The causes of language swapping and language shift

by Edward Pegler on 5 March, 2018

A review post outlining three main methods of language swapping: 1) Biggest language wins, 2) Richest or most violent language wins (this is helped if languages are similar), and 3) Everyone’s second language wins.

This post is aimed at anyone who’s interested, although it comes from a particular discussion between me and others about the spread of the Indo-European languages.

The question is simple; are there any generally accepted laws of language swapping where a geographic region changes its main language? Probably. Have I found any in the literature? No.

Part of the problem seems to be that language shift (the swapping of one main language for another by a particular bunch of people) is extremely politically loaded, coming with the baggage of colonialism, neo-colonialism, oppression of minorities and loss of diversity.

To be harsh, I’m not looking at any of this here. The remainder of this post is aimed at putting forward the main arguments I can find from various academics for why geographic areas swap their main languages. Here is what I’ve found.

Population dominance – Go with the herd

In this model a population coming into a new area brings more speakers of its (main) language into that area than the speakers any other language group already present in the area. This results in these minority linguistic groups showing language shift to the language of the incomers.

The methods of actually achieving linguistic dominance have historically included:

  • Immigration – the arrival of large numbers of new people into an area (e.g. of 17th-18th century English speakers to the colonies of America and Australia, or of 18th century Han Chinese farmers into frontier areas);
  • Displacement – forcing an existing population to leave the area (e.g. of 20th century Poland and Ukraine by the Soviet Union and Germany);
  • Population fall – usually caused by disease introduction, famine, genocide or birth rate decline (e.g. 15th to19th century introduction of European diseases into the Americas, Australia and South-western Africa, the 19th century potato blights effect on Gaelic-speaking western Ireland.)

It would have been good to separate these methods. However, they often go hand in hand. For example, the collapse of the American population was caused by immigration of Europeans bringing disease. Also, the aggressive displacement or extermination of one population by another may be to create new territories for immigrants to settle. It also needs a large population to carry out the displacement effectively.

Importantly, in this model population replacement does not necessarily mean language replacement. Short time scales are essential and language shift happens faster the higher the rate of swamping of minority languages. A slow, steady stream of immigrants over generations may eventually swamp the genetic signal of the original inhabitants of an area, but each small batch of immigrants will come as a minority, switching its language to the language of the majority, the old language of the original inhabitants (this has just been demonstrated nicely in the case of Vanuatu).

Elite dominance – Swap or lose!

This is the opposite of the model above – language shift to a minority language by the majority population of a region. It results when the minority language as used by the elite of society. It has been a significant cause of language shift in the last one to two hundred years. There are two main ways that this has happened:


In this, people are forced by a physically strong elite to learn their language under threat of violence (this includes the education system). It has occurred in a number of countries since the 19th century, including the imposition of English in Wales and Ireland, of Spanish in Latin America and of Turkish in its SE Turkey.

However, it should be pointed out that forcible methods are usually effective only in small geographical areas (up to around 30,000 km2) controlled by neighbouring, large, organised and highly literate states or empires (this is the case with the change from Arabic to Turkish in SE Turkey, or of Scots Gaelic and Welsh to English in the UK, or of Breton to French in France, or of Slovene to German in Austria, etc).

On the other hand, such forcible methods are not known to have been successful where a resident minority has tried to impose its language on the majority of people in a larger area (notable failures are of the Anglo-Normans in 12th century England, the Swedes in 19th century Finland). Many minority elites in a region haven’t even tried, rapidly adopting the language of the subject people.

(There may be an interesting example of Medieval enforced language change in East Prussia, where the German ‘Teutonic Knight’ monastic elite appear to have been reasonably organised and successful in changing the local language from Prussian to German between the 13th and 17th centuries. However, local population loss from plague, together with German immigration, may also explain this language change.)

Social betterment

In this, people wish to climb socially, and learn the language of the elite as well as having their children educated in the new language. Historically, this can be argued to be the case with the adoption of English (either UK or US) by various cultures since the 19th century, including by many Maltese and by city dwellers of India. The same can be said of the adoption of French in the cities of some of France’s ex colonies and even in some former British ones (e.g. Sierra Leone).

