In most languages, the linear concept of time has led to similar concepts of past/present/future.

Now, suppose that we have a human or human-like society in which time travel is fairly common, and it is possible for an individual to travel forward or back in time on occasion, including making contact with their past or future selves, friends and family. This is achieved by magic, not technology, and while many individuals can time-travel themselves or send a non-time-traveller to another time, the majority (about 95%) cannot temporally displace themselves or others.

The one restriction on this time travel is that a time traveller cannot change what they know has happened in the past of a point in time in which they have been present. This includes influencing other time travellers to change things on their behalf, even if they don't tell the other time traveller why they want them to do certain things at a certain point in space-time.

E.g. an individual travels to the future, and learns about the death of their future self. Learning about this means that this time traveller cannot affect the outcome that his (now past) self learns about his future self's death at that point in the future. However, the possibility exists that either that now-past self was lied to by a witness, or if the time traveller was a witness to his future self's death, that the time traveller was deceived or mistaken. It is also possible that the event of the future-self's death was sufficiently unambiguous that it could not be other than what it appeared to be.

So, given that members of this society can travel in time relatively often, how would this affect the society's language?


There is no paradox, as causing a paradox is ultimately impossible, but the time travellers may suspect this to be the case, but don't know that with any certainty, and act as if paradox is a possibility. What exists and is remembered by time travellers and non-time travellers alike is the final state of any time travel loops.

For example, A time traveller cannot kill their own ancestor or the ancestor of anyone they know of (however indirectly) at a point in spacetime that would invalidate the existence of themselves or a known person. However, that is not to say that they couldn't, for example, kill the individual that they believe was their own grandfather before the conception of their parent, but it would ultimately turn out that they were mistaken as to the relationship, or they mistook the person they killed for their ancestor, or they only thought they had killed their ancestor.

As another example, a time traveller cannot pass information (via whatever means) to another time traveller, even if the two time travellers are unknown to each other in a social sense, that could cause that second time traveller to invalidate the first's memory of events or the existence of anything he knows: it is the transfer of information that defines knowledge.

An infinite loop is not a possibility (though it is possible for a loop to be repeated a great many times) as outcomes along a timeline are not predetermined. Each act of travelling back in time results in a new sequence of events. A common trope in time travel is that non-time travellers will always act in the same way to the same stimulus; this is false. It may be likely that they will do so, but quantum uncertainty means that each act of retrograde time travel will result in the subsequent events unfolding differently in some way, whether subtle or glaringly obvious. Sooner or later, this (or other time travel) will result in the loop diverging sufficiently that it ends. The time traveller would not remember all of these loops either, only the last one, so no Groundhog Day or Edge of Tomorrow loops with a time traveller retaining information from his future self, at least without meeting his future self and passing on that information.

For example, a time traveller in a loop meets an old friend (who is not a time traveller) in several iterations of the loop, in the same situation. However, the old friend will not always greet the time traveller in exactly the same way. In the first loop, he says "Hi", in the second "Hi", 3rd: "Hello", 4th: "Hi", 5th: he just nods, and so on.

Anyway, this question is about the linguistics of this scenario, not the physics save where it affects the linguistics. Time travellers believe that paradox may be possible, even though it is not, and the linguistics must reflect this.

  • $\begingroup$ How does your idea of time travel deal with paradox? The conception of this will influence how the actions of time travelers influence the world. $\endgroup$
    – ckersch
    Jan 29, 2015 at 16:02
  • $\begingroup$ I hate to be a Negative Nelly, but I see a few loopholes here. First off, how do you enforcethese limitations. And what's there to prevent time traveler A from telling person B about some facts, and person B wanting those changes, and then person B gives travel C some tricky comment that makes person C change stuff. Would that stuff be fixed because person A observed it? What if A observed it, but, without communicating to B or C, C does something that would cause it to change? $\endgroup$
    – Nick2253
    Jan 29, 2015 at 21:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Nick2253, from a perspective outside the universe, yes, paradoxes can exist temporarily, but when they resolve themselves (as they must due to quantum uncertainty), no-one remembers them. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Jan 29, 2015 at 22:41
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @MontyWild Just so I'm clear, this "quantum uncertainty" is your hand-wavy way of dealing with this problem? $\endgroup$
    – Nick2253
    Jan 29, 2015 at 22:55
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I agree that this would be considered a very hand-wavey way of resolving paradoxes. Merely asserting that the paradox does not exist because you believe it is the case is about as hand-wavey as it gets. $\endgroup$
    – March Ho
    Jan 29, 2015 at 23:28

2 Answers 2


Looks to me like you're looking at Language Change, which is an active and ongoing process. Even languages which we think are isolated or constant experience linguistic drift. Why, the very act of you reading this post can be seen as contributing to linguistic drift!

There are a lot of factors which go into linguistic drift. Many of these factors are debatable, but it's fairly safe to say that you must consider what languages are exposed to each other, how those speaking those languages feel about each other, and what is considered popular for the various groups.

