A previously subjugated population flees a region, settling in an extremely remote location and remains isolated for a few hundred years. The population, upon fleeing, speaks the same language as their subjugators.

What is the likelihood that the languages remain comprehensible between the two populations even after several hundred years?


  • We may assume that, for whatever reason, both populations put in an effort to maintain a standard language in academic and government settings.
  • We may assume little technological progress during this time
  • We may assume communities within each nation are not isolated
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    $\begingroup$ We should clarify whether they are isolated from all other speakers, or just from each other. In the second case we might point to historical precedent such as Griko, Calabrian Greek and such. I have not studied these, but I am Greek with a firm basis in Ancient Greek and they didn't seem very familiar to me. I assume modern Greek received palpable Turkish and Serbian influence, while Calabrian received overwhelming Italian influence. The results are not mutually intelligible, though occasionally words pop up. $\endgroup$ – Ludi Jun 10 '17 at 10:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Ludi Could you provide an example of Serbian influence on Greek? $\endgroup$ – Milos Jun 10 '17 at 21:14
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    $\begingroup$ The prior actually. Though the old masters would be exposed to other societies with other languages. Which I am aware may have influence, in saying that they are xenophobic and culturally insular. $\endgroup$ – Firelight Jun 11 '17 at 1:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Milos Here are a hundred Slavic ones. They are not as common as the Turkish ones and some are controversial, but before returning to Greece I cannot check etymological resources. One might say they are not important, but here they are: sarantakos.wordpress.com/2013/09/11/100slav $\endgroup$ – Ludi Jun 11 '17 at 7:53
  • $\begingroup$ @Milos: From the above list, these are definitely common (whether or not they are Slavic I cannot confirm) : καρβέλι: round loaf, κόρα: hard part of the bread, κοτσάνι : stem of a plant, κοτσίδα : pig tail, braid or pony tail (human), ρούχο: piece of clothing, σανός: hay $\endgroup$ – Ludi Jun 11 '17 at 8:13

Yes, as long as both have books.

It's estimated the evolution of English has slowed dramatically with two major historical impacts: the Bible translated into common English and printed for the masses, and a boom in literacy during the Victorian era after a generation of social reform that pushed literacy.

Why Did English Stop Changing? Let's Blame the Book of Common Prayer.

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    $\begingroup$ You're going to get pronunciation drift even so: consider how English-language pronunciation is only loosely related to spelling. It's likely that after a thousand years or so, you'll get a common written language, but spoken languages that are intelligible with great difficulty, at best. $\endgroup$ – Mark Jun 10 '17 at 6:28
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    $\begingroup$ @Mark English is an example of language that pronunciation drifted terribly, in other other languages that's barely an issue (ex. Polish). $\endgroup$ – Shadow1024 Jun 10 '17 at 7:33
  • $\begingroup$ This assumes the written language represents the pronunciation of the oral language. $\endgroup$ – chepner Jun 10 '17 at 13:35
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    $\begingroup$ Your comment assumes he didn't mean futuristic "video books" ;-) $\endgroup$ – J.J Jun 10 '17 at 19:00
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    $\begingroup$ The idea of a powerful piece of literature like the Bible to anchor the language is a great idea! And it presents a good place to inject lore. $\endgroup$ – Firelight Jun 10 '17 at 20:45

Mutual comprehensibility is a continuum, it is not all or nothing. Americans and English people understand each other, especially if both make an effort to avoid excessively local pronunciations and words. Literate speakers of any of the Scandinavian languages can read most texts in any other Scandinavian language. Most educated Romanians can grasp the meaning of Italian Wikipedia articles without any special training; Spanish Wikipedia articles are less transparent for us, and reading French Wikipedia is not possible at all without actually learning French. Russians are said to be able to follow the main points of an Ukrainian text, and so on.

If the two populations are highly literate, have schools and a common body of literature (fiction, poetry, law, technical all count) then a few centuries won't break their mutual comprehensibility. Americans are a good example – they fled England and for two centuries or so they had limited contact with the mother country, yet their language is still recognizable as a form of English.

On the other hand, if one or both of them descend into illiteracy, then language evolution will be much faster, and three or four centuries may be enough to break the mutual comprehensibility; six or more centuries will almost certainly be enough. For example, the speakers of the earliest forms of French lost mutual comprehensibility with the ancestors of the earliest forms of Italian (and with the Latin books) in about 400 or 500 years (between the 5th and the 9th century). Note that the relationship between the two languages will most likely remain obvious even to ordinary people, but learning to read or speak the other language won't be trivial and will require a certain (probably small) amount of effort.

For linguistic divergence to reach a point where learning the other language is difficult you need more than a few centuries. Even today, after about 15 centuries of separate evolution, speakers of one Romance language find it relatively easy to learn another, and translation between Romance languages is smooth and effortless; and the same can be said about Slavic languages, which have about 12 centuries of separate evolution.

