This is the future, there are two groups of humans and they split (say, one moves to another planet). They stop communicating with each other and the group that split decides it's time to have their own language and forget the old one.

After a new language is designed and approved, it's then taught to every citizen and becomes compulsory.

How many years/generations will it take for the original language to be completely forgotten? (if we ignore "rogue" citizens who try to keep it alive and we focus on the average populace)


6 Answers 6


Lets take a real world example: China.

The communist government forced a new dialect (Mandarin) on the people. Note that they did not in any way prohibit the old dialects, just mandated that the schools teach the new one. (The schools may also teach the old one.)

We are not quite a lifetime from that decision but the people from before the schools changed over are retirees, not active in the business world.

I have a grand-niece over there growing up in a major urban area, there are two dialects spoken in her area, the mandated one and the local one. She has no surviving relatives that only speak the local dialect. If she walks into a business everyone will speak the mandated one. By the time she's in the labor force there will be very few customers who don't speak the mandated one. (Note: The written language is the same, those few customers can be handled with pen and paper or even simply writing on your hand with your finger.) Why should she waste her time learning the local one? The only benefit it would be to her is so her elders can't talk past her by using the local dialect and even that might not work because many of them also speak nearby local dialects.

There no doubt still are some who learn the local dialect also to communicate with elderly relatives but that won't last much longer. Within 10 years I would expect the rate of learning the local dialect to drop to zero. A lifetime past that and the local dialect will have joined the dodo.

Now, in areas with poor education this process will take longer. I've seen my wife struggle with people from a rural background, their knowledge of the enforced dialect is often incomplete and their local dialect is a different one, thus leaving the written form as the only one they truly have in common.

Note that this switchover is only happening because the new dialect is superior to the old--everyone speaks it rather than only people from your own city or area. Despite speaking several local dialects my wife's knowledge runs out within 200 miles of her hometown, beyond that it's the enforced one only.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Your answer is what I would have written, just with an other example: I would have named Germany, which had an abundance of dialects before the world wars, was then completely mixed up, and now knowledge of the dialects is pretty much gone (and everyone speaks the same standard German). $\endgroup$
    – Nobody
    Commented Dec 7, 2016 at 23:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Nobody I used the case I'm familiar with. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 2:26
  • $\begingroup$ In modern civilisation there is also great influence from mass media. People want to understand radio, TV, movies. The widespread understanding of English in Europe owes a lot to Hollywood. Telephones also work against local dialect in favour of a national standard pronunciation. $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Commented Dec 10, 2016 at 11:40
  • $\begingroup$ @nigel222 These are merely subcases of the driving force. In time language will become common over any area which people routinely interact. In the old days only a few traders would interact with people from more than one city. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 10, 2016 at 21:08

Ignoring the fact that language drift might serve you just as well as creating something completely new,
  it'd roughly take two lifetimes.

Now that we have an answer, let's look at why it'd take two lifetimes.

As this is the future we have no indicator of just how long a human can life. They might live for 60 earth-years tops, or make it well past 230 earth-years before even showing any signs of old age. Hence we cannot give any count of generations.

What we can say though, is that in an environment as described in the question, the language will likely die with the death of its secondary speakers.
The term secondary speakers refers to the generation(s) of humans that only hear/speak the language from/with their elders. They might use it with their peers (in the given case likely in secret), but that's it.
In their everyday life they actively and only speak the new language; and more importantly they think in the new language!

Thinking is the key here. As everything in this world will only use the new language, so will the thoughts of people be formulated in this language. The language becomes their essence so to say.

The only source of the old language are songs and tellings coming from an older, different time. And eventually even these will in blur and mix with new ideas and thus the new language.
At that point most of the old language will slowly have gotten lost and only some words/sayings will survive a few more generations before they get lost inevitably (well they'll likely be in some book, but books can be burned).

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I'd say one and a half, when everybody has native-speaking parents. $\endgroup$
    – PatJ
    Commented Dec 7, 2016 at 16:37
  • $\begingroup$ @PatJ yeps, pretty much my thought after starting to think about it some more. Am currently writing out a bigger body explaining the thoughts/reasons behind that time $\endgroup$
    – dot_Sp0T
    Commented Dec 7, 2016 at 16:38
  • $\begingroup$ -1 - that was not what happened to Polish language. It survived generations, spoken where occupants didn't hear. And it's alive now. $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Commented Dec 7, 2016 at 16:55
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Molot I assume you talk about occupation by foreign forces. The question clearly states that A) the people themselves decide to have a new language (assuming democracy, there's at least 51% that want that to happen), thus it's already not the same; B) the question (and thus answers) will ignore pockets of rogue citizens, thus rebels, etc. do not factor in. || Other than that I am not talking about generations but lifetimes, people raised in the new language while native speakers of the old die a natural death $\endgroup$
    – dot_Sp0T
    Commented Dec 7, 2016 at 17:00
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @PatJ actually thinking is the key. Languages are more than a mean to communicate. They're a mindset. E.g. If a word for something does not exist, the thing does not exist either :) $\endgroup$
    – dot_Sp0T
    Commented Dec 7, 2016 at 17:02

Between 1 and a few generations.