How would time travel affect this? Here are some conjectures:

  1. Accelerated Linguistic Change. Someone hearing the end result of a trend in their own language may think that the end result is better, and therefore will change their language accordingly.
  2. No Change. This is a result of people thinking that "time-travelers sound funny, in a bad way, and I don't want to sound funny." Therefore, the people don't adopt any mannerisms, words, or ideas from time travel.
  3. Langauge Swap. The time traveler population and the "normal" population just swap occasional words or ways of speaking. This could be because time travelers got used to saying things in a certain way and never stopped when they got to their home time. This could be because the time travelers brought something useful with them in the travels, and therefore the normal populace adopted that word.

Out of these conjectures, #3 is most likely, I feel. There is also the question of how far in time you travel. For instance, those speaking Middle English (which Chaucer did) could carry on a halting conversation with those speaking Modern American English. There would be some points of contention or confusion, as you can see from the Canterbury Tales Prologue In Middle English:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote

The droughte of Marche hath perced to the rote

And bathed every veyne in swich licour

Roughly Translated:

When that April with his showers sweet

The drought of March has pierced to the root

And bathed every vine in sweet rain

You can see some problems with picking up words even from different times from the same language. "Sote" and "sweet" are very different! Also, calling rain "licour" could cause some problems in Modern American English.

New Time Words

If the time travelers find that talking about time travel doesn't work well in their language, they may introduce new grammatical tenses to talk about events that will/have happened. Some languages (including English) have a present tense (I go), future tense (I will go), past tense (I went), pluperfect (I have gone), and other tenses. These indicate times relative to whenever the "present" is, so a time traveler may have to establish when the "present" is.

There is also the possibility that your original language is like Chinese, and does not have tenses at all! This time travel could make them break it, or perform something else to establish when the actions they're talking about took place. Something like "Past me in past time punches future me, in that past time, in face while the present I looks on." This can get confusing really quickly.

In short, time travel opens your language up to more influences, which may or may not catch on, depending on the people and their views of time travel. Time travel itself may require some language modification.

  • $\begingroup$ That's great, I hadn't considered that. However, I was also thinking of what sort of language features (such as tenses) and words would appear to deal with the complexities of life in a temporally-complex world. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Jan 29, 2015 at 2:44
  • $\begingroup$ @MontyWild A friend of mine wrote this, which humorously addresses that: realityvsfictions.blogspot.com/2013/09/… $\endgroup$
    – PipperChip
    Jan 29, 2015 at 4:59
  • $\begingroup$ Why don't you edit this into your answer, then. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Jan 29, 2015 at 22:39

Such a society is extremely unstable.

First of all, any time-traveler who has the desire to commit a crime against someone else (as revenge or otherwise) can do so, by harming other's past, present and future in a million different ways. People will find weapons from the future and use them to establish global empires at various points in the past. Language translation software can also be picked up from the future, whether it can be transported or not, will affect language.

There will a small law-abiding group that will try to locate and control the huge influx of criminals (whose very definition depends on the place and time of the law) and be highly unsuccessful due to internal discrepancies. Wars will occur at various points in time, killing people of various points in time.

Achieving such omniscience and powers will also cause people to kill themselves out of depression, while others will turn into wild beasts with no aim in life. Some people will keep transporting themselves forward, just to preserve their lives till immortality is possible, or they may reach a post-apocalyptic universe, whether their existence is impossible, causing them to die.

A large number of people will hide themselves in the fabric of space and time, get mansions for themselves and try to live happy lives, away from the conflicts.

It is also possible that the time traveling race will die out. Whether it will get recreated in the future is unspecified.

This would be the greatest (and most unpredictable) dystopia that I've ever heard of, language is the smallest of issues. You don't need a language to prove that you can destroy the world, or create a new one. The people trying to survive independently may learn the language of the place and time they are in, but will be eventually wiped out by inhuman future beings who know how to track them down.

Forgive me for being pessimistic, but this is the reality. You can forget about predicting the languages used.

  • $\begingroup$ You're probably right about such a society being this unstable if they were humans, but this society isn't human, and the time-travellers have more sense of responsibility than this. Anyway, this question assumes that there is a relatively stable society of time-travellers, and asks about the peculiarities of their language. Your answer only skirts around this matter. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Feb 1, 2015 at 21:50
  • $\begingroup$ @MontyWild A society of beings with more noble and self-less thoughts than humans will probably resort to using a single global language, for simplicity's sake and general welfare. A language of that great importance will probably be thoroughly researched and will evolve to suit the needs of coming generations. $\endgroup$ Feb 2, 2015 at 10:24
  • $\begingroup$ In the universe OP suggested, it is not possible to alter the past in such ways. E.g. if there has never been a sprawling Empire in the past, any attempt at going back and creating one is doomed to fail regardless of the gadgets you bring with you. $\endgroup$
    – M.Herzkamp
    Oct 26, 2016 at 12:37

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