19
$\begingroup$

Question speaks for itself.

If you had an immortal (thinking God-Emperor Leto style), would language change? Assuming an immortal presence in society holding a high (or multiple high) positions of authority, I'd assume that language would not change as drastically as it could naturally.

$\endgroup$
  • 12
    $\begingroup$ Is there just one immortal, among millions of mortals, or is everyone immortal, or is it some split like 50/50? $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme the Second May 10 at 15:36
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Language changes continously even throughout the same generation... New words are invented almost every day to name a few: yeet, incel, simp, bae, poser.... All those words where invented by the same generation. $\endgroup$ – user75545 May 10 at 17:42
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Kyu -- Specifically, the only kind of language we know anything about, which is human language, changes continually, etc. $\endgroup$ – elemtilas May 10 at 20:28
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ A very related question - worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/174240/… $\endgroup$ – Peteris May 10 at 23:38
  • $\begingroup$ 1 Immortal with immense magical abilities who has colonised a world with tribes he lead from another world. Some individuals (champions like) are elevated to immortality along with them. Was thinking what would happen with the story if they were introduced, how would they bridge the language gap for an invasion, when the idea came up "well, the old world would have it's language change, but would the new world if they have someone who doesn't age or lose any mental ability" $\endgroup$ – Carling May 12 at 15:38
18
$\begingroup$

Language naturally evolves, in the absence of forces that prevent it doing so. But there are cases where forces, such as national institutions that manage language, with strong government support, do indeed impede its evolution.

The classic example on Earth is Icelandic. Because of concerted efforts over the centuries, there is much less difference between the Icelandic of the middle ages and that of today, compared to most other European languages. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_purism_in_Icelandic )

Two other examples that come to mind are Hebrew and classical Latin, as practiced by their religions. The Latin that is used by the Catholic church today is the same as it was in the first few centuries AD, even as "street Latin" evolved into the Romance languages. Meanwhile, Hebrew completely died out as a spoken language, but was revived from its written texts.

What these examples have in common is a strong central authority invested in keeping the language from changing. If your immortal autocratc wants this to be the case, and invests in the structures to prevent language drift, I don't think it's far-fetched that language drift could be minimal over long periods of time.

| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ How if your god-emperor does not want to learn new languages "every day" (meaning every tens or hundred years)? Then every normal mortal human must learn HIS language to communicate with him. And they want to do this, because he is the emperor $\endgroup$ – Julian Egner May 11 at 11:58
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Right, like "the Queen's English" is a sort of idealised standard of English that people of a certain class traditionally aspired to. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sociolinguistics#Class_aspiration as well. $\endgroup$ – Steve Bennett May 11 at 12:52
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The examples of Hewbrew and classical Latin are flawed though. They're both dead languages. The only way they're spoken is as recitations, but otherwise they see barely any use. Languages that are "in active use" will necessarily change every time something new is invented or a minor shift in society happens, even if the change may be steered into a specific direction, such as the example of Iceland. $\endgroup$ – Paul May 11 at 21:27
  • $\begingroup$ The prevalent theory of language evolution is based on imperfection of transmission, meaning that each generation passing the language to another does so incompletely and with some errors. In a population of immortals living together, it is highly likely that language evolution would considerably slow down or freeze altogether except for discovering new concepts. In a population of immortals that do not procreate, this would be even more pronounced. With one immortal God-Emperor in super large population, this would have little to no impact. $\endgroup$ – Eleshar May 11 at 22:09
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Paul: Just to add to your comment: the day-to-day language of the Vatican is Italian, not Latin. So, even the very institution that is keeping the language "alive" does not use it in its day-to-day affairs. $\endgroup$ – Jörg W Mittag May 11 at 23:09
24
$\begingroup$

Language would still change.

  • There would still be technological changes. Make emperor Augustus immortal, today he would still app his courtesans. That wouldn't be something classical Latin can describe ==> language change
  • There would be trade with new countries. Again Augustus, have him eat corn or tomatoes, how would he call them? ==> language change
  • If there are other mortals, their language will change. Augustus could not speak to us with the same Latin he used in 16 d.c. ==> language change
| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$
  • 14
    $\begingroup$ to add one the the biggest effects on language is the changes made by each new generation during their adolescent years. Then you have slang based on cultural events, "going postal" "drink the koolaid" "blue pill" $\endgroup$ – John May 10 at 16:32
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @John Or "I'm gonna get medieval on you". Each generation has their defining moments. $\endgroup$ – Peter - Reinstate Monica May 11 at 7:11
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Its funny because plants scientific names are all in latin... $\endgroup$ – Richard May 12 at 0:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Richard Latinesque. It's not quite classical Latin. The majority of modern species names would be gibberish to the average ancient Roman. $\endgroup$ – Darrel Hoffman May 12 at 14:37
6
$\begingroup$

It's likely that the language of the mortals will over time diverge from the language of the god emperors. It will evolve into its own dialect and eventually its own language, because of all the reasons that languages in large societies evolve.

The language which the immortals speak will evolve as well. The speed of change will depend on the degree of isolation the immortals maintain (assuming there is a group, a community of immortals). There is ample evidence that the language spoken by small, isolated communities evolves much slower.

In this case the language of the immortals may take on the roles of Hebrew and Sanskrit in Judaism and Hinduism respectively: A language widely taught for religious or at least ritual purposes, which is the form of interaction with immortals; but not spoken in that form in everyday life, because it is too complicated, does not fit modern requirements, and because the language of the mortals simply evolved in the way languages evolve.

