In my setting the known worlds have recently begun coming out of a medieval stasis after about two thousand years; the lucky worlds at least. Prior to the event that destroyed their technology and all the knowledge pertaining to it, the peoples possessed a common spoken and written language.

With ships traversing the ether once reconnecting worlds, these scattered people are interacting once more.

Would sharing a written language be enough to make the "common tongue" at least somewhat comprehensible between worlds or would the written form have drifted as well?

  • $\begingroup$ "Would sharing a written language be enough to make the "common tongue" at least somewhat comprehensible between worlds or would the written form have drifted as well?" These alternatives are not mutually exclusive. The most likely outcome in your scenario is that both statements would apply. During the centuries in which Latin was the scholarly language of Europe, it drifted in multiple directions. There were recognisable local variants of Latin, by which I do not mean French, Italian, Spanish etc. That drift lessened but did not extinguish its comprehensibility as a common tongue. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 1, 2016 at 10:26

6 Answers 6


If the Chinese language and culture is any indication, then no, having a common written language does not, in fact, reduce lingual drift. Many of the dialects in Chinese are completely mutually unintelligible, despite sharing a written language.

However, due to the shared written language, and the fact that most of the characters retain more or less the original meaning across lingual groups, the fact that they happen to pronounce the characters differently does not prevent them from successfully communicating in most situations.

This worked out because the Chinese use symbols or glyphs for the characters where the symbol has a specific meaning (occasionally two), irregardless of pronounciation.

Here is a sampling of information about it.


Perhaps an even better example than Chinese or Arabic would be Latin after the fall of the western Roman Empire. Latin diverged into the Romance language family - French, Spanish, &c - which despite obvious similarities are mutually unintelligible, and heavily influenced other languages such as English.

Yet during all the time in which these languages diverged, Latin was the common written language, there was a body of classical learning in that language which educated persons were expected to be familiar with, and there was a common institution - the Church - which used (and to some extent still uses) that language in its affairs.

The OP might use something similar: the languages of the common folk have diverged, but educated people acquire the "Old Tongue" as a second language, and so are able to communicate.


Writing won't be sufficient, given how Latin and Arabic diverged over time. This article about the dialects of Arabic is informative, and makes a comparison between early Latin diverging into French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Arabic now. Basically, Since the Islamic conquests Arabic has become mutually unintelligible between different regions which remained isolated from each other for long enough to evolve into unique dialects.

Often contemporary Arabic speakers will struggle or fail to understand each other without reverting to classical Arabic, just as Catholics in medieval Europe used Medieval Latin (again different from Eclesiastical Latin) for formal communication.

Perhaps the most interesting point made in the first article is that Arabic speakers will often revert to a common dialect, which is often Egyptian given the influence of Egyptian media in the Arab world. And this suggests that mass media, with radio, television, and the internet, has a potent effect. Not necessarily to unify dialects, but rather to make a common language more accessible.

Also worth noting the evolution of different accents between American and British English. Which is the first step towards a new language. Isolated accents become dialects, isolated dialects become languages. Of course that has come full circle with the domination of American English given American media influence, but it's still a decent case study.

People back in England noted the quirky new ways Americans were speaking English within a generation of the colonists’ arrival. Over time, the changes went beyond accent to include different words and grammatical structures, adding up to a new dialect. Dialects have two main causes. The first is isolation; early colonists had only sporadic contact with the mother country. The second is exposure to other languages, and the colonists came into contact with Native American languages, mariners’ Indian English pidgin and other settlers, who spoke Dutch, Swedish, French and Spanish. All of these languages influenced American English, as did the English-speaking colonists’ origins in different parts of England, Wales and Scotland.

The speed at which this happens, and severity of language drift, will depend entirely on issues like immigration, prevalence of education, speed of transport, language institutions and restrictions (like the notoriously protectionist Academie Francaise) and how otherwise isolated communities are. Common written language isn't enough to prevent linguistic drift.

Keep in mind that Ottoman Turkey used the Arabic alphabet for centuries for Turkish, and Iran still uses the Arabic alphabet for Farsi. This complicates matters more, since neither language originated in Arabic, nor suited using the Alphabet. A common alphabet certainly isn't good enough in that case!

