What is the time scale of linguistic evolution?
August 27, 2008 12:02 PM   Subscribe

Generally speaking, how long does it take for a root language to evolve into mutually incomprehensible offshoot languages? Or, conversely, how long would languages with a common root be understandable to one another's native speakers?

Suppose a group, whose members speak one language, splits into two isolated groups: no travel between the two, no communication, no on-going shared media.

Thusly isolated, what sort of time frame (I guess it would be in terms of generations) are we talking about between "I understand you, but your accent and dialect are weird" and head-scratching exchanges of gibberish if the groups re-established contact?

How would that time frame be affected by the presence or absence of shared pre-schism written material in the splinter groups?

There's probably a term for something like this in linguistic jargon, but that's all Greek to me.
posted by CKmtl to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This question is quite similar. Here is my previous answer.
posted by Alison at 12:16 PM on August 27, 2008

How would that time frame be affected by the presence or absence of shared pre-schism written material in the splinter groups?

I'm not up on my linguistic history enough to answer your main question but the effect of written material is complicated. Written language and spoken language are not as linked together as you might think, so large changes in spoken languages might not affect the written language very much, and vice versa.

In China, for example, there is exactly one written language (mandated from the goverment) but speakers from different geographical regions cannot understand eachother. Hindi and Urdu speakers, on ther other hand, can understand eachother but write their languages differently.
posted by burnmp3s at 12:22 PM on August 27, 2008

You're essentially asking for an averaged time frame of how long it takes for an unspecific and highly subjective amount of evolution to occur. Not to mention the multitudes of variables involved, and the lack of empirical data for this sort of thing. This question is unanswerable on many, many levels.

Why do you ask? Maybe we can provide you with some useful information about a particular instance of language change? Or about the nature of language change in general?
posted by iamkimiam at 12:32 PM on August 27, 2008

Response by poster: Alison: Huh, weird. That question didn't show up in the MeFi search, but it shows up in the MeFi-limited Google search. Thanks.

iamkiam: It's more on the general side, I guess. It's pretty much the reverse of the situation in the question Alison linked: I'm writing a novel wherein characters from two separate, but related, groups come into contact and I'd prefer to have them more or less understand each other. What I'm looking for is a ballpark plausible upper bound to that separation.
posted by CKmtl at 1:36 PM on August 27, 2008

You might be surprised. The great linguist Morris Swadesh developed glottochronology. The answer is not simple, and there's no pat answer, but it has been modeled.
posted by fourcheesemac at 1:58 PM on August 27, 2008

Best answer: With no outside contact you'd be safe if they were separated for 1000 years or less. With a popularly used writing system you'd have even longer.

I am pulling this out of my ass, but it is an ass belonging to a linguist.
posted by Alison at 2:33 PM on August 27, 2008

Best answer: Oy. Many if not most linguists are (justifiably) skeptical of glottochronology, so take Swadesh with a grain of salt.

If there really has been no contact between your groups, I'd probably concur that the timescale is on the order of 800-1000 years. OTOH, the Chinese languages were apparently still united circa 800 C.E., and they are certainly not even nearly mutually intelligible (in speech, I mean) despite heavy contact. Yet contact has kept Ukrainian and Russian from really developing different grammars, and they have also been (abortively) diverging for about a thousand years. That's perhaps an extreme case, but my point is that true total separation is a rarity.

Anecdotally, I've heard that speakers of different Polynesian languages (about 2000 years' divergence time, but without perfect separation) have been able to get around the sound changes that separate them (and not only that, but in some cases while reciting genealogies to identify common ancestors). Now that's something I'd like to watch.
posted by eritain at 9:51 PM on August 27, 2008

Best answer: Alison and eritain are correct; intelligibility might last longer, but you're safe at the 1,000-year level. But:

OTOH, the Chinese languages were apparently still united circa 800 C.E.

What's the evidence for that? It sounds implausible to me.
posted by languagehat at 7:08 AM on August 28, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks!

The separation time I have in mind would be 800 years, give or take a century. I was afraid that the limit of plausibility would be in the realm of a few hundred years, and that I'd end up with grumbling linguists on my case.
posted by CKmtl at 3:07 PM on August 28, 2008

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