Are there any examples of language shift, where population A changes language because of contacts with population B? I am not looking about examples where population A was conquered or colonized by B. I am looking for examples where population A had an interest in changing to the language of population B, because of extensive contacts, social status etc.

  • 2
    That's pretty much how English is spreading all over the world now.
    – prash
    Apr 2, 2014 at 9:35
  • It's certainly how it spread through North America.
    – jlawler
    Apr 2, 2014 at 15:05
  • Ok, maybe I should rephrase my question. English spread because of colonialism etc. I am looking for a case where this shift happened because of non-violent events or foreign rule.
    – Midas
    Apr 2, 2014 at 19:27
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    Completely non-violently, a large number of European graduates have learnt to speak English. The primary factors are Hollywood and the internet. Less prominently, but more importantly, English has become the lingua franca of academia.
    – prash
    Apr 2, 2014 at 23:24
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    @hippietrail There was a period in China called 五胡乱华 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wu_Hu_uprising). There was also a Jurchen dynasty, whose rulers and upper class were sinicized in the end.
    – user58955
    Apr 3, 2014 at 11:14

2 Answers 2


There are many examples of languages spreading more through cultural influence than through the force of arms: Koine Greek is an important cultural example for Western civilization. However, Koine Greek wouldn't have spread so quickly through Asia Minor without the conquests of Alexander. Likewise, the Louisiana purchase arguably reflects at least partly the vast military imbalance between France and the United States (just look at what happened to Texas and California). If you want a clear cut example of a language undergoing a radical evolution purely under cultural influence, you can look at the evolution of prehistoric Japanese to Old Japanese to Early Middle Japanese under the influence of Chinese (mostly through the spread of Buddhism). The grammar, lexicon and phonology of the Japanese language changed quite radically in a century or so in order to incorporate the cultural, literary and religious influence of China. No military component at all was involved.


There were some towns in Northern Australia and Eastern New Guinea where the native Austronesian peoples switched from their native languages to Polinesian so as to better comunicate with the sea-faring traders (who were usually Polinesians).

Swahili also expanded enormously in Eastern Africa once it became perceived as a language of trade, reaching far away from the area where the Swahili people (with their mixed Bantu-Arab heritage) natively resided. Though in Swahili's case its expansion meant it was "added" to the languages the villagers' merchants (usually polyglots) would learn, as opposed to obliterating them.

  • Downvote: there are no towns in 'Northern Australia' which have native Austronesian people; Polynesian (not 'Polinesian) languages are Austronesian, constituting a low-level group within that language family. Apr 2, 2014 at 23:47
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    The closest you could get might be the Meriam Islanders in the Torres Strait, who speak the only Papuan language of Australia. Or the Tiwi Islanders who apparently may have acquired numeracy from a northern seafaring people they traded with. Apr 3, 2014 at 10:57
  • That was a harsh downvote. I gave a plus because of Swahili. Although I knew this, I didn't remember it. Thanks!
    – Midas
    Apr 3, 2014 at 20:04
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    @Midas Well, they seemed major errors to me. On a par with say, referring to 'the native Berber-speaking towns in southern Ireland', and saying that 'the native Indo-European peoples switched from their native languages to German'. Apr 4, 2014 at 0:15
  • @GastonÜmlaut Constructive criticism is always appreciated, thanks. Will check my books to look for that people I remember once I read about, north of Oz, who switched language due to trading with another, sea-faring people (thanks for the tip, hippietrail!). I must be more careful to check sources before and not fast and furiously type what I remember from memory. If I can't, will delete that part to leave only the reference to Swahili.
    – Joe Pineda
    Apr 4, 2014 at 3:09

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