This Query is part of the Worldbuilding Resources Article.

Many languages exist on Earth and many languages will also exist in a detailed fantasy world. The influence of some languages will spread over time while other will only be spoken in a small area. I would like to know what is responsible for this difference and how it can be applied to a fantasy world. For example, Arabic became the dominant language in North Africa and in the Middle East but never managed to surpass the "local" languages in Persia or in the Indian subcontinent.

What is responsible for the spreading of a language? What would make it fail to propagate into certain places?


This is part of a series of questions that tries to break down the process of creating a world from initial creation of the landmass through to erosion, weather patterns, biomes and every other related topics. Please restrict answers to this specific topic rather than branching on into other areas as other subjects will be covered by other questions.

These questions all assume an earth-like spherical world in orbit in the habitable band.

See the other questions in this series here : http://meta.worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/2594/creating-a-realistic-world-series

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    $\begingroup$ Slowly, we should remove the list of all questions from new questions. How about a blog post, a meta post, etc. to list them there...? $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 9:58
  • $\begingroup$ ok, I went ahead and created a meta-post about it: meta.worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/2594/… $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 10:06
  • $\begingroup$ @bilbo_pingouin Yes, I figured that it would not be appropriate to list them all after a certain threshold is met. I'm hesitating between a maximum of 5 or 10 questions. The meta post was a good idea. $\endgroup$
    – Vincent
    Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 14:22

5 Answers 5


Lostinfrance's answer has some very good point, but I think that the main factor is missing, IMHO.

What is responsible for the spreading of a language?

The main factor is the movement of human population.

Early history

One needs to first understand what is a language: it is a tool used by people to exchange and communicate.

The early history of Human languages is, in that sense, very interesting. For example, one can see the different language families that span Europe, and see where they came from. There are still some studies, but the Human migration is shown to be strongly related to the language spread following the lines of

Scheme of Indo-European migrations from ca. 4000 to 1000 BC according to the Kurgan hypothesis (Wikipedia)

Different migration waves could be observed in Europe. And each of those can be connected to one or more language. To simplify, Western Europe saw several waves amongst which

  • Celtic (ca. 500 BC),
  • Italic (ca. 50 BC),
  • Germanic (ca. 500 AD).

Those populations brought in their languages with them. Now when the place was already inhabited by a sizeable population, those populations will need to communicate. I can imagine that they, at first will form some kind of pidgin (a simplified communication mean steaming from two or more languages), which would later develop into a new/different language.

To illustrate that, English, Dutch, Scandinavian languages and German trace (part of) their origin to the Saxons.

So if consider the migrations as being the vector of the spread, the main causes are

  • "economic" (food/resources),
  • politics, e.g. Roman conquests,
  • religious? but I never came upon one in Early history.

More recent history

More recently, there were less large movement of populations in Western Europe.

As a consequence the languages haven't moved so much. The borders were, of course not fixed, but as early as the 9th Century AD, pre-French and pre-German was used in what is now France and Germany. Latin in Italy, etc.

Lostinfrance mentioned war conquests as a strong vector. And it could be. But usually the "elites" would take the language of the conqueror, whereas the rest of the population would not. There are many examples of that:

  • Latin was kept to elites in most of the Roman Empire. Exceptions are the influence within countries that are still using latin-based languages nowadays, which, indicently are closed to Italy and to Rome.
  • French in England was only spoken by the nobles, and eventually disappeared.
  • The Franks were German tribes, but lost their German pretty fast upon conquering what would be France.
  • Mongols had a huge Empire, but few local languages were affected by their own language.
  • Spain (or part of) was under Arabic rule for 700 years, but Arabic isn't the language used there.

The only example of a real success that I can think of is the Arabic spoken in North-Africa. But even there, after centuries of Arabic language as the official language, there are still in Morocco people who only speak Berber (albeit not many).

Nevertheless, all those military conquests have influence over the language spoken in the country. Most illustrous is the strong influence that French had on English: about 29% of English words are from French origin, even before direct latin contacts. And actually the influence of both German and English languages are important contributing factors in the separation of French and other latin-based languages.

Another very important point to take into account is that languages are like living creatures. They evolve on their own. Every region of the world get a language that result from the origins of the people that live there, and the languages used by neighbouring countries (due to commercial exchange they need to communicate with each other). Due to that, it is often easy for native speakers to identify the origin of other native speakers:

  • Hardly an English speaker would fail to recognise a Scotsman.
  • Most of the Spanish-speaking world would spot immediately an Argentinian.
  • Someone from Quebec would most of the time be clearly identified in France.
  • $\begingroup$ I would like to point out that French and German have both Germanic roots. The thing with French and other Latin languages is that the influence of Rome/Latin was stronger. Many Latin speaking populations were established in France but very few in Germany. $\endgroup$
    – Vincent
    Commented Sep 12, 2015 at 16:10
  • $\begingroup$ Spain drove out many Muslims and Jews after the Reconquista. Those left were forced to convert to Christianity. $\endgroup$
    – Vincent
    Commented Sep 12, 2015 at 16:15
  • $\begingroup$ @Vincent, the Germanic roots of French do exist, but they aren't that strong. This good Wikipedia article explains that about 1000 words are left from the Frankish invasion. Some effect on the syntax and pronunciation. See also: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_French_words_of_Germanic_origin. French is mostly a so-called Gallo-Roman language. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 12, 2015 at 18:59
  • $\begingroup$ I haven't found any fully convincing information about it, but wikipedia gives a name to some who lived during the Arab rule of the Iberic peninsula: "Mozarabs were Christians who had long lived under Muslim rule, adopting many Arabic customs, art, and words, while still maintaining their Christian rituals and their own Romance languages." (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al-Andalus). Yes, the arabs and jews were sent away, but there were not many arabs who moved in to start with. And if some converted and started to learn the language, it did not survive the reconquista. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 12, 2015 at 19:07
  • $\begingroup$ I would place French as a second exemple of a population adopting the conqueror language (Gauls adopting Latin) rather than resulting from migration. Though the process is more of an economic than an admistrative one. Other examples are the Insular Celtic languages in Wales, Brittany, Scotland and Ireland. $\endgroup$
    – Evpok
    Commented Mar 5, 2016 at 13:42

What is responsible for the spreading of a language?

Given the limits of my knowledge, my suggested answers will concentrate on the history of English, but of course these phenomena have happened worldwide.

Some warlike reasons:

  • Conquest with the displacement or killing of the previous inhabitants who spoke a different language. E.g. Anglo-Saxon versus the language of the Britons (i.e. the ancestor of modern Welsh), English versus Native American languages.

  • Conquest where the conquered people remain in place and continue to speak their old language but they need to learn the conqueror's language to deal with the new government. E.g. Norman French versus Anglo-Saxon.

  • People being forced or persuaded with menaces to teach their children the new language. E.g. the Statutes of Iona which forced Highland Scottish clan chiefs to send their heirs to lowland Scotland to be educated in English.

Sad to say, the use of sufficient force seems a very effective way of propagating a language. An imposed language might fail to take root if the imposition were half-hearted, or if the empire dissolves, or is itself conquered. Russian is in retreat following the demise of the Soviet Union.

I simplify for brevity. Actually, it's rare to have a completely black and white picture of linguistic aggressors and victims. There are numerous complications: for instance after the Spanish conquest of the Incas the Quechua language was promoted by the Spanish as an administrative language at the expense of other local languages.

The reasons above coexist with and merge into more peaceful means of language spread:

  • Economic or cultural domination, where the new language is not forced on anyone but is seen as the only route (or, realistically, actually is the only route) to get access to markets, technology, influence in the wider world or "modernity" in general.

  • the language serves as a bridging language or lingua franca between people who don't share a language, e.g. Swahili or the original Lingua Franca. It might eventually develop into a pidgin or creole, e.g. Tok Pisin. Indian English went from being the language of foreign conquerors to a bridging language and is now spoken as a native language by a some Indians. English as a lingua franca is currently benefitting from a snowball effect.

  • Religion is a huge factor in the rise of languages, whether spread by the sword or peaceful persuasion. E.g. Sanskrit, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic. Whether to translate the Bible from Latin into vernacular languages such as English or German was a flashpoint during the Reformation. The expansion of a religion can cause the language associated with that religion to supplant minority languages, but religion can also end up preserving minority languages. Many languages were first put down in writing by Christian missionaries so that Bibles could be produced.

  • Cultural attractiveness. Under the influence of Chinese literature and culture, Japanese and Korean picked up many loanwords from Chinese despite not being closely related to it. The writing systems of both countries were also heavily influenced by Chinese. The spread of English has been helped by pop music and Hollywood films.

Finally it's worth mentioning one factor that people love to claim is decisive in spreading a language - the intrinsic superiority of (usually) the speaker's own language for government, trade, science, culture or whatever. There is practically zero evidence for this theory. The ups and downs of history provide many examples of languages that at different times have been seen as an instrument of empire and as fit only for peasants. English has filled both roles.

The failure of a language to spread to areas where politics and history would suggest it would dominate might simply be because the local people's existing language is very different in sound or structure. It's too hard to learn the new language.

Nicholas Ostler's book Empires of the Word is a useful source.

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    $\begingroup$ One thing this answer is pointing at is that we're missing a question in the series. I'd like to see "Creating a realistic world map - Cultures and cultural history" (and that is quite broad, and may need to be broken down into government (countries/empires etc), trade, building a history. That is because this answer suggests languages seem to spread under the influence of these factors, which themselves are interesting parts of world building, more than the other way around. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 6:50
  • $\begingroup$ @NeilSlater If you think these suggestions would make great questions, feel free to expand the series. $\endgroup$
    – Vincent
    Commented Sep 14, 2015 at 16:43

Summary of the answers

I decided to make a community wiki because all the answers have good points but none covered all the aspects.

Languages evolve with distance and time. Different groups will develop different dialect/language if they are far from each other for long enough.

Movement of human populations sometimes due to demographic pressure on local resources is the main factor explaining the spreading of languages.

Conquest can lead to the assimilation of the local population, the assimilation of the conquerors to the local population or a mix of the two languages creating an hybrid that would be unintelligible for native speakers of the original languages. The conquered population might have been lowered enough for the new language to dominate. Usually, the conquerors rarely manage to impose their language over the local populations. The other two scenarios are much more common. A mixing of the two languages will often occur and the dominance of one language over the other will depend on several factors...

The states have a role to play. They can enact laws, forcing the assimilation of minorities of conquered territories. The local languages can be given a special status after the conquest, which will help in preserving it. Political unity helps in maintaining the dominance of a language over the others. For example: Russian is in retreat following the demise of the Soviet Union.

Non-coercive conversion: Adopting the language of the elite can be seen as a way to improve the economic or social status. The "dominant" language can be used as a lingua franca inside a country with many different languages. It's not possible to learn all of them and speaking a common language is the easiest way to communicate with the different groups. Choosing the language of the ruling class is common. For example, many ancient French colonies in Africa became francophone over time.

There could be a lingua franca for commerce, scientific publications and interactions between different cultures. Diffusion of this language depends on dominance, prestige, power, privileges. But sometimes this language is only spoken by a minority: aristocrats, scientists, intellectuals; most of the population will keep their native language.

The spreading of religions can sometimes be tied with a specific language. Islam and Arabic spread simultaneously in several regions.


Dominance, power, prestige and privilege are the principle drivers of language adoption. The movement of human populations plays a critical role in which languages dominate others.

Dominance, Prestige, Power, Privilege

In England, there's a difference between how the aristocracy speaks and how everyone else speaks. This difference is known as Received Pronunciation and it's a common way to distinguish between a prestigious elite and a commoner. A long standing pattern throughout history indicates that the elites will frequently speak a different language or dialect than the commoners. In fact, phrases such as "cease & desist" are artifacts of the need by the legal system to communicate with elites and commoners. "Cease" and "desist" mean the same thing.

Utility of Language

In addition to the above domination by one language group by another language group, languages can also spread by utility or social preferences. For example, The lingua franca of scientific communication has varied over time. German took over from Latin for scientific communication. In turn, English has taken over from German. During WW1, science papers in German were shunned by scientists in England and the US. Coupled with the downfall of Germany after WW1 and the isolation bred by the Nazis, the rest of the world transitioned away from German to English as the lingua franca of science. This transition along with the world-wide economic domination by the United States post-WW2, lead us to the use of English as the common denominator for international communication.

A far more indepth treatment of the spread of language and the scholarship of such spread can be found in "Language spread and Its Study in the 21st Century". There are many theories about the reasons for a language's spread or deprecation. Far too many to discuss here.

  • $\begingroup$ I wouldn't call Received Pronunciation the speech of aristocrats. It's more generic upper middle class. In fact to some extent, as the section on "Status" in the Wikipedia article you linked to says, the function of RP was to blur the regional and class differences between boys attending public schools. (I mean "public schools" in the traditional sense of Eton and Harrow.). RP was, and still is, both a device to divide elite from non-elite and simultaneously a device to promote egalitarianism and meritocracy within the elite. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 18:49

You can't really distinguish languages from cultures and people, which is what this question really boils down to. How do people and cultures spread and, equally important in terms of linguistic evolution, why do they stop?

The core agent of distributions is survival - people want to survive and they want their children to survive. That means that if the population gets too large for the environment to support them, the environment starts to change dangerously, the neighbours get too rowdy or any one of a thousand other reasons, groups may choose to relocate. Initially most human groups were nomadic hunter-gatherers, so they would need to be relatively thinly spread but also likely to meet up from time to time and probably to communicate at least with neighbouring tribes.

Initial divisions are likely to have a geographical element to them - two groups are divided by geography ( maybe a volcano erupts, a new strait floods, a disease thins out the population and leaves surviving groups in disparate locations ) and continue to grow in parallel. Their languages begin to diverge further until they begin to lose mutual intelligibility. At the same time these separate populations are still spreading ( assuming the conditions are sufficient ) and so their language and ideas are going to change as they need to describe new locations and experiences.

Even in large but widely distributed communities sharing a common language, you are likely to get dialects developing in different areas and at some point these dialects may cease to be mutually understandable ( although someone from the centre may be able to converse with both ) and you have a pair of child languages developing. This English.se question on dialects has some answers that give more informed views on this area.

As some parts of society become more sedentary the travelling groups may begin to settle in communities with common culture and language, which are likely over time to fall under common governance, becoming something like a nation. Language is now a strong cultural identifier and as nations grow and their relationships with neighbours develop there are new opportunities for cultural domination - which can be military, but could also be artistic, religious, technological or trade based. In places with a lot of travel there are likely to be trade languages which lend many words to the languages they pass through.

Conquest can work in two directions - as a conquering culture is assimilated either their language will be imposed on subject peoples ( hence the latinate languages in Europe ) or the conquerors will be assimilated into the subject language in the way that the English court gradually became anglicised. In both cases there will be words that survive and that propagate between the languages. As this resolves there is a chance of a child language that is constructed from parts of both but is recognisably different from both parents. Social and cultural pressures will drive the language further towards one or the other, but these will be very context specific and hard to describe in general terms.


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