide a larger base of knowing things that can be eaten.

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