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I am looking to create a scenario in which the nobility and peasantry of a medieval kingdom speak the same language but different versions/dialects.

Scenario parameters:

  • The nobility can understand the version the peasantry speak
  • The peasantry cannot understand the version the nobility speak (they may be able to pick up bits and pieces)
  • Stems from a single language (this should be different from historical examples like the English nobility speaking French while the commoners spoke English)
  • The scenario should NOT require a massive government oversight program. We are talking about a medieval kingdom, there weren't exactly public schools.
  • Most commoners cannot write (though a few among the merchants are able)

Is such a scenario possible? If yes, how?

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    $\begingroup$ In a less stratified example, British accents are so widely varied by regions that are, by today's standards, fairly close, that there are documented instances of two Brits being unable to understand each other without the aid of a "translator" that says the same thing each conversant does in a milder accent both can understand. $\endgroup$ – KeithS Nov 10 '15 at 22:37
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    $\begingroup$ How many dialects would you like? In Houston you'll find modern english, Spanglish, urban english, UK english and more than a few people practicing middle english for the Texas Renaissance Festival. The scenario only needs to account for history up to that point. $\endgroup$ – Sean Boddy Nov 11 '15 at 0:15
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    $\begingroup$ I guess you are searching for sociolects. $\endgroup$ – his Nov 11 '15 at 2:28
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    $\begingroup$ which type of public school do you mean? My English-style public school was founded in 1542 and we learnt a substantially different dialect of English to the pupils of the local state funded school. In the middle ages (before it became open to the laity) it would have been broadly similar with pupils and alumni of the school speaking a mixture of English, Latin, and French and the ill-educated rest of the city's population speaking a lower English. $\endgroup$ – MD-Tech Nov 11 '15 at 9:29
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    $\begingroup$ For a socially stratified society, to have its language likewise socially stratified is the norm, not the exception. $\endgroup$ – Lostinfrance Nov 11 '15 at 9:42

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There is no doubt that two dialects of a language can be spoken in the same area, i have seen it in the same village. But there is a problem with your question. If two "dialects" are so different that the speakers of one could not understand the other, then generally they would be considered two different languages, not dialects, at least from a linguist's standpoint. However political/cultural/historical factors sometimes take over and things are called dialects that a linguist would call different languages.

So what we are talking about, from a linguist's perspective, is really two related languages. They are related enough and have enough cognates that the speakers of L1 can understand L2, and speakers of L2 can catch a few bits here and there but cannot understand L1. This is not only possible, but actual fact.

Consider Latin and Italian. If my understanding is right, Latin is the official language of the Vatican, but that just means that this language is reserved for especially important or official business, while Italian is often spoken throughout the Vatican and of course Italy. Your average Italian will not understand Latin, but because the two languages are strongly related to each other, he can catch bits here and there. Your average high ranking church official in the Vatican will speak both Latin and Italian fluently and be able to read and write both. Not exactly royalty and commoners, but a useful parallel.

Also take Koine Greek and modern Greek. The more educated a person is in modern day Greece, the more they will understand Koine Greek (ancient Greek, used in the New Testament), especially if they have any knowledge of classical Greek. But an uneducated Greek of today would gets bits from a person speaking or reading Koine Greek, but would get easily lost. And today there are people who learn Koine Greek (myself included), and can read it and understand it, but cannot understand modern Greek. There are also people, I expect, in Greece who have learned enough Koine Greek to be able to speak it fluently and read and write it (probably in the analysis and discussion of ancient documents, including the NT) and who are also fluent in modern Greek.

I hope you see the pattern - education. It would be easy to conceive a world in which only the nobility are educated. Because it is a medieval world, documents are not publicly available, and books and libraries are rare and only maintained by the wealthy nobles. Because there is no printing press, the language shifts - like happened to Greek and to English. Try to read John Wycliffe's translation of the Bible and you will not be able to understand it (Middle English) but read the Tyndale Bible (translation done just after the printing press - modern English) and you will have no problem. But in this world, the nobility decides that their education must all be carried out int the ancient form of their language, the one used for their most sacred documents, perhaps the very documents that established them as nobility. A noble must be able to read and understand their letters of patent, and all official business is conducted in the language of those patents of nobility. The uneducated commoner is lost. He catches a word here and there, but not more. The educated noble understands every word.