However, historically it is urban populations or populations of small islands that have tended to adopt the new languages, although they often stay bilingual (the adopted languages are, at least initially, linguae francae – see below). The population of the greater countryside does not adopt these new languages. This may now be changing. The advent of communications technology even in rural areas means that prestige languages are causing language shift in these areas too (this is clear with the loss of Gaelic and Irish in Scotland and Ireland).


I suspect that we shouldn’t underestimate the effects of mass literacy and the expectation of literacy on the success both of these methods in the last two hundred years. The increasing requirement to be able to read, whether signs or legal documents, means that a knowledge of the written language has become necessary to many inhabitants of modern nation states. If this is to cause major language shift it’s necessary for a large proportion of the population to be able to read. Such effects would not have been significant in earlier, less literate ages or with less organised states.

Making it easier – related language adoption

A more speculative idea is that elite languages are more readily adopted when they are not too dissimilar to the existing language, as the original population find it relatively easy to change their language.

In this case, the new language introduction could be by an incoming minority, albeit a dominant or prestigious minority, as above. However, the resistance to language shift is decreased.

Nick Ostler argues that this would explain the spread of the Arabic language to the Middle East and North Africa from the 7th century AD onward, as both already spoke Semitic languages (e.g. Aramaic and Coptic). The corollary to this is the failure of the Arabic language to take hold in Iran (where people spoke unrelated Iranian languages). It may also explain the adoption of Latin by Celts in western Europe during the Roman period (see further discussion below) and of Turkic languages by Mongols in the medieval period.

More historically, can this method explain the replacement of Byelorussian by Russian (both closely related Slavic languages) during the 20th century. I don’t know. It would be nice to have more certain examples of such a mechanism.

International chat – adoption of the lingua franca

Many people throughout history have, in fact, spoken more than one language: one at home, and at least one to less well known people. This is quite normal. We live in an age where many people speak English as well as their home language.

These languages are, as above, often used to get on in the world as they allow communication with other groups in trade, education and technical discussion.  Apart from modern English, there are many other historical examples, including Sanskrit across Southern Asia, Greek on the western Silk Road, Swahili in West Africa, Aramaic in Iran and the Near East, Medieval Latin in Europe, German in the Baltic and French in Western Europe.

However, it should be pointed out that these are second languages. As such, they often fail to replace the home language, and their long-term consequences can be ephemeral. This is clearly the case with Sanskrit, which is now extinct with no descendants, despite its widespread use several hundred years ago. The same can be said of Medieval Latin. Arguably, if America fades and China rises the incentive for an internationalist to swap their second language to Mandarin will rise too.

So are there any cases where the lingua franca has been adopted. For example, what about Ancient Latin or Arabic?

Ancient Latin is a most interesting case in that it appears to be a lingua franca which was adopted, in corrupt form, as the first language in central and northern Italy, the Iberian Peninsula, in France and among the Vlachs (‘Romanians’ in the broadest sense) of the Balkans. However, this needs to be analysed carefully.

In the case of Italy, Rome’s dominance of the local region, both in terms of elite power and population (due to establishment of coloniae), may have caused language shift in locally to Latin. This could be an example of population dominance or elite dominance of a small local area.

In the case of the Vlachs it is possible that East Romance languages result from the settlement as farmers in the Balkans of predominantly Italian legionaries, who then maintained their identity as a mountain people after the migration period. Alternatively, polyglot groups of settled legionaries from all over the empire (possibly together with some locals) might have used Latin as a lingua franca between them when they were settled in the Balkans. As more of them spoke Latin than anything else this became the dominant language, even though it was very few people’s first language.

On this basis, the adoption of a lingua franca as a first language may well be the result of linguistically fragmented groups in a region adopting a language of communication simply to unite them.