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "Later, as metropolitan centers such as Boston and New York City had more contact with England, they adopted the then-trendy r-less accent of the English upper class." This is incorrect. The Boston accent was a working class/rural lower middle class English accent (either due to the accent of the English immigrants to the area, or deliberately intended as an expression of disdain of Britain, I've heard both versions). It wasn't an upper class English accent at that time. bostinno.streetwise.co/2012/02/28/… $\endgroup$
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Nov 2, 2016 at 22:44
  • $\begingroup$ @ohwilleke Fair enough! $\endgroup$
    – user20787
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 7:36
  • $\begingroup$ But note that despite minor differences in spelling and vocabulary, written English remains pretty comprehensible on both sides of the Atlantic (and in India &c), even though the spoken languages may not be. Certainly that's been my experience travelling in parts of Britain - and not to be insular, the US south as well. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 19:54

The example of Arabic suggests a common written language is not sufficient. Arabic speakers normally learn their local vernacular variety of the language as their first language, then learn Modern Standard Arabic and Classical Arabic in school.

The Quran is written in Classical Arabic, and although that's a sacred text to the majority of Arabic speakers, it hasn't prevented the vernacular languages from evolving to the point where some of them aren't mutually comprehensible.

That's only taken a thousand years, and travel throughout the Arabic-speaking world has been possible throughout that time, except for a few breaks for wars. However, there have always been other languages around to influence Arabic vernaculars.

If the known worlds of your setting had only a single language, that might slow down changes, but the longer time period and complete isolation make it seem very unlikely that there would be mutual comprehensibility.


English has been a written language for all of its life, yet Old English (up to about 1150 CE) may as well be a foreign language to anyone by an academic specialist, and even Middle English (to 1470 CE) is challenging to read and understand. Of course, the fact that English has a phonetic written language, rather than a written language based on ideograms has something to do with that evolution as well.

The time depth of the Indo-European language family that can just barely be discerned by professional linguists, in on the order of 5,000 years (albeit without writing for the first couple thousand years on average).

A thousand years is plenty long enough to give rise to mutual unintelligibility, although the absence of a competing completely different language to influence the evolution of these separated languages would slow dialect formation, and for the time periods when they had audio recordings, this could stabilize the language in ways that mere writing would not.

But, it is also not widely recognized how high a share of linguistic drift comes through contact with other languages (often as substrate languages) and from the intentional efforts of two distinct populations to bring about language schism for the purpose of distinguishing in groups from out groups. In the absence of such pressures, e.g., in Iceland, languages evolve much more slowly than they would otherwise. Lots of language change attributed to random linguistic drift isn't actually random at all.

Also, some long term trends in phonetic drift tend to happen in one particular direction. For example, a given set of vowels is more likely to drift to another particular set of vowels than any other vowels. So, some of the phonetic shifts would likely happen in parallel and once you grasped where a sister language was in phonetic shifts and learned to make the substitutions, learning to understand the sister language might be a lot easier than it would seem otherwise, particularly for basic daily life words that are more stable over time where the lexical content would change only a little after adjusting for phonetic drift in an orderly fashion.

In your scenario, any professional linguist could probably figure out that the languages of the known world have a common ancestor and even estimate how long ago that was. Also, language learning might be much easier than learning a language from an unrelated language family. But, an average person who knew one language could probably not understand another with separation at a time depth in multiple thousands of years.


Even with a common written language and close communication, the actual meanings of some English words differ between America and Britain right now.

For example, the word "literally" in the U.S. means almost exactly the opposite of what it means in Britain. An American can say "Dude, you are literally killing me," and nobody calls 911.

Even symbols can develop dramatically different meanings based on events. The holy swastika has been revered in India for thousands of years, but its use by Nazi Germany has made it a symbol of hatred and evil in the West.

You could have a lot of fun with local variations on which innocent words from the shared language have become heinous insults on some planet by pure historical accident.

Generally, a written language will be the formal version of the language, while people communicate in everyday life in the vernacular, or colloquial version.

As others have said, when these separated colonies get back in touch, they may be able to make themselves understood to some extent in writing, because the formal version of a language changes more slowly than the spoken version.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .