This question is closely related to this one: How long can language drift before it becomes indecipherable, and how to minimize drift?

Say you have a time traveler, moving forward or backward in time. The language he speaks will drift over time. Eventually, if he goes far enough forward/back in time he will find people speaking the same language, but with such significant differences from the original language as to be functionally unintelligible to him. Much as modern US citizens would have a hard time comprehending Old English.

If the time traveler didn't go quite that far. If he went far enough that language drift has caused a significant enough deviation to make communication difficult or near impossible at first, but not quite far enough to be completely unintelligible. In other words, some of the original language can still be recognized in the drifted language, even if the drift has resulted in communication problems.

My question is, how would these problems present themselves? If the traveler moved progressively further along the time-line what areas would he start struggling to understand or communicate first? Are there some concepts or methods of communication that would tend to work longer than others (ignoring gestures and body language that is universal).

If the traveler went far enough in time that he can not functionally communicate at first, would he have any advantages in deciphering the language due to the shared origin? If he were to learn to understand the new dialect over the course of a few days/weeks in this new time what tricks would he use to adopt his understanding of the language to the new dialect? or would he simply allow himself to be immersed and pick it up the way someone would if tossed in a completely foreign land?

This question is primarily about time travel, and I'm happy to accept any answers about such. However, if anyone wishes to toss in any speculation about what it would mean to have two cultures sharing a native tongue that were isolated and both languages drifted; and the difficulty of someone from one culture finally meeting a member of the other, I would welcome any feedback from that perspective as well. Specifically, would there be any extra considerations caused by having drift occurring in both culture instead of handling drift from only one culture in the time-travel scenario. However, this is only extra-goodness if you feel like contributing it; not mandatory.

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    $\begingroup$ Tangential question: How likely are our modern languages to drift, given the near-global access to the Internet? Would they more likely merge to form one hodgepodge language (kind of like English already is) or remain as they are with minimal shift? $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Jul 2, 2015 at 16:36
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    $\begingroup$ This might be a better question for Language SE, maybe? It's very technical, it requires just that technical knowledge, and doesn't require "making stuff up coherently" like usually questions here do. $\endgroup$
    – o0'.
    Jul 2, 2015 at 17:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Lohoris, I disagree with your view that this question is unsuitable for Worldbuilding SE. The tradition of giving a feeling of reality to your created world by having your fictional languages exhibit a credible evolutionary history dates at least from Tolkien. $\endgroup$ Jul 2, 2015 at 18:44
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    $\begingroup$ @bilbo_pingouin I'm aware it's a separate question. I did denote it as a tangential question. After browsing the Linguistics SE, it seems there's no real answer to how language will evolve from modern times. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Jul 2, 2015 at 19:01
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    $\begingroup$ My personal experience of a few days in Amsterdam with my fluent English and rudimentary German. I could often decode written Dutch. Once I'd worked out the vowel migrations it lay sort of halfway between German and English. Spoken Dutch remained incomprehensible but as background hubbub it sounded just like English. It was only when I tried to "tune in" that it's foreign-ness became apparent. $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Feb 29, 2016 at 21:03

4 Answers 4


To clarify, it is by definition impossible for two speakers to be speaking the same language but to be 'functionally unintelligible'. They would then be speaking two different languages. In this sense, modern English and old English are not the same language whose speakers are mutually 'functionally unintelligible' but are in fact two separate languages.

To answer your question, the order we can expect language to change into new forms will roughly follow phonology>vocabulary>grammar.

Phonological change follows global and specific tendencies. Usually the principle of 'ease of articulation' colors these changes heavily. This means the original form will start to move towards easier to pronounce. This can take many forms: assimilation, vowel shortening, vowel insertion or consonant clipping, etc. Think of the common pronunciation of -ing in English verbs as "-in'" for a common example, or the pronunciation of question as 'kweshchin' instead of 'kwes-tee-uhn'.

For vocabulary, words are often divided into two categories: content words and function words. Content words are nouns, verbs and adjectives; words that carry referential value. Function words are modifiers, articles, conjunctions, etc.; words that carry functional grammatical value. Content words change very quickly, function words seem particularly resistant to change and a change in this class of words usually signals a further change in the language's underlying...

Grammar: This is the aspect of the language that when changed will present the most trouble to a temporally displaced speaker of a related language. Of course, even this would only present a minimal challenge to adjust to when learning the 'new' language.

To expound, travelling back in time we might find a speaker first having to adjust to new sounds (especially slightly altered vowel sounds), then new nouns, and new verbs, and older senses of commonly understood adjectives. then they'd have to negotiate changing function words, like 'ayont' for 'beyond' (something preserved in geordie English) and finally be grammars, like putting verbs at the end of a sentence or encountering grammatical gender (which modern English largely lacks).

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site, excellent answer. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Sep 16, 2015 at 13:44
  • $\begingroup$ In fact we already see this as a common trope. Olde folks finding that teenages/college aged "kids" having a language that is completely unintelligible. Even today, with how emojis are being dropped into day to day text messages its already starting for me...>_< $\endgroup$
    – Aron
    Feb 29, 2016 at 5:16
  • $\begingroup$ My sense is that a fair bit of what this excellent answer describes is considerably accelerated in the case of agglutinative languages, because the three processes tend to operate simultaneously with the same linguistic units. $\endgroup$
    – CAgrippa
    Mar 19, 2016 at 9:33

This has already happened today in the form of dialects.

Take, for example, me. I am an Indonesian, I live in South Sumatra, where the language are quite different between the city, the towns, and the areas in between. Neighboring provinces e.g. Jambi, Lampung have similar language but a bit different in terminology, the people of South Sumatra, Lampung and Jambi can speak to each other using their own tongue and everyone would be able to understand much of the conversation.

I live in the capital, Palembang, with its own language Palembangese, but my dialect is modern Palembangese, which are Palembangese mixed with Indonesian, by quite a lot. So much so, if you speak formal Indonesian, you should be able to generally decipher what I'm saying, although not perfectly. This language was developed by the younger generations with access to formal Indonesian.

When I speak with an actual Palembang citizen speaking the original Palembangese, I can't make out what they say, their terminology is very different, sometimes they use a word that I know but for a completely different meaning, but the general structure, the general grammar, is similar.

In these cases, basic grammar would help, as you would be able to figure out subjects, objects and verb, only not what they mean, the rest would be learning the vocabulary like a new language, because in a way, that's what it is


You can get a flavor from watching old movies. Even 1930–1940 has a few changes in idioms and shifts in meaning that can make you laugh.

So, one way it can manifest is when the future person laughs.


In the middle ages you could travel the known world and get by with Latin, a historical and thus frozen language. I don't know how far away this was from the way Romans really spoke.

The equivalent seems to be English these days. When speaking to non-Brits I use what we call Euro-English, a simplified form with linear grammar and a smaller vocabulary. Maybe this will catch on and get frozen too?

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    $\begingroup$ Re Latin: expressly no, according to my high-school teacher. vulgar Latin (as spoken) is not the same as the careful written works. Also, it varied by time and region, and the actual pronouncation changed a lot. "Legal-eeze" Latin might be standard throughout the empire, but local dialects incorporated local languages (and eventually fractured). $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Sep 16, 2015 at 12:38
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    $\begingroup$ in the middle ages, especially before the seljuks capturing constantinople, greek would have been much more useful in the eastern mediterranean than latin. even in the 'heyday' of the pax romana, latin, for many people touched by the empire, remained a legal/military language. even then, greek seems to have had more currency. $\endgroup$ Sep 16, 2015 at 16:36

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