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How do I keep a language from evolving for as long as possible?

The world I'm talking about has two separate groups of humans who never meet, but even after being apart for some long time, like a millennium or so, their peoples can still talk to each other.

Also, keep the answers as low tech as possible?

One group is hunter-gatherers and the other is medieval or so, their current state is due to a apocalypse that separated them and undid technological development?

Before the apocalypse, they had a common language.

No Magic. Just Tech.

The two groups are the only two groups in the world... And I'll leave the area occupied by each culture as your choices.

By language, I mean actual conversation.

If you need literacy for your idea to work, then okay, but I like ideas more if literacy wasn't a requirement?

My world's canon is that the Medievals are literate, while the hunter-gatherers aren't anymore, but they both were in the past. 'Cause Apocalypse.

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  • $\begingroup$ What level of education do the people who need to understand each other have? Do they need to be able to understand each other when speaking spontaneous, vernacular language, or is it OK if they have to resort to language that they are taught later in life or that they use for other, more specialized purposes (like for reciting religious texts)? From what I know, you basically CANNOT stop ordinary language from evolving (unless you have magic or something? Please describe your world more if this is the case)... $\endgroup$ – sumelic Nov 17 '15 at 3:54
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    $\begingroup$ I do think we need more information. I laud the goal of trying to make the question as general as possible, but I think the level of challenge may be too great. You are talking about something which linguists have no record of ever occurring in human society and have no reason to believe could occur, so we are going to need to find some specific detail of your world to draw upon to make it happen. Perhaps the two languages can be similar enough that the process of learning the others language is reasonably trivial? $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Nov 17 '15 at 4:11
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    $\begingroup$ Does it have to be talking or would written communication suffice? $\endgroup$ – Crissov Nov 17 '15 at 9:38
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    $\begingroup$ @Burki - Pick your own tech level? (Yes, there's no such thing...) Or is that too broad... The general idea is lower tech-level = Better answer. $\endgroup$ – Malandy Nov 17 '15 at 13:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Crissov - Actual conversation $\endgroup$ – Malandy Nov 17 '15 at 13:03

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Religion

Have both groups share a religion, or possibly different sects of the same religion. Have a core component be a daily reading from the holy book, with a strong emphasis on preserving the exact word of god.

This can be preserved by a strong oral tradition for the hunter-gatherers, and by scribes or the printing press for the medieval group.

There will still be some drift, and they'll certainly have accents, but that should keep them at least understanding each other for quite a long time period.

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    $\begingroup$ That's definitely a major way old-fashioned language has been preserved in the real world. However, the general pattern is that this leads not to prevention of language evolution, but to the retention of old forms alongside evolved forms: a situation of diglossia where the vernacular may borrow fancy words from the older form of the language, but where the most basic and commonly-used terms in everyday speech are still likely to be changed in form and meaning. $\endgroup$ – sumelic Nov 17 '15 at 5:08
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    $\begingroup$ You should add that this needs a phonetic script and near universal literacy to prevent what sumetic pointed out. Universal literacy in turn requires printing press and paper. Which gives us a minimum tech level. Your hunter-gatherer alternative of oral tradition suggests the low tech alternative of universal (and exact) memorization of the sacred stories. Which realistically would require a ban on writing them down pre-disaster to make sense. Writing the words down kills sanctity? $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Nov 17 '15 at 14:28
  • $\begingroup$ @VilleNiemi if the hunters have those holy texts written on something like cave walls (and regularly copy it from there onto wooden or similar plates), you don't need paper or a printing press. $\endgroup$ – Paŭlo Ebermann Nov 17 '15 at 21:14
  • $\begingroup$ Something to add may be that the stories must be preserved orally with the exact same accent in both groups. If the position of 'storyteller' remains culturally critical, even with the invention of the printing press, people in both traditions will grow up hearing words pronounced the same way. $\endgroup$ – ckersch Nov 17 '15 at 22:40
  • $\begingroup$ @PaŭloEbermann Older techniques can't handle the volume needed to maintain the language. You need people to spend lots of time reading and the amount of text must be large enough to cover most of common use vocabulary. I concede it is not impossible with wall paintings, but it would be more like a Great Wonder of the world than a cave. And people would spend much of their time walking up and down the very long corridors. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Nov 18 '15 at 0:19
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There is a technological solution. Imagine if all the original people before the loss of technology used their equivalent of a solar powered android tablet with speech recognition. Not a big stretch.