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    $\begingroup$ whether something's called a language or a dialect is often a political thing as well as a scientific distinction. And the line can be rather blurry. German and Dutch are separate languages, but there are dialects that stretch the divide, people in areas crossing the border speaking the same dialect that's considered a dialect of Dutch in the Netherlands and a dialect of German in Germany, with the locals considering it a language more often than not... And someone knowing only Dutch and/or German can be at a complete loss when hearing or reading that dialect. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Nov 11 '15 at 12:01
  • $\begingroup$ @jwenting Ever been to Kerkrade/Herzogenrath ? Perfect example...The local dialect is so different that most people living more than 10 KM away can't understand it. It is certainly reaching into the "another language" category. $\endgroup$ – Tonny Nov 11 '15 at 12:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Tonny not there. But my grandmother from Drempt could speak well with friends from Bonn, despite she not knowing German and they not knowing Dutch. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Nov 11 '15 at 12:51
  • $\begingroup$ @jwenting Drempt... That's close to Zevenaar isn't it ? Been a while since I visited that area. $\endgroup$ – Tonny Nov 11 '15 at 13:07
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    $\begingroup$ @jwenting - about your grandmother - I had a very similar experience. I was at sea for a couple of months once, and carried conversations with one of the deck-hands who was a Portuguese speaker, he speaking in his mother tongue, and me speaking in Spanish. I know no Portuguese, but could understand him. He similarly did not know Spanish, but could understand me. It felt a little weird when i realized, that we'd become fluent enough that we just talked normally, and it'd become effortless to understand each other, but we would be unable to produce a single sentence in the other language. $\endgroup$ – AgapwIesu Nov 11 '15 at 14:38
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Yes.

In Arabic, the TV News and Academic Arabic speakers (usually) use Modern Standard Arabic, whereas in every Arabic country, a colloquial version is spoken.

This seems to achieve the strata effect you're looking for: the Academics and the Informed speaking in a totally different dialect than your every-day Joe (or every-day Ahmed, or whatever). Of course it is not that concrete and universal, but a rule of thumb.

EDIT: As per PipperChip's comment below, apparently high German and local dialects differ as well (thanks). It seems like almost any culture large enough will have differentiation in dialect, but there are a few good examples where the 'upper' group and 'lower' group - being very rudimentary with my language - is separated. I grew up in Germany and don't remember it; maybe I was the lower group!

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    $\begingroup$ It's the case in german-speaking countries; schools in "high german" and the locals speak the local dialect to each other. Feel free to add this to your answer! $\endgroup$ – PipperChip Nov 11 '15 at 1:32
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    $\begingroup$ For the german example, just about everybody understands Hochdeutsch since that is taught in schools. So the upper-class language is understood by the lower class, but not the other way around. $\endgroup$ – o.m. Nov 11 '15 at 7:04
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    $\begingroup$ Nice, but I suspect it's the other way around for intelligibility --- In Italy it's quite similar: standard Italian is quite different from, say, my own local dialect ("spezzino") and more from sicilian; the two dialects are practically mututally not understandable while both myself and a sicilian can understand the highly educated version. And a person knowing only the higlhly educated Italian will not be able to understand the "peasant" speech of Naples, for example (I need subtitles on Troisi's movies...), but the "peasant" will understand the standard quite well... $\endgroup$ – Rmano Nov 11 '15 at 8:47
  • $\begingroup$ @o.m. you can't say that the "upper class" does not understand dialects, many grow up in those environments and even though they do speak Hochdeutsch at work they will still understand the dialect. I was living in 3 areas in germany with a different dialect now and I have seen professors which would teach in hochdeutsch but chat with dialect. $\endgroup$ – Marv Nov 11 '15 at 14:01
  • $\begingroup$ The Arabic example fails the mutual intelligibility requirement in the question, if it is indeed used for TV news. The German example fails the same-location requirement, as the locals within each area understand each other just fine. $\endgroup$ – 200_success Nov 11 '15 at 15:21
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You don't need to go back to medieval times.

When Emperor Hirohito announced the end of World War II on the radio, he did so in a classical Japanese that could not easily understood by all except well-educated elites. The emperor's dialect had fallen out of use for at least a generation, even among the nobility. Therefore, the broadcast of the recording was followed by the radio host's explanation of what everyone just heard.

The disconnect is possible because hardly anyone interacts with the Japanese emperor directly. That rare direct voice communication was necessary since the populace would not have accepted any other kind of announcement, due to their fervent loyalty. Even today, the Japanese imperial court remains rather secluded — Emperor Akihito's first nationally televised speech was in 2011 — 22 years into his reign.

I'm not sure how your last condition is related, though. The literacy rate in Japan in 1945 was rather high.