But still, the language of the immortals stays a spoken language, not a static text. Even the minds of immortals evolve. The circumstances will change as well. With them will change their language. I certainly speak differently than I did a decade ago. I notice how I pick up mannerisms and idiosyncrasies from people I meet: Using the same terms improves communication, they are cool, they apply well to a new situation etc. The languages of mortals and immortals will also co-evolve: The interaction between mortals and immortals is not a one-way street. But the language of the immortals will still evolve slower than the language of the mortals, not least because, as John remarked in a comment, young people are a driving force for change, also in language.

| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$
3
$\begingroup$

It all depends. As an author you can choose either way. A number of related questions:

New inventions and new phenomena will require new words. This is inevitable. But how much change is there in this society? That is up to the author. There is also possible to make old words have new meanings. ("to google" vs "to search the net")

Does the immortal themself want to appear to be one of the people. This will lead to them adopting the changes that occur naturally. If they want to appear above the people they will try to keep their language unchanged, and mostly succeed.

Is there TV or some other way for the immortal to speak to the people? And will they listen? This will contribute to keeping the popular language close to theirs.

Does people in general like and want to emulate the immortal? This will give stability. Or does people like the idea that the upper class doesn't understand them? This gives change, like cockney.

In general, how large is the differences between the classes? Large differences and strict separations lead to separate languages. The immortal will then only influence the upper class.

Religion can play a big part. If there is a strong church with the immortal either in charge or worshiped, or both, the clergy will speak like the boss does, unchanging throughout the ages. It is not a given that the populace will follow the clergy in this, but it could happen.

In short, make it up as you go along and nobody can tell you different. It is your world.

| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$
3
$\begingroup$

If the immortal is a true God (omniscient, perfected Being), there would be no reason to change the language other than for aesthetic variety, any language created by such a God already being perfect in all functional aspects.

| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ If there is a true God, that God is creative; otherwise there wouldn't be anything else. Why wouldn't such creativity express itself linguistically as well? $\endgroup$ – The Dark Canuck May 11 at 16:28
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ What does it mean for a god to have a word for something that hasn't even been discovered yet in the larger society? The god might have words for "electricity" and "chromosome" and other advanced topics, but if no one even know what those things are, I struggle to see how those could be part of the society's language. It seems like the god would always just be saying "oh yeah, I have a word for that" anytime a new discovery is made, at which point the society's language changes to add that word to the common vernacular. $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Wang May 11 at 16:42
  • $\begingroup$ Not all gods are perfect. $\endgroup$ – Stig Hemmer May 13 at 8:43
  • $\begingroup$ @StigHemmer No false gods are perfect, but a true God is. $\endgroup$ – pygosceles May 18 at 17:20
  • $\begingroup$ @TheDarkCanuck This is captured in part in the stipulation "for aesthetic variety". The creation of new languages also appears to have played an important functional role, for example, in the Tower of Babel situation. $\endgroup$ – pygosceles May 18 at 17:22
2
$\begingroup$

Language would change the same. Your immortals at the top might still speak the ancient, classical form, and their administrators might understand it just as British Empire civil servants all had fluent Latin and Greek back in the day. But the people on the streets would still speak their fast-evolving urban slang incomprehensible to the old ones.

| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

It would depend on what percentage of the population are immortal. If, say, half were immortal it would likely diminish the rate at which language would change. The phrasing of your question, though, leaves me with the impression that immortals would be an elite few. In this case I would expect the language to split into a conventional path, where the majority speak an evolving language, and a more isolated path, where the immortals use among themselves the language they learned as children with fewer changes from the original. (They would likely speak common as well, unless they chose to isolate themselves from mortals with translators.) After a few centuries, the more static version might become regarded as arcane or as a status symbol, and would at least be a sort of "secret code" they could use in public.

| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

Captain Corelli's Mandolin, set in German occupied WWII Greece, has a hilarious character - not precisely immortal, but a British Secret Service agent.

Having been a public school boy, and a Classics scholar at Oxford or Cambridge, he drifted into his Secret Service role because of his ... fluency in Greek.

Unfortunately for him, Greek had changed in the last 2000 years, so, while (with an effort) the locals could just about understand him, and vice-versa, there was no way he could pass muster as a natural Greek speaker. This made him spectacularly useless as a spy. He had to remain as a practically mute shepherd living alone in the hills, while the locals pretended there was nothing out of the ordinary about this, to avoid blowing his cover in the face of the occupying army.

| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

Consider this: do you use the same words you did years ago? (And I'm referring to more than just slang or colloquialisms.)

I mention this because over the last few decades I've noticed some phrases & words have fallen out of favor while others have come into common use. For example, "impact" has all but replaced "effect" (viz., "The news had a negative impact" instead of "The news had a negative effet"). And I'm amazed at how "Wait, what?" has come from nowhere to become ubiquitous. (I think the word people used to use in its place was "Huh?")

One factor in language evolution is that at various times languages change radically, while for long periods of time they change very slowly. As difficult as modern native English speakers may find reading Shakespeare or his contemporaries, if you look at literature written a few hundred years before that, English (or more properly Middle English) becomes a foreign language, with a different vocabulary & rules of grammar. Even Shakespeare's contemporaries had as much trouble understanding Middle English as we. (The poet Spencer misunderstood Middle English, & his attempt to write in Middle English comes across as at best an affected archaism, & at worst badly spelled Modern English!) The reasons for these sudden shifts is that the elite, who set the norms for usage & are conservative in changing these norms, isolated themselves from the mainstream, allowing the majority of speakers to radically change these norms. An example of this is the who/whom distinction, which has been dying for centuries. (Defoe, writing in the 18th century, frequently uses "who" as the object instead of "whom".) This would mean your immortals would speak an old-fashioned version of the language, although not as out-of-date as say Chaucer. maybe not even as out-of-date as Shakespeare or the King James Bible.

In short, language always changes, often too slowly for us to notice without paying attention. But with immortals around, interacting with the rest of us in daily life, there would be little opportunity for a sudden language shift.

| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.