# Keeping oral tradition accurate, and preventing language divergence, how long will it last? [duplicate]

So, this is the set up. Communities of wood elves spread out over a large area (think half a continent), with each community having several hundred to several thousand individuals. Communities are so far away from each other that contact between them is fairly rare. Wood elves have a lifespan of up to about 600 years. The technology level is late stone age to bronze age, writing isn't used.

Now, there is a sense that their language was received from their teachers/"gods", and thus should be kept to its original form. There is no strong religious emphasis on keeping track of history.

Now, how long would this last? How many years/generations before the language would start to diverge? How long until their understanding of history becomes garbled and incorrect? What would the effect of wars or natural disasters be on this? What difference (if any) would occasional contact with some outside group that does have writing make?

Edit to answer some questions: Some effort being put into keeping the language as-is. Not much moving between communities, and there is no formal schooling system. But mockery of those who misuse the language is very much a thing. In the initial phase there isn't much contact with outsiders, but later on there is contact (and trade) with other races, which does generate the need for neologisms or borrowing words.

I am not trying to find ways to make things last longer, I am merely trying to figure out how long it would take, and adjust my timescales to that.

• too many variables Jun 7 '20 at 13:41
• Keeping oral tradition accurate is a different question from the rate of language drift. Many folk stories are changed by every new teller to suit their needs; and conversely, the core of a tale may survive for over a thousand years, when the original author would be completely incomprehensible to the latest generation of tellers. Jun 7 '20 at 13:44
• Hello @David Buunk, welcome to world building SE. Though I understand that all of your questions are related to a specific subject, it would be best to dilute them by asking other questions. As it is, you're asking 5 questions in 1,and some of them require a higher level of understanding of your world and its cultures/conflicts/interspecies relationships than what you told us. Please divide this question so that it can be more focused and thus grants you better, more directed answers. Make sure to check the help center to understand the SE better Jun 7 '20 at 13:58
• This is technically a duplicate of the question I linked to. There is one specific difference that might justify it not being a duplicate - the context of being stone age. Stone age language all but didn't exist (that we know of) and certainly lacked both vocabulary and sophistication - so how much is there to preserve? If there's a lot to preserve, the elves aren't stone-age. (BTW - there is a HUGE HUGE HUGE difference between late stone and late bronze... you need to pick one.) Jun 7 '20 at 17:43
• @ProjectApex Thank you for the feedback, that's really helpful. I shall keep some of these things in mind for future questions! Jun 8 '20 at 10:32

A Very Long Time Indeed.

As has rightly been pointed out, human languages evolve & change, quickly or slowly, over time. We can literally watch the evolution of Latin, for example, from fusional to polysynthetic within 1500 years (French).

But we're not dealing with human languages here. We're dealing with some kind of Elf. Their brains are wired a little differently and their language centers work differently. You've already said that they have moderately long life spans of above half a millennium. This in and of itself would tend to slow the rate of change of something like language. I'd argue that it's entirely up to you how long an elvish language can remain stable: if you said 10,000 years, I wouldn't argue. It's taken 33 generations for French to evolve into what it is now. 33 generations for your Elves is almost 20,000 years!

Folk memory is a different matter, and among humans it is known to be extremely stable over very long periods of time. The most stellar examples come from Australia, where oral history is known to reliably date back 35,000 years or more (777 generations). Comparable Elvish timespans would be on the order of 465,000 years.

It's going to be up to you to determine how these general trends will or won't apply to your Elves, how natural disasters and how elfmade disasters and wars will affect the situation!

• I'm not sure this is that accurate. A large amount of the evolution of language is dealing with new technologies and situations. If you don't have a word for Plowshare, you're gonna have one really fast once you invent one. Jun 9 '20 at 13:47
1. "How many years/generations before the language would start to diverge?"

• Language will start to diverge immediately, as soon as a group of people moves out and establishes a new fairly isolated settlement.

• Language will start to change immediately, as soon as a child is born and learns to speak.

• But I am pretty certain that this is not what you wanted to ask. I believe that what you wanted to ask is how many generations will pass before the everyday language becomes a clearly different from the language of the sacred hymns.

The answer is that your elves are similar to humans, the language of the hymns will become incomprehensible to untrained lay people in anywhere between four and forty generations, most likely in ten to twenty generations. (Given that and elvish generation is given to be about 300 years, this means anywhere between 1,200 and 12,000 years, which is extremely slow by human standards. But we are not speaking about human standards here.) We have examples of rapid language evolution and fragmentation, we have examples of slow language evolution and fragmentation. It all depends on luck and on conditions which have not been given in the question.

(Language change happens mostly (1) in the process of transmission of the language from parents to children and (2) in the process of acquisition of the language by communities of non-native speakers.)

(Language evolves fastest in small isolated illiterate communities. But then again, luck is important, and so are other factors. For a simple example, do they practice exogamy? Regular exchange of women between the isolated communities will do wonders to slow down linguistic drift. Do they have frequent wars with adoption of war captives in the victorious communities? Are there intrinsic factors favoring language change, such as complicated morphology, or an unbalanced phonemic system? Are they in long-term intimate contact with a foreign linguistic community?)

2. "How long until their understanding of history becomes garbled and incorrect?"

Their understanding of history will become garbled and incorrect instantaneously, for the simple reason that they don't have a good and correct understanding of history to begin with.

No writing means no records, and no records means no history. It's that simple. Written records are a necessary condition for history, but they are far from sufficient; it is also necessary for the people to have the concept of history, and for them to put the effort into recording, recovering and writing history. This is a rare combination; we the European civilization have history basically because a man of Halicarnassus, who lived in the 5th century before the common era, felt the need to start an inquiry ($$\leftarrow$$ this is the litteral meaning of the Greek word historia) . . .

. . . .so that things done by man not be forgotten in time, and that great and marvelous deeds, some displayed by the Hellenes, some by the barbarians, not lose their glory, including among others what was the cause of their waging war on each other (Herotodus of Halicarnassus, Historiai (= Inquiries), English translation by A. D. Godley, at Perseus)

History was invented by a specific man at a specific place on a specific time. It did not exist before. Scholars who came after Herodotus, by studying very carefully the written records of past civilizations, have extended history backwards, for some populations more, for other less, for illiterate barbarians not at all; by definition, everything that happened before the invention of writing is pre-history.

Oral tradition, even faithfully transmitted oral tradition, is not history. It doesn't aim to be history, it doesn't want to be history, it has different goals and different methods. The Odyssey is oral tradition; the Iliad is oral tradition; the Rig Veda is oral tradition. They are not history. They are beautiful and inspiring poems, they capture the essence of the respective civilizations, they offer aspirations and models of behavior: but history they are not.

3. "What would the effect of wars or natural disasters be on this?"

Unknown. Please tell us more and in detail about the civilization in question and the specific wars and natural disasters.

4. "What difference (if any) would occasional contact with some outside group that does have writing make?"

The civilized outside group who have writing may preserve bits and pieces of the language and history of the barbarians. It won't help the barbarians at all, but it may be of great help to future scholars who study the history and the evolution of the language of the barbarians.

(For example, we know that at the beginning of the 1st century the Germanic Cherusci had a great military leader named Arminius. We know this because the Romans, whom he defeated, were very impressed and wrote about his life and exploits. The Germans themselves kept no memory of him, and had to learn about him from Roman histories when they became civilized and learned Latin.)

Because of long lifespan and low fertility, your elf languages will be very stable.

This emerges from 2 properties of your world. One is the elves live 600 years. The other is that communities are isolated and stay that way.

In 200 years, fecund, short-lived humans have filled up the entirety of North America. Over that period, at any given time and place, most of a society would be persons under the age of 40. If your elves have not filled up their continent, that means their reproductive rate is low.

Like genetic evolution, language evolution is driven (I here assert!) by generation time because people tend to speak using the patterns they learned as a child. Short generation time = rapid evolution. In human societies, old people get a raised eyebrow because they speak in archaic ways. If you sit with them talking amongst themselves they can be hard to understand. Language evolution happens in groups of young people.

Your elves live a long time. And the fact that they have not filled up your continent means their birth rate is very low. As opposed to the typical human situation where there are many young folks and one or two oddity oldsters, old folks speaking in the old ways would be the norm among the elves. A society might have only one or two young folks at any given time.

Among your elves the long lifespan and low fertility rate will anchor the language in a way that historically did not happen in human societies.

• How much information can just one person remember, over 600 years? How big are their 'minds'? The fewer people there are, the fewer people that are available to remember, the fewer details that are remembered. How much information do you remember from your life, and what was the span in years of that memory? Now extend your life span to 600 years, and how much memory capacity would you have? How many details would you recall? Jun 7 '20 at 15:27
• @JustinThymetheSecond - I forget all kinds of stuff and I am only 120. But I still talk the same. And groove to the old tunes. Jun 7 '20 at 15:51
• But what did you do with the music when you were younger than 50? Jun 8 '20 at 1:03

History is not about the past, it is about the present. That is, every 'past' event begins with a 'present'.

The people in the present are the ones that record it. What the people in the present think is important and relevant, is what gets noted in our historical record. Every day, we create and record the 'history' that will eventually be recalled. We filter out the facts, in the present, as the event happens, that do and do not get put in the narrative. Every historical memory that we humans have recorded, is influenced by all of the conditions that surrounded the event when it occurred 'in the present', before it became 'history'. In this sense, the only way to recall the past is to recall EVERYTHING about the past, like a hologram, instead of just the snippets that humans tend to note.

In the absence of the recall of all of the events and experiences surrounding the event, humans tend to infer them from our current experiences. When we recall our memories, we do not recall the 'past' as it was, we recall 'how it must have been', based on our present experiences. That is, our recall of the past is always biased by our present.

Any good defense attorney will be able to 'cloud' our recall of events that passed only a few months ago, let alone centuries ago.

So what it comes down to, is how do your wood elves 'remember' the past? Do they use the same memory systems that humans do, or have they evolved a completely different way from humans to remember the past? Do they use a system of memory that only 'records' the facts, and not the experiential and emotional baggage that humans always apply to our 'memories'?

The only way to 'preserve' the narrative of the past is to completely strip it of any value judgments, emotional content, experiential context, or moral comment. As the old saying went, 'Just the facts, ma'am.'

Language will start to diverge the first time someone in a far off community sees something they cannot describe. Even if they have an intent not to add new words, they will use existing words in new ways. A “stool pigeon” uses two common words but means something divorced from both chairs and birds. As soon as they shorthand an event, the language will drift. Those events will need to be communicated to other communities for them to stay in sync. Consider just this example of the evolution of the name Karen: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/04/28/karen-memes-jokes-arent-sexist-or-racist-let-karen-explain/?arc404=true