In Real Life, any living language inevitably changes, sometimes startlingly rapidly. In fiction it's employed to suggest cultural change, or a character's status as a Fish out of Temporal Water. It might appear in Time Travel stories.
Contrast Eternal English.
- In the Crest of the Stars novels:
- The language of Jinto's home planet of Martine is said to be descended from English but when they hunt down someone who actually does speak English Jinto can't understand a word of it. The Japanese = Baronh and English = Martine in the anime is presumably a Translation Convention.
- The Abh language Baronh is stated to be descended from a "purified" form of Japanese, which is surprising to many people since it looks and sounds nothing like Japanese. For example, the Abh capital was originally named "Takamagahara" but in modern times is spelled "Lacmhacarh" and pronounced roughly "lak-fak-all". The author did his homework on this one, and has detailed the drift Baronh went through since it was first invented in-universe.
- Attack on Titan averts it: The Eldian people living behind the Walls on Paradis Island speak the same language without any noticeable difference as their kin in the mainland (enough so that a few individuals from outside can infiltrate without arousing any suspicion), despite being separated for over a century; this trope is also touched upon when Zeke Yeager as the Beast Titan attempts to communicate with Mike and Zeke briefly wonders if they are still speaking the same language when he gets no answer from Mike (turns out he was too terrified to reply).
- It's played straight with historical texts from the time of the beginning of the Eldian Empire (over a thousand years before the present). A lot of the confusion about what happened came from how no one can decipher the texts, having only the pictures to go on.
- Star Trek: Debt of Honor has Gillian Taylor, who had time-traveled from the mid-1980s to the 2280s with Kirk et al. in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, mention she had to partially re-learn English because the language has changed so much since her home time period (there's no sign of this in the film, where Kirk and the rest speak to 20th century people in San Francisco with no problem-her included).
- In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel fic Bring Me to Life, Angel, triggered by a spell cast by Lilah, draws all over the Hyperion's lobby, revealing a massive diagram of dimensions and constellations centered around the Earth, along with glyphs written in a language Giles and Wesley can't recognize. Whistler explains that said language is called the Language of the Eternals, the original language used by the Powers That Be themselves from which Enochian and all other languages evolved; while it's lost to record books and the minds of man, as the messenger for the Powers, he has it hardwired into his brain.
- Naming explores how Hylian has changed a lot throughout the centuries. Zelda has awaken after a millenia and can't understand most people. Even her distant niece, the current Zelda, can't communicate casually, because she learned Ancient Hylian through formal texts.
- Clair De Lune: Due to being a Fish out of Temporal Water, Lune isn't used to "you" (instead of "thou") being used casually. It feels impersonal when others, including her sister Celestia, use it towards her.
- Story Shuffle: In "Matters of Interest". It causes an accidental perception of formality:
Luna raised a hoof "Peace, sister. Thou wert ne'er the only pony at fault, and at the end, all blame lay with that which I became." She hung her head. "I do not blame thee for not forgiving me in full."
Celestia flinched and took a step back. "What! How could you think that?"
"If thou didst truly forgive me, why dost thou still speak to me so formally?"
The two just looked at one another for a time. Celestia then facehoofed. "Because I am even more of an idiot than I realized."
"A thousand years is a long time for a language, Luna. 'Thou,' 'thee,' and 'thine' have fallen out of use."
- In Idiocracy, the massive proliferation of stupidity in American society has resulted in a corresponding degradation of the English language. The protagonist, our Fish out of Temporal Water, is regarded as talking "like a fag" (presumably meaning "too formally") when speaking normal 21st century English.
- In Gulliver's Travels, it is stated that most Struldbrugs are incapable of speaking more than a few words to those around them due to that trope. It is unclear how much that trope affects the written language, since there they suffer another problem — they can't remember what they just read.
- A major theme in Riddley Walker. It's post-apocalyptic fiction, and the book is just barely understandable, if you read it carefully and sound it out phonetically. Their conflation of various words of today's English (notably "Adam" and "atom") lead to much of the background, folklore, and plot.
- A Canticle for Leibowitz. By the time the events of the novel take place, English had long splinted into various successor languages. And the only ones speaking it are in the Catholic Church. After post-nuclear-war society decides that Science Is Bad and undergoes what is called "The Great Simplification," it becomes common to call someone "my good simpleton" as a polite greeting.
- In Michael Crichton's Timeline, three characters who travel back in time to The Middle Ages have to learn how the French of that time differs from modern French. Even the character who already knows the written language of 1357 has to learn how it's pronounced and inflected.
- Isaac Asimov:
- Foundation and Earth: As a historian, Pelorat is familiar with the effects of time on language, and he discusses language speciation with Trevize. Their initial arrival on Solaria is complicated by the fact that the house robots only speak the Solarian dialect, which Pelorat can only barely fake as it is a static instance of language from Robots and Empire. However, Bander and the Guardian robots have watched hyperwave communications and have learned modern Galactic Standard.
- Pebble In The Sky: The protagonist inadvertently steps into the future, where his 20th century English is so different (he says Chicago, they say Chica) that it is unintelligible to all except a few historical linguists. Even they struggle to understand him.
- Gregory Benford's Foundation's Fear: Early in the book, two quotes about Rome are misquoted due to the intervening millennia since humanity left Earth; "Fiddling while Roma burns" and "All worms lead to Roma". They're distortions of "Fiddle While Rome Burns" and "All roads lead to Rome".
- In the Legacy Trilogy by William H Keith Jr (writing as Ian Douglass), due to relativistic travel, characters come back to Earth after many years away and find that they're unable to understand what people are saying or be understood themselves without special translation software.
- In The Forever War, by the mid-21st century, pronouns have already begun to shift. Centuries later, 20th century English has become the Lingua Franca of the Force, since most of the military brass, having lived hundreds of years through relativistic travel, speak it.
- Becomes a major plot point in Courtship Rite when the inhabitants of the Lost Colony of Geta finally decode ancient documents, including a history of Earth, and learn, among other things, that their word for "God" used to mean "ship". Which puts a whole new perspective on the legend that the God in the sky that they can see every night brought them to Geta.
- In the "Mage Storms" trilogy in the Heralds of Valdemar series, a minor plot point involves the Kaled'a'in clan, who are the only speakers of their language. They pride themselves on keeping it "pure" and unchanged over the millennia — so naturally two native speakers are dismayed to find they cannot read a very important set of inscriptions in ancient Kaled'a'in.
- In His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, Lyra and Will, who come from different parallel Earths, both speak English. There are, however, a few differences between their vocabulary such as anbaric/electricity, electrum/amber, and chocolatl/chocolate. This easily also could be Eternal English as there is such a different past in Lyra's world, but they still both speak the same basic English.
- J. R. R. Tolkien, being a linguist, subtly works it into his two most complete Elven languages: Quenya and Sindarin. Both contain phonologies, morphologies, vocabularies, and other eccentricities that are indicative of Language Drift, with a number of archaic words and sentence structures that don't quite fit the established rules. For example, Quenya lost the "th" sound as in thin, becoming "s", but still spelt with a different letter (as in Isil, the name of the moon, which "restored" the original sound when it was loaned into Sindarin as Ithil). Likewise, the "n" in Noldor was originally pronounced as an "ng" sound (as in singer, not finger), but by the late-Third Age when The Lord of the Rings is set, the pronunciation has changed to the sound familiar to modern English speakers, though the spelling in Tengwar and Cirth still kept the distinction. There's also exactly one multi-syllable word in Quenya stressed on the last syllable, unlike all others.
- One of the biggest stumbling blocks for people wanting to learn Sindarin are consonant mutations, where the initial consonant of words changes to a different one, according to the function or position of the word in the sentence. This is a direct consequence of the sound changes that affected consonants inside a word, but not initials; except that in certain cases two words are pronounced as one, and the initials now count as medial consonants and are affected.
- Another example of language drift occurs with Westron (the "common tongue," represented by Modern English in the books). It's noted in the Appendices that Westron as spoken by the Hobbits lost the formal mode of address (i.e., in English, "thou" was the familiar while "you" is the formal. Modern English has since lost the familiar, so only "you" is used today). The form of Westron spoken in Gondor, however, continued to use the formal mode. Therefore, when Pippin converses with Denethor, his Hobbit dialect is much more familiar than would be proper for a commoner when addressing a lord as powerful as Denethor, making him come across as Denethor's equal to those listening in on their conversations, and thus helping feed the rumors that he was Hobbit royalty which pursue him throughout his stay in Minas Tirith. (Though Pippin's family is as close as there is to Hobbit nobility.)
- The later books of the Ender's Game series take place thousands of years in the future, and there are subtle hints that none of the characters are speaking modern languages. Those who sound like they're speaking English are mentioned to be speaking "Stark" (likely a descendent of Starways Kommon, which itself was a phonetic, simplified variant of English). The appendices also mention that the languages identified as "Portuguese" and "Chinese" are descendent tongues, which sound nothing like their modern equivalents.
- In the Ender's Game Alive audioplay, Common is already an existing English-based language, and all Battle School children are required to speak it. Ender initially refuses to use Battle School slang (with words borrowed from a variety of languages, reflecting Battle School's multinational background) but is advised by an older kid to try to fit in.
- At the end of the first book, when Ender is speaking to Peter (thanks to relativity, Peter's an old man while Ender is still a teen), Ender calls out Peter on deliberately using Battle School slang in their conversation. Peter replies he's doing no such thing: the Battle School slang that Ender knew has been incorporated into the standard Common language over the years.
- Mentioned in Orson Scott Card's Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, where time-viewing technology allows one to see and hear anyone who has lived as far back as the beginning of human history. However, the lack of Translator Microbes means that researchers are forced to learn the language of the people they're studying at a specific point in time.
- In the Revelation Space Series, no modern-day languages exist unchanged in the 26th century or beyond. Ilia Volyova speaks 'Russish', and most of the Demarchists of the Yellowstone system speak 'Norte', which seems to originate from English and Spanish. There were a number of American colonies set up via seeder starship that spoke American English, but none are shown to exist by the time Revelation Space takes place thanks to the first generation of humans being emotionally stunted due to them being raised by robots, and the general inhospitable nature of the universe.
- The Forerunner Saga: The Forerunners use many different languages (only two or three are given any detail, however), with many, many more have been lost over their ten million year history.
- Halo: Broken Circle: When Zo and his Sangheili companions rediscover the Ussan Sangheili, they find out that the latter's dialect of Sangheili has changed far less than their own in the 3,000+ years since the Ussans became isolated from the Covenant, to the point that they have to use translation devices to communicate properly.
- In the far-future storyline of Cloud Atlas, English has devolved into a near-incomprehensible mess that seems vaguely Creole-inspired. And the entire section is written in it.
- 1632: The influence of the 20th century Americans on 17th century Germany has led to the creation of a creole known as "Amideutsch". The language is mentioned to lift most of its vocabulary from Hochdeutsch, but uses the grammatical rules of modern English. For example the character "Strong Hans" is "Stark Hans" in Amideutsch and "Starker Hans" in Hochdeutsch.
- The General uses this for comedic effect. Several words in the languages spoken in the setting (Sponglish and Namerique) are immediately recognizable to those who speak their parent languages (Spanish and English). For example, the Sponglish word for officer is brazaz (from the English "brass-ass") and their name for a particularly foul form of invertebrate bottom-feeding fish is avocato (from the Spanish "abogado", meaning "lawyer").
- In Poul Anderson's story "A Tragedy of Errors", a merchant explorer who finds a long-isolated colony world announces himself as "a friend" who has come to "do business". The locals then shoot him down. He discovers that, after an attack by pirates who initially introduced themselves with the same phrasing before revealing their real intentions, those words came to mean "an enemy planning a sneak attack". When things are finally patched up and he heads home, he promises future visits, not by "friends here to do business" but by "comerados to 'change (exchange)".
- In The Divine Comedy's strange addition to the Genesis story, Adam claims that the original language was extinct by the time Nimrod brought the Curse of Babel upon humanity.
- Deliberately invoked in Dolton Edwards' 1946 short story Meihem in ce Klasrum. At first glance, the last few sentences are unintelligible gibberish. However, if you read the story carefully, they become completely clear.
- In Rihannsu: The Empty Chair, Uhura comments that she doubts the ships the Romulan central government sent to quell the rebellion on Artaleirh will understand "one word in ten" of the local dialect, even though the rebels are broadcasting in the clear. That's how much the local dialect has diverged from that spoken in the Romulan capital system.
- Discworld: Suggested at one point when the subject of Mad Lord Snapcase is brought up, the man having been hung up "by his figgin". A figgin is a small pastry, so a footnote suggests that either there's some very bizarre linguistic drift going on, or there really is some horrifying element to hanging a man alongside a teacake.
- In We Are Legion (We Are Bob), after awakening 117 years in the future, Bob learns that English (or, at least, American English) has changed significantly to the point where he has trouble understanding the locals. He starts using a translator program. It's implied that this was deliberately done by the theocrats of the FAITH to prevent the people from being able to easily read old writing.
- In Robert A. Heinlein's Time for the Stars, the crew of the Lewis and Clark find that the language has drifted somewhat as a result of their time dilation. The protagonist asks for directions and is told "Outdowngo rightwards. Ask from allone."
- A more meta case with Emerald City. Inha, the language for the Witch Species, was made by David J. Peterson as a singular dialect. Then he, along with Ana Ularu, who played Mistress West in the show, came up with the idea of having it become four dialects, each one representing the four classical elements, and the language became what is was during the show's run.
- The "lyrics" in Nier's soundtrack are written in futuristic versions of French, English, Japanese etc. (and despite sounding like gibberish, you can actually tell which language they're been based upon), because the game itself takes place a few thousand years after the 2000s.
- 200 years pass between The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Skyrim. Though you can still understand the Imperial tongue perfectly, the names used by some ethnicities indicate that the language has evolved. Many Imperials now use Italian-like names instead of Canis Latinicus, and the Redguards are mainly a mix of Arabic and Moorish instead of the ghetto-ish ones they had in Oblivion.
- After the End: A Crusader Kings II Mod takes place 600-700 years after the end of modern civilisation, and while the actual mod is in English, in universe pre-apocalypse tongues are dead languages that linguistics evolved from centuries ago, not unlike ancient languages like Latin, Akkadian or Aramaic, and are studied as such by scholars.
- Fallout: The Tribals' languages, as implied in Fallout 2 and shown in Fallout: New Vegas's Honest Hearts expansion, are creole tongues descended from English. After several generations however, there's just enough English left to notice their origins but they're otherwise barely comprehensible. This is in stark contrast to their town-dwelling counterparts in the wasteland as well as more civilized factions like the New California Republic and Brotherhood of Steel, all of whom speaking more or less the same English as Pre-War America.
- In the X-Universe, both the Earth State and their 700 year long lost Argon Federation speak Japanese, but with the grammar completely turned on its head; translated graffiti Nose Art on Pirate ships and warnings on docking bays reveal that the order of words is backwards. When the Earth State makes contact with another lost colony in X3: Terran Conflict the colonists are shown to use more archaic Japanese words which are not translated by the game's Translation Convention.
- In The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, the Hylian language has changed enough in the interim between it and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time that those who speak ancient Hylian such as Valoo and Jabun are not only significantly different from modern Hylian speakers like Link but utterly incomprehensible. The few modern characters who do speak the ancient version of the language, such as Valoo's attendants, speak it in a form so broken they can manage only partial translations making ancient Hyrlian very near to extinction.
- A Very Long Rope to the Top of the Sky: The names of some places are distorted versions of their original names after millennia. Silver Spring was originally Silvia's Ring, and the continents' names were descended from their military designations. Like Terasu was originally Terra-2.
- Ar tonelico: the various Con Langs in the series are all implied to be related to each other across many millenia: with Ar Ciela being the original language, Carmena Foreluna being a simplified version of it, and Hymmnos and its dialects being descended from that. Some commonality can be seen between the languages, showing the relation. For example, the word "hymmnos", meaning "song", appears back in Ar Ciela passages virtually unchanged.
- In Breakpoint City, Ben is dismayed to find out that Scrabble has become essentially unplayable for him after he travels to The Future because of all the words added to the dictionary.
- One xkcd comic suggests that in a few more centuries historical re-enactors will end up speaking a medley of every accent from the 16th-20th centuries, no longer remembering the difference between them.
- In Quantum Vibe 500 years into the future most of the cast apparently speaks English, though there may be some extent of Translation Convention, while the Lunar Republic has developed a patois resembling LOLcats speak. Another 500 years later English seems to have been forgotten by the general intergalactic populace except for the "Loonie" dialect and the Common Tongue is a pidgin of English and Portugese called "Portanglo".
- SCP-411 is a man from 400 years in the future with Merlin Sickness. In addition to answering questions before they're asked, conversations with him are difficult due to speaking a dialect of English that has severely deviated from Modern English, containing elements of Spanish, Chinese, a classified third language, and Haskell - a programming language.
- In The Mézga Family, a Hungarian cartoon from the 70s, the titular family, living in the 20th century, manages to contact a descendant called MZ/X, who lives in the 30th century. At first they don't understand a word he's saying, as MZ/X speaks "new Hungarian", which is just modern day Hungarian with EVERY word abbreviated to one syllable. Thankfully he has a telepathic helmet he can put on when he wants to talk to his ancestors from "the atomic dark age", as he calls them.
- Futurama: In the 30th century, while English remains recognizable to 20th / 21st century speakers, there are a few occasions when pronunciation has changed (Christmas is now exclusively X-Mas, and ask is pronounced "aks" (axe).)
- The archaic Latin chants of the Roman priesthood were indecipherable even to Cicero in the 1st century BCE. The only recognizable words are Ceres, Janus, and thunder. The Donation of Constantine was recognized as a forgery when it used 8th century CE Latin words in a document supposedly written in the 4th century CE. See the wikipedia article on Latin for a history on the different forms of the language.
- The Greek language has shifted considerably from the time of Homer. Indeed the New Testament was translated several times in the past century because so few could comprehend the late Hellenistic language most of the Gospels and Epistles were composed in. For a speaker of Modern Greek, reading the late-Hellenistic Greek of the New Testament is more akin to a speaker of Modern English reading Chaucer than a speaker of Modern French reading Latin—it's archaic and difficult, but it can be done with liberal use of a dictionary. At that point, however, it's so difficult it's worth translating into the modern form.
- If Time Travel ever becomes possible (Will become possible? Has become possible?), then the average user would discover the effects of language drift in spades. A typical modern-day English speaker would find it somewhat difficult to converse properly with natives from, say, Elizabethan England, and almost impossible just a couple of centuries or so further back. Even in Shakespeare's time, a modern day traveller would most likely be assumed to be a foreigner speaking poor constructed "Shakespearean" English (and any attempts to use Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe would only make matters that much worse). And that's not even going into trying to speak foreign languages in the past...
- The same would almost certainly hold true for the future, though perhaps with the advent of mass recording of modern day literature, the continued language drift may take a little longer to occur...note
- Taking it a step further, a modern-day person travelling back to Shakespeare's London would probably be very confused by the accent. During Shakespeare's time the predominant accent in England sounded a lot like the modern-day southern Appalachian accent.
- A theatre in London did one of Shakespeare's plays using the original sounds. It was almost incomprehensible to the modern ear.
- All of the modern Indo-European languages (everything from English to Russian to Hindi) are descended from the language known as Proto-Indo-European, or PIE for short. The modern language closest to PIE is Lithuanian.
- The Internet is causing a massive subversion of this trope. Before the Internet, there were various dialects that were drifting apart to the extent that it was thought that within 100 years speakers of one would not be able to understand the other (examples: American vs British English, Mexican vs European Spanish, Brazilian vs European Portuguese). The Internet has effectively reversed this, however. Dialects that were growing further apart are now starting to move closer together again, as instantaneous worldwide communication causes people in one country to start picking up another's dialects and slang. Just 20 years ago, if you asked someone in the US what a lorry was, most people probably would have no idea. In addition to this, the Internet is also preserving "snapshots" of languages, as articles are written and can then be read anytime in the future.
- Because of the self-enforced isolation of the country, it has been noted that North Korea retains a form of Korean which is "fossilised" from the language as spoken all over the peninsula in 1945. North Korea, because of its insularity, has also missed out on the massive linguistic changes brought about in Korean because of South Korea's enthusiastic acceptance of the cultural influence of the rest of the world. South Korea has adapted and changed and evolved since 1945; North Korea hasn't. Therefore the two forms of Korean have noticeably diverged whilst remaining the same language. Korean in the North sounds, to somebody brought up in the South, rather archaic and old-fashioned. A parallel might be for a modern British person to listen to the Pathé newsreel films of The '30s and The '40s and reflect on the English being used, both in terms of pronunciation and vocabulary. A generation ago, linguists listened to German as spoken in the West and the East and speculated that the political, social and economic divisions between the two Germanies was provoking the same sort of divergence. Unification appears to have solved this one.
- An epilogue to Poul Anderson's "A Tragedy of Errors" (above in Literature) notes that when King James first saw newly-built St. Paul's Cathedral he said it was "awful, pompous, and artificial", meaning "awesome, majestic, and well-made".