How far back (or, more speculatively, forth) from now could someone travel through time without language training?

The place on Earth would be the same then and now. The time traveller was born and raised there so speaks the currently dominant local language and dialect at least. I’m asking a general question here, but for the sake of an example, consider a person 35 years old in 2015 speaking English in central London, UK.

I assume there are about five levels of competence that could be distinguished.

  1. The time traveler can converse freely and is rarely recognized as a foreigner.
  2. The time traveler is easily identified as “not from here”, but automatically blends in after a while. Compare US visitors.
  3. The time traveler can make themself understood with almost everyone, but has a lot of trouble adapting. Maybe compare ESL learners with non-Germanic background.
  4. The time traveler recognizes some words and grammatical structures, but basically is learning a new language. Compare German or Dutch without prior knowledge.
  5. The time traveler doesn’t understand anything at all.

PS: Let’s assume the time traveller knows most historic facts and cultural references of the time travelled to.

  • $\begingroup$ I think this may depend on education. For instance, I'd like to think that by taking a seventeenth-century literature course, I am better equipped to speak to someone from that century. On the other hand, someone with a limited vocabulary who struggles to express themselves even in their own time is quickly going to feel out of place. $\endgroup$ Nov 11, 2015 at 18:39
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This is a long blog post which explains how language evolves and looks at how Enlish may sound in the year 3000. This should give you some idea of how difficult it will be to go back in time and be conversant in the language (even if you "know" the language, things like slang terms, puns and other language games can trip you up, not to mention local dialects. xibalba.demon.co.uk/jbr/futurese.html $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Nov 12, 2015 at 4:03

3 Answers 3


100 - 150 years

YOLO my bruh. The swag is OVER 9000 with you. Peace out, LOL. Lets face it: Even though we feel that English is the same, it is not. 150 years ago was time of Civil War and also year when book Alice in the wonderland was published.

You could push it up to 200 years if you are good in Oxford English, but then going to the past, you should watch your language.

And using my crystal ball, I would say it would be the same when going to the future. On one hand, the language would be influenced by population shift and by inventions. We did not know what "iPod" stands for just several years ago. In 150 years in to the future you may end up sounding like book nook


If we're talking about England, I think no more than 50-80 years for level 1 (in some places 2). With level 2 maybe 100-150 years. With level 3 not (much) before Shakespeare (there was a linguistic change that made lots of words different). With level 4 we go much further, maybe 1300-1400.Before 1200-1000, probably the level would be 5. If you want a chronology of the English language, look at this Wikipedia page.It has some examples that can make you have a better idea of the change in this language. Remember that the ability of understanding the other languages without knowing them depends a lot on the education received and the personal inclination in languages. So your time traveller will have less problems if he's studied also a foreign language and knows some things about phonology and grammar and if he has studied some not-modern literature.

  • $\begingroup$ English is a fast-changing language even today. It is a creole born of Norman French and Anglo-Saxon subsequent to the 1066 invasion. The great synthesis of the language occurred between the times of Chaucer and Shakespeare. The situation is very different if you study Greek. It's probable that someone fluent in modern Greek would experience only level 3 difficulties back 3000 years (at least with respect to written script - we can't know if there have been dramatic shifts in pronunciation, as between English words of Anglo-Saxon origin, and Dutch ) $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Nov 11, 2015 at 14:32
  • $\begingroup$ Anyone interested in the origins of English absolutely has to get a version of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" with the original on one side of the book and a translation into modern English on the facing pages. That, plus some basic knowledge of German and French, is most illuminating. $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Nov 11, 2015 at 14:36
  • $\begingroup$ @nigel222 It probably helps to stabilize a language system, i.e. slow down change, if it is written down on a large scale, which was the fact for Greek early on, but written language can often deviate to a large degree from spoken forms, see Arabic today and to a lesser extent the now obsolete polytonic Greek orthography, which the chrononaut better be familiar with. We do know well that the phonology has changed considerably, e.g. /b/ --> /v/ (beta), although less than Latin --> French for instance. I would still only guess level 4 up to about 2500 years ago in Athens. $\endgroup$
    – Crissov
    Nov 11, 2015 at 19:12
  • Understanding

    In my native language, I can fluently read texts from the mid-1700s. I have certain problems reading and comprehending texts from 1600s. I am absolutely unable to read anything from before that.

  • Being understood

    I suspect that at the beginning of 19th century my spoken language would sound at most somewhat funny (but surely level 1, especially if I knew some French). In 1700 I'd give an impression of an educated foreigner (levels 2-3, especially if I knew some German). Earlier than that I guess I'd have some serious communication problems (levels 4-5).

PS: I have no say about English.


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