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In my world, a group of nomads (culture a) conquered settled peoples (culture b) and adopted their language as an administrative language, think Aramaic or Koine Greek.

I've also been playing with the idea that they straight up starting speaking culture b's language natively. But I can't think of an example of that happening where it wasn't Acculturation (assimilation into the other culture as a whole) but I need them to still be a very distinct people with their own traditions.

My question is; is it possible for culture a to keep most aspects of their culture, like religion, traditions, games, art etc, while speaking a foreign tongue?

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  • $\begingroup$ I think what you are asking is already answered here worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/q/124021/30492 $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Feb 16 at 19:49
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch It's actually not. I'm not asking why they would adopt it in the first place, I'm asking how they would keep their cultural traditions even after they lost their own language. $\endgroup$ Feb 16 at 20:00
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    $\begingroup$ Why haven't you done your research? This looks like a straight up: How often has this occurred in history vs the alternatives. Then based on stats. you have a good idea of how plausible. Is it possible? Many things are possible. $\endgroup$ Feb 16 at 20:48
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    $\begingroup$ Does this answer your question? What event would cause a huge, dominant nation to adopt the language of a smaller, inferior one? $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Feb 16 at 21:03
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    $\begingroup$ Please convince me not to downvote this, @user8796978.. there are some aspects in your question that make me wonder how to put the scenario together.. there have not been many "nomads" that conquered any "settlement" in Earth's history. Nomads use the settlements to buy and sell their goods and move on. That is what nomads do. In the 4th-5th century, peoples like Goths and Vandals overran the Roman Empire, but they were also settlers, accompanied by armies doing the plundering. In early medieval times, a tribe winning a war would try to impose their language on the settlers, not adjust. $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Feb 16 at 22:51

3 Answers 3

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The language is the least of it.

A nomadic people who conquer a settled people will be so radically changed that it would be impossible to tease out what is caused by the language change, and what isn't.

This does not have to mean acculturation, they may in fact drop customs that happened to be the same as the settled people to draw distinctions, but changes will be enormous and some have to make them more like conquered.

For instance, if they are settled, they will be farmers. The nomads will be unable to move freely over the conquered land without devastating damage to crops, thus destroying their subjects. (It is, of course, possible to cause massive death among them by accident, but that doesn't sound like your set-up.) Furthermore, administration among settled people has to be relatively settled. Some officials must stay in place. Even if they are regarded as garrisons -- the Manchu styled them such -- they aren't nomadic any more.

Settled peoples also allow more chances for the upper classes to accumulate wealth and so be able to afford luxuries. It is very unlikely that all your conquerors will be able to resist such culture changes.

Your best bet may be, like the Manchu, to have them adopt a program of rigorously resisting assimilation, but this is not merely a matter of maintaining customs but inventing them as needed to distinguish between themselves and their subjects. Perhaps they would invent a test at the age of twenty-one (or older) where a man has to show a certain degree of skill at bow and horsemanship, and until he passes, he remains legally a child. Another good one is ritual requirements for food, such that they can not eat socially with the subjects. Or, conversely, they may require their subjects to stop wearing furs so that can be an exclusively conqueror prerogative.

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Something like this did happen a few times in history. In some society's the lower class spoke only a native language while the upper class spoke an addition, foreign language. This usually happened because the nobility needed to deal with a members of another powerful civilization while the lower class did not. Eventually the ability to speak the second language became a symbol of the nobility, so nobles went out of their way to speak it whenever they could. All ancient Romans spoke Latin, but Roman nobles conversed with each other in Greek; all Medieval Englishmen spoke Middle English, but English nobles conversed with each other in French.

In the case of Rome this trend corresponded with an adoption of Greek culture, but Roman culture still remained its own distinct features, most notably a tolerance for foreigners who submitted to Roman rule. In contrast, classical Greeks viewed themselves as inherently superior to everyone else, who were universally labeled as uncultured barbarians. The situation between England and France is significantly more complicated since many of the French-speaking English nobles were descended for French conquerors of England.

It is worth pointing out that in both of these cases the native language and the foreign language became mixed together until a new language was formed. Italian has roots in both Latin and Greek; Modern English has roots in both Middle English and French.

P.S. Civilizations based around conquest tended to have a central location they originated from and always occupied, which means they would not be considered nomadic. For example, Roman traveled all across Europe conquering almost everyone they meet, but they always sent the spoils of war back home to Rome. Similarly, Viking warriors traveled all across Northern and Central Europe sacking villages and cities, but it was always in order to support families who lived back home. If the conquering nation you are writing about was truly nomadic, they would never settle in one place long enough to establish the administrative infrastructure.

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Yes. But it won't be easy. And there will often be tragic or horrifying incidents.

The example is religious sub-cultures existing within a larger culture. The people of the sub-culture learn the language of the larger group. They adopt the behaviors and manners of the larger group, but only as a camouflage. They retain their own culture by having two cultures.

  • They must maintain their own places of worship. Without this, the culture will be very likely to decay and get absorbed.
  • They must therefore have their own religious leaders.
  • They retain their religion and all the signs and symbols. But they conceal it or disguise it. Or, if the larger culture is tolerant, they simply behave unobtrusively.
  • They retain their festival days and rituals. But they keep them private. And possibly they adjust the dates or modify the rituals so that the larger culture does not notice.
  • They maintain their original language, but only speak it among themselves.
  • They maintain many superficial aspects of their original culture. This can be food style, clothing style, hair and beard style, given names, musical styles, etc.
  • They have traditional stories and writings that are passed from one member to another rather than by more public means.
  • They follow traditional occupations. Or occupations that become traditional in the new culture. This may be because the larger culture finds these occupations less honorable and so does not care if the minorities want them.
  • The traditional occupations are then places where the retained cultural aspects are reinforced. A restaurant will have "ordinary" food and "ethnic" food. A tailor will make clothes of the style of the larger culture, but also of the style of his sub-culture. A publisher (or whatever is technologically appropriate) will produce the traditional books in addition to more commercial items.
  • They form enclaves of people nearly all in the same culture. This is often referred to as a "ghetto." It is often, but not always, relatively impoverished.
  • They find ways to obtain special permission for certain signs of their original culture. For example, they may get permission to carry a one-inch ceremonial knife if their religion requires them to carry a knife. Or they may get permission to modify military uniforms to accommodate their religious or cultural rules.

Some examples of people for whom this has worked, to some extent, in historical cases. (Remember I talked about tragic or horrifying incidents.)

  • Jews in many European countries
  • Sikhs outside India
  • Islamic persons outside Islamic countries
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  • $\begingroup$ So, you're telling me that in Spain in the 8th century, it wasn't Islam that took over and attempted to squash the indiginous culture? OK then. $\endgroup$
    – Dan
    Feb 19 at 2:54

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