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Would a time-traveling Plato be understood in today's Greece?
January 7, 2013 2:04 PM   Subscribe

What languages have seen minimal linguistic drift over the last few centuries, or even millennia? Which ones have changed dramatically? I'm also hoping for accessible, layman's answers rather than deeply technical resources. Help?

This is for a bit of fiction writing, so it doesn't have to be super-technical, but I would like it to at least recognize the issue of linguistic drift. I have a character who gets in tune with his many past lives, to the point of remembering languages (and being able to read, in the few lives that involved literacy). I plan on throwing in a couple of completely dead/useless languages, but it would be cute if this led to some language skills still useful in the modern era.

In particular, I'm interested in how far things have changed for Greek since the Persian Wars, how much French has changed since the Crusades... and after that, things are malleable.

Are there good examples of languages that have been very consistent over long periods of time? I would imagine that Latin is Latin, regardless of time frame, right?

I've given myself a lot of leeway with regards to what languages the character spoke when, so I can jump around with it a bit. I'm happy to go outside of Western cultures, too.
posted by scaryblackdeath to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
As I recall from when I studied ancient Greek, my teachers said the difference between then and now would be something like modern English speakers vs people of Chaucer's day. If that helps.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 2:13 PM on January 7, 2013


Wikipedia has a language history articles category.
posted by XMLicious at 2:16 PM on January 7, 2013


This post might be helpful. Many people say Icelandic is a famously conservative language, though apparently the pronunciation has changed drastically since the 11th century.
posted by dd42 at 2:25 PM on January 7, 2013


Ancient Greek (including Attic, the dialect Plato spoke/wrote it) looks more like modern Greek than it sounds. It gives you a big leg up in learning modern Greek of course, and many Classicists master modern Greek easily, but this would not happen without some effort. (To my mind, they're a little further apart than Middle and Modern English, due to more time for vocabulary drift, but similarly, both languages have had a lot of pronunciation shift that is not actually apparent from the writing systems. (In Greek, a lot of the vowels have become /i/, the consonants have fricativized, a few other changes too.)

Latin is Latin, yes, but the pronunciation of it as a living language has changed from time to time and place to place: Classical Latin (i.e. Cicero) is not pronounced the same as medieval Latin; there are some slight syntactical differences as well. And the language spoken by the uneducated ("vulgar Latin") even in Classical times was not the same as Cicero's Latin, but they were obviously mutually intelligible. But the basic language is the same, yes.
posted by lysimache at 2:29 PM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


Icelandic and Lithuanian are often claimed to have changed little over the years, at least in comparison to other languages. I don't know if this is true, but I offer it as a widely held belief.
I would imagine that Latin is Latin, regardless of time frame, right?
Not strictly. Latin had its low and high dialects, a "classical" form and a late form. Moreover, some Latin in the medieval period included a vast number of new words, and was often influenced by the writers' native languages. In that period there's is no guarantee that somebody writing a Latin document was actually fully competent in Latin.
posted by Jehan at 2:30 PM on January 7, 2013


To expand on your point about Latin, my understanding is that liturgical languages in general like Latin or Quranic Arabic exhibit the least change because they're partly fixed in place by the scriptures of whatever the religion in question is. (But note that the spoken languages diverge from the liturgical language like the relationship of the Romance languages to Latin or the many forms of modern Arabic compared to the language in the Quran.)

You might be interested to know about abjad writing systems which don't contain notation for vowels. (So I'd assume that the vowels may shift in the spoken language while the consonants don't, but I'm not a linguist or anything so I don't know if that's a valid assumption.)
posted by XMLicious at 2:30 PM on January 7, 2013


From what I understand, modern Greek departs considerably from Plato's Attic. Orthographically, there have been changes. For instance, the letter beta β now sounds like the v in vitamin. To suggest a b sound, the digraph mu-pi μπ is used now. The upsilon υ used to sound like the French u. The verb in modern Greek has a different tense-aspect structure compared to the Attic verb. Finally, many words in the lexicon of Attic Greek have changed meaning. The word that corresponds to "electron," ήλεκτρον, actually meant "amber." These changes are extremely numerous and pervade the language from top to bottom. I imagine that modern Greek would be initially unintelligible to Plato, but with patient practice he would begin picking it up after a few weeks.
posted by Nomyte at 2:32 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


I study modern Greek. When I look at an ancient Greek text, it is surprising to me how much I can passively pick up. Vocabulary is largely the same. "Men" is still "andres", "ego" is still "I", and so on. The Koine Greek of my church's services is a bit more familiar than Ancient Greek.

A major difference is in cases. Greek is one of the more inflectional Indo-European languages in its modern form, but it has lost some its cases over time. For example, modern Greek no longer has the dative case. In terms of verbs, modern Greek is simpler as well in terms of voices and moods.

Of course, we only know how Plato wrote. How he spoke is a different matter. In terms of writing, I think the modern English/Chaucer English analogy is a decent one, give or take a bit.

