What would the most efficient way for a language to spread over a large area over a short period of time (about 600 years)? Imagine this is a medieval type world, and the goal is to spread the language from say, New York down to Florida (basically just the east coast).

History has shown three major ways of spreading culture (and therefore, our language):

  1. Conquest: Through warfare, the tribe that speaks language A can conquer language B and C speaking tribes. By forcing them to work as slaves in the field and only giving them basic rights if they learn language A, over many generations, the captured peoples would learn how to speak language A. This can occur on a small scale (within tribes), or on a much larger scale (British India spread English all throughout the subcontinent).

Pros: Quick and easy. Guaranteed language spreading.

Cons: Lots of people dying. A fairly large price to pay if you're a small tribe trying to spread your language.

  1. Survival of the Fittest: This is a far more passive approach. Through farming and sustainable agriculture, the tribe that speaks language A can spread its language by simply surviving. When other tribes around this group are dying of starvation and disease, this small yet well-developed society has enough food and medicine to go around for everyone. After most people in surrounding tribes are dead, this tribe can claim this land as farmland, and as such, any survivors of the dying tribes will be forced to learn language A.

Pros: Far fewer deaths.

Cons: Not guaranteed language spreading; what if other tribes flourish as well? what if this tribe is conquered by another or dies out? Also, farmers tend to be isolated so language spreading can be quiet difficult at times.

  1. Trade/Missionaries: Through trade, the tribe that speaks language A can spread its language. Basically, merchants go by foot/horse/ship to any remote trading post to trade their goods. In the process, the people they are trading with will need to create new words for items not in their language (Example: squash and skunk are two words that were added into English after trading with Native Americans. Squashes and skunks did not exist in England, so they didn't have a word for either of them). In addition, some of these merchants may permanently choose to live near the trading post. By doing this, the merchants are peacefully inducting their language into a foreign society. Over time, as this minority becomes the majority, language A dominates. Also, by spreading their religion, missionaries indirectly force new adherents to learn a new language if that religion is dominated by a certain language (language A).

Pros: No one is dying.

Cons: Definitely not guaranteed diffusion; what if the minority never becomes a majority?

My question is, Which one of these methods is the most effective/efficient way to spread a language over a large area over a time of about 600 years? Take into account human lives lost, any costs involved, and how much time it would take for this language to be in widespread use in a foreign land. Cheers!

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    $\begingroup$ Are you trying to spread the language, or is the language spread a side effect of your other behaviors (I know of no cases where the spread of a language was the key goal of an activity)? Also, is there any reason all three would not be used simultaneously? Language tends to not be fussy... it doesn't pick one horse and run with it. It'll go with all 3 if given a chance. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Feb 7, 2016 at 2:12
  • $\begingroup$ Language is spread as a side effect. I agree with you in that these three together can be very effective. But which one would work best on its own? $\endgroup$
    – fi12
    Commented Feb 7, 2016 at 2:15
  • $\begingroup$ So the goal is not a goal for people in the world, it is only a goal for people in our world who are coming up with answers. $\endgroup$
    – zeta
    Commented Feb 7, 2016 at 2:22
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It is. That's why this tribe is trying to spread its culture and in the process, its language to neighboring lands. $\endgroup$
    – fi12
    Commented Feb 7, 2016 at 4:24
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Something you might want to consider is that changes to language use isn't necessarily a all or nothing thing. Latin is no longer a primary language, but we still use it in science and during the middle ages it was used by the church and European nobility plenty. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 7, 2016 at 15:59

2 Answers 2


I hate to answer this way, but it depends.

If you're surrounded by kingdoms that are more powerful than you, conquest isn't going to get you very far. If the other cultures are well entrenched, survival of the fittest wont get very far. If there is already a lingua franca for trade, trade won't get you very far.

The best direction for a language to spread is to look at the world around it, and act according to it, rather than trying to follow some codified set of behaviors for spreading languages.


Cultural domination.

You can't conquer the whole world, but you can make your kingdom the center of it. It requires spending a lot of money though.

  • Invest in art. The next time a talented painter, sculptor, musician or a poet is treated harshly by his or her own king, they will consider moving to your kingdom and use their talents to make your cities more beautiful. It will attract attention and that, in turn, will attract even more artists. So, let them come. Let them build and create: beautiful temples, palaces, halls full of paintings. And that means more pilgrims and aristocrats wanting to see all that beauty. They will talk about it and spread the knowledge of how awesome your kingdom is and they will use terms from your language to do that. And poems? Come on. Of course you have to recite the poems in their original language. Just hear how beautiful this language is.
  • Invest in diplomacy. Be the king who can reason with everyone and negotiate treaties as the objective third party. Forge alliances and trade agreements. Soon everyone will come to you for advice and start to write more often in your language because it will be the most efficient way to communicate with their other partners.
  • Invest in science. Build universities. Publish almanacs of old knowledge and new ideas. Just as with artists, make it easy for scientists to move to your country and work. Get ahead a bit so universities in other countries will be motivated to use your books and therefore your language to talk about new inventions.

With these things in place after some time the whole civilization will start to perceive your language as the medium of communication about all things worthy of talking about. They will start to teach it in schools - first, because you'll give them this idea, but later they will continue on their own. French in Europe in the early modern period and English nowadays are good examples.


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