With the apocalypse most technology died but these things were so common that many survived, and now most villages have at least one or two. Over time they would become rarer due to breakages and wear and tear but with no moving parts and slightly better than modern materials they could last a long time — especially if broken ones get cannibalized to repair each other.

They store maps of the area, record old history, are used to teach children, etc. Each one forms the heart of a community and people who have their own is a major status symbol. The tablets don't have software development environments or compilers though, and the internet has died, so the only thing they can do is whatever was installed when the apocalypse came. The language these tablets understand is fixed, it doesn't adapt. In order to communicate with the tablets language cannot drift too far.

As a result while there would be dialects and accents language would still be understandable even by two completely separate groups. Some words and phrases would be different and they may have to keep it simple but they could understand each other.

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  • $\begingroup$ Emphasis on "slightly better" materials... the cheaper Android devices I've owned have had a half-life of maybe a couple years, between broken screens, dead batteries, bent charging cables, etc. It makes sense, however, that more-rugged solar-powered devices could have been common immediately before the apocalypse. $\endgroup$ – david Nov 17 '15 at 15:34
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    $\begingroup$ The OP specifically said that the two groups would be separated for about a millennium. You would need to have significantly improved technology and materials to expect any sort of electronics to last even close to that. $\endgroup$ – David K Nov 17 '15 at 20:21
  • $\begingroup$ Good point… in The Man Who Folded Himself the protagonist remarks that the time-belt must have been invented in a nearby time-line because if it gets too far away whoever finds it would not be able to read the instructions. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Nov 17 '15 at 22:49
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidK Not entirely true. For example there is a lightbulb that's been lit continuously for 114 years in the world today: centennialbulb.org Modern electronics has very few moving parts, and as a result if looked after carefully and treated as a precious object there is no reason it couldn't last a long time. Yes you need a few improvements from where we are now but it's certainly within the realms of plausibility and even if most have failed by the time of the story they would still have drastically slowed language drift. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Nov 18 '15 at 9:53
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidK: In addition, our modern technology has such a short life in purpose, so we have to buy new things more often. Maybe this behaviour changes sometimes (but I think you would need magic again for this ^^), although I also doubt it would last a millenium if built properly... $\endgroup$ – Bounce Nov 18 '15 at 12:06
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There was a similar question asked by dsollen on Worldbuilding SE in July, "How long can language drift before it becomes indecipherable, and how to minimize drift?". In my answer I suggested the following factors could hold back language drift: physical isolation, literacy (assuming the written language indicates pronunciation, lack of literacy (if it led to a tradition of memorizing), political continuity, and use as a language of religion or scripture.

Dan Smolinske has already suggested the final factor in his answer. Judging from past history religion is the best bet for preserving a language. But the situation Malandy has described relates to the future, so perhaps history is not a perfect guide.

Assuming the two groups of humans are descended from space travellers who came from Earth, unlike previous people who have undergone technological regression such as the Moriori, the original survivors will come from a literate, technological society with a mental model of scientific progress. They would see from the start that in order to rise again they must preserve knowledge even if they cannot use that knowledge in their current circumstances. A first step towards preserving the knowledge of the survivors would be preserving the language in which that knowledge was expressed.

Possibly the struggle to survive was so desperate that their original aim to keep a reasonable level of technology failed, utterly for the hunter-gatherers, partially for the medieval group. But preserving the language is less demanding of resources, even if you don't have printing. Copying Latin manuscripts kept the knowledge of antiquity alive through the European "Dark Ages" (yes, I know that they weren't as dark as they were portrayed, but let's assume that in this world they were). Assume the medieval group did something similar, not necessarily out of religious conviction but out of an ideology impressed upon them by the first generation after the apocalypse that it was their solemn duty to do so. It's not inevitable that they would forget the original justification. They might well remember exactly why: so that science can one day rise again, and the people may once more have all the wonderful devices their ancestors had. But it's likely they would become rather hazy about how this "science" stuff actually resulted in the medicine and the air-cars.

This ideology could eventually become a fixed tradition that to let your language change is sinful. Perversely this rigidity in language would work against the longed-for rediscovery of science.

I can easily picture how this would work for the medieval group, where an elite remains literate. Seconding Sean Boddy's answer, it looks a lot more doubtful for the other group, unless they are very different from any hunter-gatherer society yet known. The problem is only partly lack of writing materials. Many illiterate societies have had bards or griots who performed great feats of memory, but they were almost always agriculturalists or herders. Cultivation of crops or domesticated animals allows enough of a surplus that you can keep a non-productive bard fed; hunting and gathering only wild food does not, which is why we know almost nothing of the history of humanity before the coming of agriculture.

