On The Linguistic Trail With Nomadic Languages

Does not having a fixed regional identity change how language evolves?
camel herd trekking through desert

While some nomadic peoples have managed to maintain their way of life in today’s industrialized world, at one point in time nomadic living was the default human condition — not the anomalistic one. Before the advent of agriculture encouraged prehistoric people to put down roots, hunter-gatherers roamed the world, spreading their culture and knowledge as they came into contact with other societies.

Language is a thing that’s been in a state of constant motion since the dawn of, well, language. This was true even long after human migration patterns leveled off and stabilized a bit. That’s because language evolves to suit the needs of the speakers, which change over time and are constantly adapting to accommodate new technology and contact with new populations.

In other words, languages do a perfectly fine job evolving when their speakers are relatively rooted in place. In the absence of state-mandated national languages, most countries would consist of a gradient of dialects that are the most mutually intelligible, or share the most in common, with the dialects geographically closest to them. What does this process look like for nomadic languages, which often assume the role of “visiting team,” or in many cases the outlier watching from the stands?

Before we even get out of the gate with this question, it’s worth pointing out that the process of language evolution we take for granted today was first kicked into motion by nomadic people. Though no written record of Proto-Indo-European exists, the most widely accepted theory among linguists is that nomadic pastoralists sprinkled the seeds of Indo-European languages throughout Europe and parts of Asia when they left the Great Steppe 4,500 years ago. This has been confirmed through an analysis of ancient DNA, which found that ancient central Europeans shared 75 percent of their DNA with the nomadic herders.

So it seems fair to say that in the beginning, all languages evolved like nomadic languages because they were all, in a way, nomadic at the time. But what happened after many languages developed a fixed regional identity?

The evolution of the Romani language serves as an interesting case study. This language belongs to the Indo-European family and, given its Indian origins, is related to Hindi and Urdu. However, you can analyze its linguistic DNA to find evidence of its historic travels. Linguists have actually mined the language for clues concerning the migratory path of the Romani. Thanks to this, we know it’s not likely the Romani left India prior to 1000 AD. Romani would go on to be influenced by Persian, Armenian, Georgian and Kurdish, as well as the medieval Greek of the Byzantine era. In fact, we can tell that the city of Byzantium (ancient Istanbul) was likely around when the Romani first made their way into Europe.

It’s not always the case that nomadic languages function like a snowball or tumbleweed, collecting more influences as they drift across the landscape. Sometimes, their relative isolation from the historic forces that mold and destroy nation states lead them to preserve historic languages better than their more sedentary counterparts. The desert-dwelling Bedouin people are said to speak one of the purest forms of Classical Arabic today, most closely resembling more archaic forms of the language. Similarly, the Sarakatsani people, who are thought to be descendants of the Dorian Greeks, speak a language that bears resemblance to pre-classical Greek.

These examples don’t necessarily contradict each other, either. What they do is illustrate how being on the move is at once a process of weaving through disparate cultures encountered along the way, and, in turn, being woven by them, all while existing as a separate thread that has a parallel history and origin story.

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