Check out the Wikipedia articles on Ancient Greek grammar and Modern Greek grammar. You may want to learn a bit of linguistics for this project.
posted by Tanizaki at 2:32 PM on January 7, 2013


Well, French is Latin in the year 2013. Look at Beowulf in the original text. That's the same language I am writing in, 1000 years 'younger.' Now, while the writing system in Greek has been basically conserved, you can bet that the SPOKEN language is wildly different. None of us know, of course, because we weren't there, but ALL languages change, and fast (relatively). I doubt Plato could talk philosophy at a newspaper kiosk in Athens today, though he might be able to read the paper. Of course, politics, jokes, technology, and all the other huge cultural changes that can't be entirely disassociated from language would pose a whole new problem.
posted by TheTingTangTong at 2:36 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


In terms of language drift, I would think Hebrew and Arabic generally have not drifted as much, due to them being used in holy writ which is a central feature of everyday life in their original forms.

But even they have drifted over the centuries, And Arabic dialects in different parts of the world are quite varied.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:14 PM on January 7, 2013


Here's a discussion of Arabic. It contrasts "Classical Arabic" (the language of the Q'uran) with "Modern Spoken Arabic".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:17 PM on January 7, 2013


Look at Beowulf in the original text. That's the same language I am writing in, 1000 years 'younger.'

Not quite... you have a major influx of French vocabulary in 1066 that changed the structure and direction of English. The evolution of languages like Greek and Nordic languages over time is much more conservative in that same 1000 years (or 2000 years) than English's evolution. There are certain reasons English evolved as radically as it did, and not all languages had those same historical forces that influenced their development.
posted by deanc at 3:48 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am aware of the influence of Norman French: it goes way beyond vocabulary (the almost total loss of case, for example) but the salient point here is that all languages, all else being equal, change radically over time. Greece surely has been heavily influenced by Arabic, for example, under the Ottomans. The particulars of the influence are different, but Modern Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Latin (Portuguese, French, Occitan, etc) and so on are in a constant state of flux. The Norman influence notwithstanding, there's no way you could go back and discuss bawdy rhymes with Chaucer, or even Meter with W. Shakespeare. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if you'd have a hard time understanding the Gettysburg address.
posted by TheTingTangTong at 5:38 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am aware of the influence of Norman French: it goes way beyond vocabulary (the almost total loss of case, for example)...
The influence of French has nothing to do with this. Some of it was the outcome of a process that began as early as the 900s. Indeed, compared to vocabulary, the influence of French on other parts of the English language is low.
posted by Jehan at 5:50 PM on January 7, 2013


I've heard that Modern Greek speakers can understand material all the way back to Koine (that is, Biblical) Greek c. 100-200 CE.

Ancient Greek -- the Greek of Plato and Demosthenes and all those famous guys, not so much.
posted by jason's_planet at 6:41 PM on January 7, 2013


all languages, all else being equal, change radically over time. Greece surely has been heavily influenced by Arabic, for example, under the Ottomans.

The Ottomans spoke Turkish. And the influence was not the same. English has tens of thousands of words with Latin roots that came into the language via French. 1400s-era (pre-Ottoman) Greek is much closer to modern Greek than Old or Middle English is to modern English.

Yes, languages change over the course of 1000 years, but never at the same rate or for the same reason. And English is a special, odd case. I'm just saying-- don't make assumptions about the evolution of language based on the example of English. Surely some languages changed as radically as English has over the past 1000 years, but others have remained as static as Icelandic.
posted by deanc at 7:40 PM on January 7, 2013


I am speaking with someone with an advanced academic linguistics (phonology, but okay) background . . . Which isn't some kind of trump card I'm trying to pull, I'm just saying I'm not making this up. I forgot the Ottomans didn't speak Arabic for example so don't take my word for everything. And I don't care to argue the specifics of Norman influence on Old English, definitely not my area. . . the point is that English isn't what it used to be, the specific reasons aren't really relevant (to my mind) here, it I don't think it's a special odd case.

The only point I want to make is that languages change so much (for different reasons and at different rates at different periods) that it seems impossible Plato would get along in modern Greek. And though we always hear Icelandic is static, why? Is it the vocabulary? Grammar? Phonology? I don't really believe it, personally. But I know almost nothing about Icelandic so. yea.

To sum up: spoken languages change, for different reasons, in different ways, and at different rates over different time periods. But they change. And 2,500 years is an unbridgeable gap, linguistically speaking.
posted by TheTingTangTong at 8:36 PM on January 7, 2013


Ah, a phonologist who doesn't know about social factors affecting variation! ;)

I don't know anything about Greek, but it's important to note that the reason English changed so much from OE to PDE was because of language contact, and that seems to be one of the key determinants of linguistic change. Sure, languages will have internal language shift predicated on community level language variation, but generally speaking, languages change the most during prolonged contact with other languages (invasion, trade etc), settling down through standardization and codification (dictionaries and grammars).