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    $\begingroup$ America had a constant stream of immigrants, which is not the same as zero contact for hundreds of years. $\endgroup$ – curiousdannii Jun 10 '17 at 8:27
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    $\begingroup$ @curiousdannii: For the first two hundred years America had a constant trickle of immigrants, not all of whom had English as their mother tongue. The massive immigration began in the first half of the 19th century (and throughout the 19th century only a minority of the immigrants were native English speakers). You may have noticed that the peopling of America has very little effect on demography of England. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jun 10 '17 at 12:09
  • $\begingroup$ In 1850 roughly 10% of the US population was foreign born. This is not a trickle of immigrants. Since 1800 American and British english have evolved along the same course. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… $\endgroup$ – BobTheAverage Jun 10 '17 at 14:03
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    $\begingroup$ @BobTheAverage: 1850 is the middle of the 19th century. That's exactly what I said. We are in violent agreement. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jun 10 '17 at 14:16

We have plenty of real-life examples for this, that are isolated from each other by time rather than space. Modern Greeks can understand some Classical Greek, with a 2,500 year separation. Modern Icelanders can easily read and understand 10th century Old Norse. A few hundred years will be no problem.

  • $\begingroup$ Even over a far longer separation period of 3,000 - 4,000 years, it's possible for words, traditions, and culture to survive. The Zuni tribe in the USA's northwestern New Mexico is thought to be descended from Japanese, and many of the words and traditions are still recognizable. "Comprehensibility," however, may be too challenging at that stage. $\endgroup$ – Memetican Jun 10 '17 at 0:52
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    $\begingroup$ Zuni is not related to Japanese. (If you can find a reputable linguist that says otherwise, I'll be incredibly amazed.) However, your general point is right -- plenty of common cultural and linguistic elements can survive thousands of years of separation. $\endgroup$ – Joe Jun 10 '17 at 1:50
  • $\begingroup$ There's a difference between one culture experiencing little linguistic change and two separate cultures doing the same with the same language. Your argument would be stronger if, say, Swedes could also easily understand 10th century Old Norse. $\endgroup$ – chepner Jun 10 '17 at 13:41
  • $\begingroup$ @chepner No, there's no real difference. To see the effect of two cultures diverging over 500 years, you can look at one culture over 1,000 years. If we look at Iceland in 1,000AD and in 2,000AD, they are both 500 years divergent from Iceland in 1,500AD. One of them is 500 years backwards rather than forwards, but that makes no real difference. $\endgroup$ – Mike Scott Jun 10 '17 at 15:49
  • $\begingroup$ No, my point is two cultures that are physically isolated from each other over the same time period are subject to different events. You can't pick an arbitrary point in time and say that the culture prior to 1500 is "isolated" from the culture after 1500. $\endgroup$ – chepner Jun 10 '17 at 16:28

That has already happened.

The "subjugated" people were the Jews in the Iberian peninsula expelled in 1492. Some of their descendants still speak Judaeo-Spanish or Ladino, which is intelligible for speakers of Spanish - the samples of written Judeo-Spanish I've seen can be understood despite using a very different spelling.

Notably, those two populations didn't made any effort to keep a common standard -hence the different orthography- but language hasn't drifted away in 500 years enough to stop being the same.

  • $\begingroup$ First line, plus one. Also, queue list of languages spoken in more than one country that does not share a border with the other country and that isn't a dead language. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Jun 10 '17 at 18:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Mazura: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/a/83298/223. $\endgroup$ – TRiG Jun 10 '17 at 20:52

Language, especially spoken language, tends to change a bit over time naturally, and you just can't avoid this. Just look at this slang dictionary from less than 200 years ago and see how little you recognize. Writing changes less than spoken language, but there is still some change. Try reading Romeo and Iuliet (and not some modernized version)—words like ciuill will trip you up, while I'm sure you'd recognize the modern form, civil. Then listen to the old pronunciation here.

However, you don't need to try and fight colloquial language, you can just force people to learn the traditional language, in school. Make it a prestige language.

Arabic is a good example. In addition to all the colloquial dialects of Arabic, there is Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which is taught. It is both written and spoken. Part of the appeal of MSA is how much closer to the language in the Quran it is than colloquial Arabic. (It would be even closer if they didn't reform it at all. So don't reform!)


You can look at Quebec as an example of this:

  • French (from France) still understand Quebecois (but the accents make it hard at first)
  • Quebecois swear words are different from French ones (e.g., tabernacle isn't profane in French but it is in Quebecois (Quebecois French Profanity is weird)).
  • The Quebecois (the isolated community) are more hardcore about not losing their French culture so don't have as many Anglicisms (e.g., stop signs in France say "STOP" whereas in Quebec they say "ARRET").
  • In some ways Quebecois has stagnated and still uses many older words.

Anyway TL;DR: very likely that it's still comprehensible with some eccentricities.

  • $\begingroup$ I am actually a Maritimer so this example is close to home, Acadian French is another example, though Chiac (due to the English influence) is almost incomprehensible. $\endgroup$ – Firelight Jun 10 '17 at 20:43

Undoubtedly there will be regional variety (dialect / accent differences) after several hundred years, but it's no stretch to imagine both populations managing to understand each other. A couple of factors to keep in mind:

  1. the language must be somewhat regulated by official institutions or literature. Dictionaries, literary works and grammar books are important in establishing and cementing an official language.

  2. geography and ties to neighbouring nations will have an impact on a nation's language. This influence should not be significant enough to drastically alter a language if there's a natural evolution of the language (a non-natural evolution would include events such as long-term subjugation by an enemy nation or enforced language laws).


There are several real world examples of this:

There are a number of English speaking countries, a good example in particular would be the island of Tristan da Cuna, where the language is little changed from the time that the island was 1st settled in early 19th C.

  • The Welsh in Patagonia
  • The Amish in USA
  • The Spanish & Portuguese languages of South America

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