A general question here, relevant to many world-building scenarios. Language drifts, to the point that I likely could never understand old English, but I'm not sure how much. I want to know how long it would take for a language to deviate form it's origin that two people, speaking extensible the same language, could not understand each other. In addition, what factors could one use to justify limited language drift, to expand the range of time between two speakers in which one could understand the other.

I've tagged this as time-travel, so for now assume you have a traveler from the past/future speaking to someone from the same region dealing with language drift for answering this question. However, any feedback on what language drift would be like if you had two cultures starting with the same base language before becoming isolated I would appreciate that two. Would two cultures drifting from the same starting language become indistinguishable from each other twice as fast as a language becomes indistinguishable from it's past/future version; or are there more complex factors in play?

  • $\begingroup$ Isn't this how Latin transformed into Spanish and French? See for reference this. Posting as a comment because I don't know enough about linguistics to detail an answer, but this seems like a good place to start. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 16:32
  • $\begingroup$ Language has to drift because words are not fixed by definitions but are related to each other and to the reality. When knowledge changes, the language adapt to that. And, maybe we don't understand each other so good anyway, but when talking about the same reality, we sometimes feel as we understand each other. It takes a lot of patience to become a good listener. And now I will read your question... $\endgroup$
    – Lehs
    Commented Jul 12, 2015 at 23:42
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    $\begingroup$ Since you seem to be interested about two time lines, I'd say the best way to keep interinteligibility is to make the language to drift similar ways in both timelines. For example, for time lines splitting in England 1000 years ago, I'd make sure to have a Norman conquest in both time lines (or in none of them), because the opposite would make English drift in very different ways. $\endgroup$
    – Pere
    Commented Oct 1, 2016 at 10:12

1 Answer 1


"what factors could one use to justify limited language drift"

There's no one answer to the question of how long it takes for language to drift. There is no predictable rate of so much language change per century - indeed it is difficult to know how the amount of language change can be measured. It depends on the culture and physical situation of the people concerned.

Physical isolation, such as being spoken on an island, tends to prevent a language from changing by the obvious means of preventing other, potentially "corrupting", languages from ever being heard. Icelandic is an example. The medieval Icelandic sagas can be understood by modern speakers of Icelandic.

Literacy tends to preserve language, but the tendency is not absolute. For instance Classical Chinese is perhaps the language that has been able to be read by most generations (although Tamil may be a competitor). However because written Chinese gives scant guidance on pronunciation, that has probably changed a good deal even though the grammar and form of the characters remained relatively stable.

On the other hand lack of literacy can also preserve language, if the culture concerned has a strong tradition of storytellers, griots or bards memorising poetry or oral history. It seems that the coming of literacy has often meant the decline of the great feats of memory that people can accomplish when they have to.

Political continuity also tends to limit language drift. English lost most of its inflections after the Norman conquest. This was probably a combination of the effect of the reduction of the amount being written in English (scholars continued to write in Latin, but the language of law and administration changed from Anglo-Saxon to Norman French) and the effect of loss of status; English was seen as the language of peasants so nobody fussed about it being used "improperly". Another political factor is simply the use of laws to repress dialects seen as damaging to national unity.

Use as a language of religion or scripture certainly preserves a language. For example Latin, Sanskrit and Hebrew. On the other hand this only really works if the scriptural language ceases to be the language spoken in the streets. Classical Arabic is preserved in the Koran but spoken Arabic has diverged into very different forms across the Arab world.

(Update: After further research I replaced the original mention of Thai with Tamil. Greek and Aramaic are also examples of classical languages that can be read "naturally" by modern speakers. Hebrew is another example, but it was not continuously a living language. It is difficult to pinpoint when enough drift has occurred in a language to make it a "new" language, so there is controversy over which of these languages is oldest.)

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    $\begingroup$ +1, althought I would change "physical isolation" by "volume of exchanges". A lot of people travelling between areas of common language (trade, peregrination, even warfare) would retard drifting. Also, I would add different foreign influences as an increasing factor. $\endgroup$
    – SJuan76
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 22:42
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    $\begingroup$ "The medieval Icelandic sagas can be understood by modern speakers of Icelandic" That's commonly stated as a fact, but it's important to note that this is reading, not speaking, and I believe they generally read a version with updated spelling conventions (much as English speakers read versions of Shakespeare's plays with the spelling normalized to modern conventions). $\endgroup$
    – zeta
    Commented Jul 3, 2015 at 5:33
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    $\begingroup$ I'd add "technological stasis" to the list. As an example, Dutch and Afrikaans (the latter being my mother tongue) are largely mutually intelligible despite being separated and subject to different influences for a few centuries, but names for technology invented since that separation seem to differ. For instance, the Dutch word for an electric plug is a "stecker," which in Afrikaans sounds like something designed to stab things with. Without context, the Afrikaans equivalent "muurprop" would sound to a speaker of Dutch like a plug designed to go in a wall, but with no hint as to its purpose. $\endgroup$
    – Wolfie Inu
    Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 10:36

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