What happened in France and the Iberian Peninsula to cause language shift from the various original languages of these regions is more difficult to establish (as it is with Arabic). Firstly, it’s not known how uniform the languages of these areas were before their incorporation into the Roman Empire. Caesar suggests that large parts of France spoke Gaulish, although other languages spoken in France included Belgic, Greek, Basque/Aquitanian/Vascon, Iberian and Ligurian. In Spain Iberian, Celtiberian, Lusitanian and Gallaecian/NW Hispano-Celtic are all recorded, whilst Basque must also have been present.

Second, it’s not known how long it took for the language to shift to ‘Latin’. It’s also unknown what proportion of Latin-speaking (either as first or second language) settlers migrated to these regions. Subsequently, there was significant population loss and a large minority of Germanic speakers settled both regions. Therefore the adoption of Latin as a lingua franca in a linguistically fragmented landscape may be correct. However, it’s almost impossible to be certain.

Interestingly, linguae francae, due to their importance in written communications with other language groups, are precisely the ones that we know about historically. The languages that the majority of people daily spoke in Bronze Age Sumer, Iran, Greece, Crete, Anatolia, etc, may have been Sumerian, Elamite, Mycenaean Greek, ‘Linear A’, Hittite or Hurrian, but they may not. This makes determining ancient language shift so much harder.

Could the necessity to use such written languages have ever caused language shift? The answer may be no for peasant societies of the past. However, the effects of communications aided by states/empires, technology or both, mean that second languages can become increasingly important in daily life, not just in long-distance trade or exchange of ideas. Such an effect can be seen clearly in modern India, where many people use the neutral English in preference to Hindi in their communications, both written and spoken, with people outside their own linguistic groups. Whether such linguae francae will become first languages for the majority of such vast regions as India is unknown.

Combinations of effects – e.g. Hebrew

There is no reason why more than one of these effects cannot combine to cause language shift. Perhaps the classic case is the resurrection of the use of Hebrew, especially in Israel, from the 19th century onward. This was effective for at least three reasons.

  • In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Hebrew could be used as a written and spoken lingua franca between disparate Jewish groups in Europe and the Middle East as chances for communication improved between them due to technological advances.
  • When Jews migrated to Palestine in the 20th century these incomers were all minorities, speaking many different first languages, and needed a language of communication between them. In this they shared Hebrew.
  • The Israeli state, once formed in the mid 20th century, put its weight behind the use of Hebrew in education at the expense of other languages.

There’s no reason to believe that other combinations of effects couldn’t result in language shift in the past, now, or in the future.

Speculations in Prehistory

So far, so historical. Unfortunately, many of us on blogearth want to understand why language change happened in Prehistory. Frankly, most of this revolves around our fascination either with our chosen national identifiers or with Indo-European origins or, often, both. What troubles me is that none of us seems to take the trouble to find out what can cause language shifts either in the present or during well recorded history.

So one particularly prevalent view, as expressed by many enthusiasts, is that prehistoric warrior elites have caused language changes. This is, essentially, a machismo view of prehistory, either despaired of (e.g. Marija Gimbutas’ view of the coming of the Indo-Europeans to peaceful ‘Old Europe’), celebrated (e.g. Madison Grant, Gustav Kossinna or even the Eurogenes Blog (David Wesolowski has taken exception to this slur and I’m happy to retract it), or a cause of mental confusion (e.g. David Anthony).

And yet the historical evidence for language change resulting from nomadic warrior elites is still scarce. Eastern Europe suffered repeated waves of horse-warrior incursions after the fall of Rome. This includes the Alans, Mongols, Pechenegs, Bulgars, Cumans, Magyars, Avars, etc. Some of them went on to rule the areas they invaded (e.g. the Bulgars and Cumans). However, only one of these groups, the Magyars, left a linguistic legacy.

As stated by Jean Sedlar, the success of the Magyars was probably due to their arrival in a sparsely populated area (the Hungarian Plain), meaning that they may have been in the majority there (the previous immigrants to the area, the Avars, were also of eastern origin according to the limited genetic data, and possibly spoke a related language, which perhaps helped).

On the other hand, the slowly migrating mass of Slav peasant farmers, not on horseback, who settled a depopulated Eastern Europe in great numbers from the 6th century onward, have left a huge linguistic legacy, despite often being ruled over by horse-riding elites (e.g. the Bulgars and perhaps the Croats) speaking other languages.