One generation/lifetime if it is voluntary - look at those who come to the United States from various places. They arrive speaking language A. Often the settlers will learn English, the 1st generation born/raised in the US now are English as native, but understand and may speak the original language A. As they get older, they might not teach their children their parents native A language (or not much).

If it is forced, then a little faster.

If it is forced and resisted, then a little longer.

As stated elsewhere, language drift can cause more segmentation.

If it is written, it might never be completely gone. Right now, there are more people who can read and write Babylonian than during the Babylonian empire. With Egyptian hieroglyphics, we don't know how they sounded, but we know the language.

Take a look at Earth language history and how many, many languages have died out over the centuries...

Are you trying to eliminate it, and if so, why?


It rather depends on the attitude of the populace.

If they find they like the new language and it brings them tangible benefits, for example they can trade more easily and they get access to a huge swath of exciting new film and literature then they may be quite happy to let the old language fall by the wayside.

On the other hand there can be quite a lot of cultural anchors to a language, for example if they have a lot of literature, especially poetry or music which is in that language that can be a strong incentive to preserve it. Similarity if they have a strong sense of cultural identity they might want to preserve the language for its own sake. This is reinforced by the fact that an entirely new language won't immediately have any literature associated with it.

Equally there isn't really any precedent for adopting an entirely new language from scratch. Plenty of languages have had major reforms in the past either to standardise disparate dialects or to meet the demands of technology such as movable type or keyboards. For example Norwegian, despite being confined to a fairly small population and geographical area has several distinct standards which are significantly different, and of course many Asian languages have had to adopt new stadards to deal with type written text.

But you have to really address what the motivation is to create and adopt an entirely new language as this is a massive undertaking and an entirely differnt thing from having one imposed from the outside.

There are also lots of examples, increasingly so in teh modern era, of big chunks ofa population being efectively bilingual. Inmy experience a signiifcant number of reasonably well educated young people in Europe speak English to a high standard and often an additional language in addition to their native tongue.


I'd say it depends on where the language exists:

  • If it is an oral language only, then once all knowers die and those who remember them speaking it die, it'd be gone. So, the speaker generation must die and then the remembering generation must die (assuming the remberers don't ever speak it again)

  • If the language has been recorded in any way, then the method and value of the recording will determine how long it will last. For example:

    • an inscription on a plaque of a durable material on a statue of a beloved god could be a place it might last a while
    • a high value recording (governmental data, historical records, etc)
    • if the recording is digital and hence easily duplicated, it could last longer than records that are difficult to produce (like clay tablets)
    • the higher the technology level of the culture, the easier mass production/reproduction of the old language will be so that could slow it's loss, but high technology makes it easier & quicker to translation lots of valued documents and thereby lose the old language
  • One other factor could be the size of the civilization--the larger it is, the more memories or physical recordings there will be. The larger the number, the larger the chance that some traces will survive unexpectedly long times.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ There are several (Gaulish, Celtiberian, Punic, Norse in Normandy and Russia) historical examples of languages being abandoned within three or four generations. And it's not always necessary to enforce; for example, the Norsemen who ruled over Normandy and Kievan Rus' forgot Norse and adopted French or Slavic within three or four generations, although they were the upper class. (They had made the mistake of not bringing Norse women and marrying locals, and there is a reason why we say "mother tongue" not "father tongue".) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Dec 7, 2016 at 18:02
  • $\begingroup$ I'd add one more thing - if you have modern society, modern easily produced digital copies, and small migrant group then the old language may actually be recognizable for centuries. The new colony would need centuries to create their own culture or to translate more obscure works, so if you want to fully appreciate old films, games, books, then the knowledge of old language would be very useful. So plenty of people would learn it anyway, even though may consider the new language as more logic and practical. $\endgroup$
    – Shadow1024
    Commented Dec 7, 2016 at 21:13

History suggests that only languages spoken by small minority populations are ever lost, and that artificially invented languages rarely if ever take off.

The common historical pattern is that the first generation after an invasion or other mixing of two peoples develop pidgin dialects in order to have basic communication with the other people. The second generation develops a creole language. This is one in which vocabularies and grammatical rules are fused, and as a result it resembles neither parent language closely. There follows a period of rapid language drift as the new language evolves.

English is a good example. It was born of Norman-French speaking invaders capturing an Anglo-Saxon country. English was born once the social barriers between these communities started to crumble. Chaucer was perhaps the first great author writing in the new language. Shakespeare marked the point where it was unmistakeably one language. Since then the evolution of English has slowed (but it remains faster than many other older languages, especially with respect to grammar).

More recently there is Tok Pisin, the national language of Papua New Guinea. It was born of English "talk business" with colonial administrators, but the Empire is no more and the new language is alive and developing all on its own, supplanting or taking over from numerous tribal languages. A modern English speaker is unlikely to understand it.


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