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  • $\begingroup$ I want to go back to medieval times. Sociopolitical controls and interactions are not the same in the modern era as they were back in the day. $\endgroup$ – James Nov 18 '15 at 16:27
  • $\begingroup$ I wouldn't be surprised if this were a long-standing situation. It just hadn't come to light until 1945, because of the emperor's extreme isolation. $\endgroup$ – 200_success Nov 18 '15 at 17:36
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Yes

Javanese (from the Indonesian island Java) has several distinct vocabularies:

  • High Javanese for upper class speaking to eachother
  • Low Javanese for lower class speaking to eachother
  • one for upper class speaking to lower
  • one for lower class speaking to upper
  • two more for special use (religion I think) In addition there is Indonesian, similar to Malay.

Obviously, learning several vocabularies takes a lot of education, so the lower class understood only low Javanese, with the smart ones learning to speak with the upper class in the proper language for that, gaining some prestige from that. Since lower class speaking High Javanese was seen as raising oneself above their class, it received a universal negative reaction. This by itself prevented anyone from getting fluent in it.

Compared to this, having only 2 varieties sounds easy.

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Sure.

An education system conserved the written language as it was, say, 10 centuries ago, and the literate people study it and are fluent in it.

Meanwhile the spoken language naturally evolves. Low class illiterates only speaks the modern form. Nobility masters both. Being proud in their ancestry (deeper you can trace, more respected you are) they actually prefer to use an ancient form when speaking to peers.

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Consider the Kagoshima Dialect within Japanese. One of the effects of the variation in pronunciation centuries ago was that it was very hard for people outside of the area to infiltrate into the region because the phonetics were quite different. Education wise, only standard Japanese is taught, so younger people sometimes have trouble understanding their own grandparents!

While serving in Northern Japan, I once witnessed the unusual occurrence of an American (who spoke Japanese and could "hear both") translating for two Japanese people, one who spoke Kagoshima, the other a more standard pronunciation because the two native (Nihonjin) Japanese couldn't understand each other.

Several years later I saw a younger person who lived in Sendai completely misinterpret the meaning of an older woman who spoke "Nambu-hogen" a slightly more rural but nearby Japanese dialect that I was more familiar with, and yours truly was the translator. It happens!

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Yes, by intermarriage, cultural exchange, and war.

In the medieval state of Loucha, the nobility (upper class) have retained power in the same way that many rulers in medieval/Renaissance Europe retained power and stability: through intermarriage. In Loucha, this is simply more common lower down in the ranks, as it were. The Louchan nobility is closely related to the nobility of Helko, after many years of intermarriage during years of prosperity during an alliance between the two states many years in the past.

This family tree has led to many upper-class Louchans speaking Helkese as a secondary language, to be used diplomatically while in Helko and while conversing with the Helkese people. At home, however they prefer to speak Louchan, their primary language.

Over the years, the Loucha nobility begin to "borrow" Helkese words, either because of convenience (Louchan is not a language of monosyllables by any means) or perhaps simply because they preferred the tones of Helkese words (Helkese flows off the tongue fairly well, even for non-native speakers). These Helkese loanwords soon become a part of Louchan vocabulary.

The structures of Louchan and Helkese are quite different, so it's tough to simply combine the two into one language. Therefore, the two never really merge in Loucha. The nobility simply stick in Helkese words when it becomes convenient. Over time, however, these Helkese words are modified slightly - to fit conjugation/declension needs, to make adjective/noun agreements better, or for any of a number of reasons.

Eventually, the two nations go to war against one another, and the noble families on both sides separate from one another. Lounchans stop speaking pure Helkese. However, the modified Helkese words have become so embedded in upper-class Louchan that the past few generations of nobility use them synonymously with other Louchan words, or prefer them over Louchan words entirely.

The peasants will have a hard time understanding the Louchan nobility, especially as the peasants are rapidly dying in the war and have no desire to learn a new dialect.

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In interwar Wilno (now Vilnius) the upper strata spoke High-Polish, while the working class spoke a dialect which (iirc) was called "po prosto"(?)

I spoke to an Elderly Pole with roots in the region, his mother (a school teacher) always chided his father for speaking Wilno dialect and tried to stop him using it as it was considered "backward" and did not have the prestige of High Polish or Lwow Polish

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The short answer is yes, in a few ways:

  • Vocabulary. The nobility can understand the peasantry because they use "small words", suitable for the business they need to conduct. The nobility, with access to higher education, has a higher level of vocabulary ("I'm disinclined to acquiesce to your request") that can befuddle the peasantry. The FLDS cult uses this trick, speaking in fairly arcane legalese to trick outsiders and women to gain advantage in debate or negotiation.

  • Accent. The nobility could speak with a cultured but highly colored accent that is unintelligible by the peasantry; the peasants, in the meantime, might speak in a clearer accent. This is actually the reverse of how it normally works, though the upper crust in many English-speaking cultures have an affected accent identifying them as such (and making them sound like pretentious jackasses to the 99.9%). As I mentioned in the comments, fairly easy-to-transit regions of the British Isles have local accents that are completely unintelligible even to other Brits.

  • Context-dependent content. The nobility might use metaphorical or other context-dependent references, like inside jokes, that someone else "in the know" (other nobility) would get, but would go right over the masses' heads. This by itself wouldn't be sufficient to obscure the nobility's language, but British cultural references like Cockney rhyming slang have produced common "synonyms" for fairly heavyweight insults that are acceptable on American TV primarily because American audiences have no clue what the person was just called.

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    $\begingroup$ Vocabulary can be used in many ways. Ancient Sanskrit used by the noble and priestly class is virtually untranslatable because apparently these people enjoyed using puns and complex word games . One can only imagine how the local peasants and merchant classes of the time though about that. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Nov 11 '15 at 5:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Thucydides - Most of that, I think, would fall under the "context-dependent content" point; you'd have to "get" the play on words the writer was trying to make to understand it. $\endgroup$ – KeithS Nov 11 '15 at 16:40
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Just for entertainment (this doesn't quite match the poster's criteria), there is at least one Australian aboriginal language with separate (and quite distinct) dialects for men and for women!

Yanyuwa is unusual among languages of the world in that it has separate dialects for men and for women at the morphological level. The only time men use the women's dialect is when they are quoting someone of the opposite sex, and vice versa. An example of this speech is provided below:

(w) nya-buyi nya-ardu kiwa-wingka waykaliya wulangindu kanyilu-kala nyikunya-baba.

(m) buyi ardu ka-wingka waykaliya wulangindu kila-kala nyiku-baba.

The little boy went down to the river and saw his brother

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How about Haiti, where French and Haitian Creole (a language derived from French, with extremely high overlap in cognates, i.e. related words). French is the main written, administrative, and press language and is spoken by all educated Haitians. It is used in schools and business. About 40% of Haitians speak French.

Almost everyone in the country can speak Haitian Creole.

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It is not only possible, but easy. You have to realise that standardizing language took a lot of efforts, and was greatly helped by the use of the radio or the television (one language for everyone in a country, more or less).

As a very revealing example, when the French revolution occurred, more than 80% of the population of France did not speak French but other dialects, part of them also coming from Latin, as occitan language (sorry my reference is in French, I did not find the information in English).

In fact until the ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts (1539) the language, in France for official matters was not even French, but Latin. During middle age the language of the jurists, scientists, philosophers and priests was Latin. So actually a given elite used a language not understandable for the commoners during most middle-age, in Europe.

Moreover, a category of the population can create a new dialect in order not to be understand by the others. One example is thieves' cant. It looks like slang is more often used by the commoners, but it proves possible for a given elite which do not want to be understand to develop a new language.

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In imperial Russia, courtiers spoke French to each other; I guess they spoke Russian to non-nobles.

Until the Renaissance, Latin was the inter-language for educated Europeans. (One scene in Shakespeare begins with a queen of England, iirc, telling a minister to drop the Latin.)

Mandarin Chinese is so called because when foreign traders came to China's port cities they found the bureaucrats speaking a different language from everyone else. ("Mandarin" is from a Portuguese word for bureaucrat.)

They say that a certain village in India has three languages, one of which is unrelated to the other two, though their grammars have converged (in perhaps the world's smallest Sprachbund). Each of the three is the common language for some purposes, e.g. one is for commerce; thus everyone in the village can speak all three. (Presumably the functional division reflects a caste division, i.e. the merchant caste spoke a different language from the farmer caste.) It shouldn't be hard to tweak this system for an asymmetry. LATER: The village is on the boundary of Maharashtra and Karnataka; the three languages are Urdu, Marathi and Kannada. It's known in the literature as Kupwar, though apparently this is not its real name. (There is a real Kupwara in Jammu & Kashmir, a long way from Dravidia.)

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  • $\begingroup$ If you could provide a link or something to support that last point I would appreciate it $\endgroup$ – James Nov 11 '15 at 15:57
  • $\begingroup$ Sigh, if I could remember the name of the village … $\endgroup$ – Anton Sherwood Nov 12 '15 at 8:56
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China, before the government imposes teaching everyone Mandarin.

There are many local dialects, they are not mutually intelligible. The words and grammar are identical, though--I would not call them separate languages.

People who had to deal with people outside their own domain would learn other dialects, the average man would not.

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