So this appears to be a failure of elite dominance and a success for population dominance. The reason for this is probably simple; nomadic warrior elites were not that organised and their populations not that educated. Furthermore, they were not part of a neighbouring majority.

So maybe there were (possibly horse-riding) elites in the Bronze Age. They may even have sired many children and left their disproportionate legacy in Y-chromosomes (as seems quite likely). And yes, they probably did sweep into India and Europe and Iran and Anatolia during this time. But, from the point of view of language change it’s not them that matter. They could speak any languages they wanted, be they related to Iranian, Finnish, Turkish or something now lost. It is the slow, vast, uncelebrated swarms of peasant migrants, wherever they came from, who probably caused the language shifts.


Amorim, C.E.G. (posted on bioarxv 20-2-2018) Understanding 6th-Century Barbarian Social Organization and
Migration through Paleogenomics, pp27.

A sketchy bit of data so far, but which suggests considerable Italian migration to Central Europe during the late Roman period. Though definitely a minority, perhaps there were local areas where Italians were in the majority. Additionally, a couple of samples may (!!!! too little data) suggest a notable influx of foreign genetics into the Hungarian Plain during the Avar period. Two Avars do not make a population shift, however.

Heggarty, P. 2015 Prehistory through language and archaeology, In: The Routledge Handbook of Historical Linguistics (Bowern, C. & Evans, B.), 598-626.

Very pro Colin Renfrew’s Anatolian PIE theory, but a good overview of the mainstream view on language shift.

Ostler, N. 2005 Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World, Harper pp614.

A really good source for many of the ideas in this post, concentrating on history.

Posth, C. et al. 2018 Language continuity despite population replacement in Remote Oceania, Nature Ecology & Evolution (online).

Appearing after I started writing this, it didn’t phase me as much as it might have. I’ve only seen the summary here.

Sedlar, J.W. 1994 East Central Europe in the Middle Ages, 1000-1500, Uni. Washington, pp556.

Source of information on language and changes in central Europe during the migration period.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Davidski March 7, 2018 at 6:13 pm

Are you mentally ill or what? The conclusion here is that cattle herders caused language change, not the chariot warriors who came after them from the steppes.

Kindly pull your head out of your behind and take a breath of fresh air before you start randomly insulting people. The door swings both ways.


Edward Pegler March 8, 2018 at 12:24 pm

Dear David

Thanks for your robust response.

Technically, I think what you said is fair. Also I think comparing your view to Madison Grant is a bit harsh. Furthermore the horse aspect is irrelevant and I think I’ll probably remove it from the post. So you win there.

You’ve taken quite a strong view recently that language and genetics are intimately connected for these ancient people, which I think is reasonable (athough see the paper on Vanuatu above). However, you use the word ‘invasion’ frequently in your posts (see “The Indo-Europeanization of South Asia: migration or invasion?” from last July, a post which, incidentally, also talks about ‘ruling classes’).

I have no doubt that invasion and migration happened during the Bronze Age in Europe and India, and that there were ruling classes. The point I’m making in this post is that migration is, in my view, the key to this ancient language change in both of these cases, not invasion. If you put too much store on invasion you end up sounding like Kossinna or Grant. There are, as David Reich has pointed out, other explanations for migration, including population failure and the influx of new settlers to an area.

Either way, we still await news of ancient genetics in India, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the steppe influx view is proved right. However, I also wouldn’t be that surprised if it turned out to be less simple and involve multiple streams of immigrants.

The second thing I’d say is that your email was breathtaking and I finally understand why people talk about cyber-bullying and its effects on the receiver. Your comment made me quite shaky and I took quite a while to sleep that night. This is not good for people. Your website is interesting, informative, a good source of new information on the latest ancient genetic research. You also make all of your analyses freely available, which is commendable and scientific. However, you currently don’t behave like a scientist, but rather like a cyber-bully to many of your fan-base, and perhaps you should give this some thought when you write in reply to their comments, either on your site or theirs.

I hope that you’ll give this some thought if you ever read this reply.

best wishes



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