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Avoid other languages

Languages don't change that much on their own. Modern English is completely different from Britonnic not because two thousand years have passed, but because in that time England was invaded by people speaking Latin, German and French.

Therefore, avoiding language changes means either complete isolation for both groups or everyone on the planet starting out speaking exactly the same language. Neither situation has occurred in human history, but if your apocalypse is sufficiently complete or happened at the right time, you can probably get away with the two groups only having strong, near incomprehensible accents.

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  • $\begingroup$ Well; Latin, German and French actually are all related to English (they all are classified as descendants of Proto-Indo-European), so over time even a single language will diverge. It did take more than 1000 years for them to reach their current forms, though. Do you have any actual evidence that languages don't change much without outside influence? $\endgroup$ – sumelic Nov 17 '15 at 8:52
  • $\begingroup$ @sumelic Even an isolated language evolves, can even split into new, mutually unintelligible languages over time, but not having foreign loans (even from related languages) will certainly help with understanding earlier dialects. A thousand years, however, is a long time for a split language group to develop very different descendent languages, especially before the advent of phonographic writing. $\endgroup$ – Crissov Nov 17 '15 at 9:37
  • $\begingroup$ @sumelic: Latin, French, German and English are all Indo-European languages, but had in their history contacts with non-IE languages like Etruscan, Basque and probably Pre-Germanic (and with each other and other IE languages after they bocame different, maybe because of previous contacts). $\endgroup$ – BartekChom Nov 17 '15 at 17:19
  • $\begingroup$ These two cultures are the only cultures on their world... $\endgroup$ – Malandy Nov 17 '15 at 17:33
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Having a large group with good communications generally makes language change slower. In a low-tech setting this means nomadic tribes with friendly relations and trade with each other. Trading spouses helps too.

Class differences breed class accents, which becomes language change when the lower classes imitate the upper and the upper avoid lower-class speech.

So, avoid social classes.

A strong singing tradition preserves language.

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Religion and other cultural reasons to protect the language (like the French sentiment that their language is perfect being written into law) would help slow down the rate of change to the point that they might understand some of what the other says after a millennium. Dan's answer covers that already.

Here is another way the language might be preserved. It does require some conditions that would have larger effects than only language.

The shared language is highly musical, with rhythm and melody as important as the words. The two peoples universally have a high level of musical talent and a possibly a perfect memory for sounds/music. Speaking (more like singing) together in harmony or in a duet would be common.

The result is that any changes made to the language by an individual would cause dissonance and negative reactions. The younger generations, normally more likely to change the language as they grow up, in this case have to follow what the elders are speaking/singing quite strictly.

If the people also have inborn musical talent and/or a perfect memory, they absorb the words they are exposed to with a much higher accuracy than normal. They can then reproduce them almost perfectly, rather than in their own way.

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While it seems very unlikely that two peoples both and independently maintain their language to a degree that members from both peoples meeting could communicate, let's try to think of a way how it could happen.

The original question states that both groups once were one, and were separated by an apocalyptic event.

The description as apocalyptic suggests that there will have been a drop in tech level. It also suggests that a huge part of the original population perished in the event.

As a result, if the event happened to a population that had high literacy rates and easy access to printed books, one could set up a situation where both groups make it their tradition to keep the memory of the apocalypse and of those that died alive.

With the sudden drop in tech level, availability of new books is likely to drop to (near) zero.

Since literate parents will most likely pass on literacy to their children, those will also read the same books, especially since it seems safe to assume that after the apocalypse a lot of them were saved and guarded, because they are an invaluable means of storing and sharing knowledge.

Borrowing from other answers, singing songs and having strong rituals will help maintaining the sound of the language.

Provided that the tech level does not rise (much), it could be plausible that this setup helps preserving the language to the degree requested in the original question. I think the rebuilding of a printing press would end this phase of relative stability, though.

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Universal literacy and a strong tradition of reading certain books from the time of the separation (or before) will tend to slow change of the written language. As others have pointed out, religion or some other form of shared ritual are good ways to accomplish this. It's possible that you'll get a situation where the old form of the language is relegated to "church" usage while the vernacular evolves, but that could actually be interesting from a narrative standpoint — the two groups would still be able to understand each other, but one would be surprised (and perhaps offended) to find the other using the sacred language for mundane purposes.