As a case in point, Icelandic in Iceland didn't have as much contact with other languages (people moving, settling, invading Iceland etc) as Britain did during the Germanic, Norman, Roman conquests, which is probably one of the main reasons why contemporary Icelandic is relatively similar to historical Icelandic (I'm assuming that this is true btw, taking your point above!).
posted by Scottie_Bob at 7:05 AM on January 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Would a time-traveling Plato be understood in today's Greece? No, unless he communicated exclusively in writing, and then only with difficulty (and only because of the conservative Greek educational system, which focuses far more on millenia-old writings than any other besides the Chinese). The spoken language has changed completely, in vocabulary (including many basic items like "white," "house," "water," "bread"), grammar, and phonology (half the ancient vowels have become /i/ "ee"). Greek is no more unchanging as a language than any other, despite the fixed belief of many Greeks (including highly educated and cosmopolitan men like George Seferis).

> Are there good examples of languages that have been very consistent over long periods of time?

Not really; Icelandic comes closest, but even there phonology has changed considerably (and cultural conservatism, which includes a focus on Old Icelandic literature like the sagas, helps).

> I would imagine that Latin is Latin, regardless of time frame, right?

Nope, as TheTingTangTong says, Latin is now French (and Italian and Spanish and Catalan and Romanian...). Sure, people still communicate in Classical Latin (though not nearly so much as they did a few centuries ago), but that has nothing to do with the qualities of the Latin language, it's purely artificial. People in the ancient Near East communicated in Sumerian for centuries after the spoken language was dead, because it was widely known and a convenient lingua franca; that didn't mean the language was unchanging in the usual sense. No language is.

> the reason English changed so much from OE to PDE was because of language contact, and that seems to be one of the key determinants of linguistic change.

Depends what you mean. Yes, language contact definitely influences change, but it doesn't determine it, and even a language completely isolated from other languages will change inexorably.

I am speaking as someone with an advanced academic linguistics degree... in historical linguistics! Fear me!
posted by languagehat at 10:52 AM on January 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


languagehat, is there any evidence that literacy becoming more widespread during the last couple of centuries has had an effect on the rate of change in languages?
posted by XMLicious at 11:38 AM on January 8, 2013


(half the ancient vowels have become /i/ "ee").

Because of this, a lot of verb conjungations started to converge to the same sound, and this is said to have precipitated changes in the declension and conjugation system.

I can sort of picture Plato writing a lot of things down and/or speaking entirely in the (now-obsolete) infinitive to get his point across once he realized how the vowels had shifted (understanding the changed phonology and using that understanding to communicate in a millenia-old language was a plot point in the movie Stargate).

Also, I haven't seen it for myself, but one of the plot points of Les Visiteurs was that Jean Reno and his sidekick were making their way through modern France while speaking only Medieval French, so that might be some good source material to see how other writers handle that.
posted by deanc at 1:52 PM on January 8, 2013


I've heard that Modern Greek speakers can understand material all the way back to Koine (that is, Biblical) Greek c. 100-200 CE

Greek is a weird case.

Basically, for a long time the Greek education system was deeply fucked up. Rather than teaching students to read and write actual Modern Greek, they taught a strange pseudo-Classical version of Greek (called Katharevousa) that some nationalist intellectuals had made up in the 18th Century.

Nobody spoke Katharevousa as their first language. Nobody really spoke it in everyday life at all. But if you wanted to get an education, you had to learn it. In fact, at some points, it was actually illegal to teach reading and writing in any version of the language other than Katharevousa. (As an analogy: imagine if British schools had required that students do all their writing in Middle English up until 1970, even though the kids actually spoke Modern English and didn't even really understand Middle English very well.)

A lot of kids never really got the hang of it — which meant the literacy rate was horribly low. But if you did manage to learn Katharevousa, it gave you a huge head start towards learning real historical forms of the language like Koine.

Anyway, the upshot is, it's not that Greek didn't change between 200 AD and 1970. The actual language that people spoke changed a whole hell of a lot. It's just that people who wanted to read and write were forced to do it in an artificial way that obscured many of those changes.
posted by and so but then, we at 7:21 PM on January 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


he spoken language has changed completely, in vocabulary (including many basic items like "white," "house," "water," "bread")

On the other hand most would understand λευκός, οικία, ύδωρ and άρτος, lh. ;)

Anyway, the posters describing differences between ancient and modern Greek are right. Koine is mostly intelligible due to being preserved and taught in the New Testament and Church services although parts of it are less so. Students who focus on Greek (rather than science or IT) get taught ancient Greek more intensively but often forget it afterwards. There is also the matter of pronunciation.

To answer your question, OP: Α friend who doesn't speak modern Greek went once to Syntagma, a major square in Athens, and tried to communicate in classical Greek. Most people didn't understand him, but a few caught on to what was going on and he ended up chatting with a literature teacher. Good times.
posted by ersatz at 7:19 AM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


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