Spoken language, on the other hand, is trickier. Even if the written form stays static, pronunciation will tend to drift over time, and without any contact the two groups will more than likely drift apart. The only means I know of to arrest that tendency is sound recording technology. If you can hear what people from the past sounded like then you're more likely to speak somewhat like them; otherwise, radical changes can happen in the space of a few lifetimes. The two languages might be as similar as US English and UK English on paper, but more like English and German when coming out of people's mouths. Probably even more than that, but I suppose you could "get lucky".

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Contrary to what many would assume language evolution is largely independent from external, non linguistic factors. Assuming the language was already stable and there were few or no major changes in linguistic paradigm (the natural tendencies that shape the language) the speeches will slowly change in phonology and morphology until becoming unintelligible in about 1000 years (37 generations), this is the average gap for language fragmentation.

A much more realistic (and interesting) solution for your problem would be bilingualism. Bilingualism has been the most common linguistic situation thru history, when two people are closely related and need each other for their economical survival they tend to learn each others languages, considering your case I don`t see any reason for this to not happen, unless one group is much stronger than the other, in this case the bilingualism would go a little more to one side than the other and a language shift would be possible in the long run. But either way they would be able to communicate with each other.

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    $\begingroup$ This doesn't really answer the question. Even though it appears to answer the opening title. $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Nov 17 '15 at 21:17
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The first and most basic thing this would require is that, at the time of the incident, the existing language needed to be mostly complete. Words for basic concepts, such as greetings, farewells, colors, tastes, thirst, hunger, and basic emotions need to be in place and not new. If these groups are separate too early in their development, language will obviously develop in wildly different ways.

Words for advanced concepts will almost undoubtedly change. Since one is hunter gatherer and the other is medieval, the first stands a very good chance of not having words for something like "feudalism", "mercantilism", or "metallurgy".

But keeping the basics intact is as good as anything, which could generally only happen if this culture, at the time of the disaster, placed great value on the maintenance of education. Your culture needs to be riddled with "grammar Nazis." In the presence of a strong cultural desire to maintain some kind of propriety of mannerism, what you want should be doable.

I would like to make a note here — you didn't tag this for a reality check, but the likelihood of the hunter gatherers having maintained a significant academic profession and still being hunter gatherers is virtually nil, unless they are hunter gatherers by choice. People who are going to die if they don't capture two more wild pigs do not typically have the luxury of extended education, unless they take advantage of artisanship and economics elsewhere.

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    $\begingroup$ Well, assuming the languages in this world work like in our world, people will have been speaking "complete" languages for much longer than 1000 years. In fact, linguists assume on the basis of evidence from ancient languages that spoken languages historically have contained basic concepts for a very long time; the languages we can reconstruct back to are assumed to be much more recent than the origin of human Language itself (the "language faculty"). I think you should be more specific about what type of education have in mind--what type of education leads to the language being preserved? $\endgroup$ – sumelic Nov 17 '15 at 4:43
  • $\begingroup$ I think you are on thin ice with "complete languages for much longer than 1000 years". Our lives have changed a lot since then, requiring a lot of new words for both society and the tools we use. $\endgroup$ – Burki Nov 17 '15 at 12:58
  • $\begingroup$ I think people overestimate the importance of having words for technological things. When the need for a new word such as "computer" comes up people simply borrow a foreign term, or make one up from existing root words in their own language. Problem solved. It's slightly more of an effort to incorporate a new technical vocabulary to deal with a whole field - electronics, for instance, or sociology, but it's still not a huge deal. When English developed a scientific vocabulary from Latin and Greek roots the process did not "complete" English, it merely changed it. $\endgroup$ – Lostinfrance Nov 17 '15 at 14:46
  • $\begingroup$ That said, my comment above applies to the real world where languages are free to evolve. In the scenario described by Malandy it might come about that new words were forbidden which would indeed make it difficult to invent new devices. I can envisage a situation where people solemnly learned lessons about the wonderful "electricity" written of in the old books and yet were held back from communicating deductions about whether that funny effect you get from rubbing amber was something to do with lightning because they were forbidden to coin new words to systemize what they observed. $\endgroup$ – Lostinfrance Nov 17 '15 at 14:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Lostinfrance - new words for concepts aren't going to be a huge impediment - that was kind of the point. Because of the public education system, as poor as it is in America, I can usually reasonably understand Middle English, because of the more basic concepts that haven't changed as much. So the OP can stretch the distance between Middle English and Modern English with a little rigorous education and attention to detail. $\endgroup$ – Sean Boddy Nov 17 '15 at 16:44

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