History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I thought about this question and wondered: Are there any known cases where a country switched to a different language other than because of being conquered? If some country ever did this I would be very interested in how exactly they implemented it.

What I could come up with:

  • Mongols that conquered China and to some extent Germanic tribes that conquered Rome took over the language of the country they conquered. But they simply assimilated with the native population, they didn't bring the new language back to their home country.
  • Danish used to be the language of the Norwegian upper-class. However, it was when Norway was in a union with Denmark, so essentially they were the same country. And Danish was the official language of that country while Norwegian wasn't (not that any of the Norwegian dialects was ever accepted to be the Norwegian language).
  • Hebrew in the modern Israel is essentially an artificial language. However, it was created to have a common language where previously was none, the Jews who came to Israel spoke many different languages. So it's not like the whole country switched from one language to another. Of course, many other countries went through a similar (even though less radical process), e.g. the modern German (High German) is only one of the many dialects that existed in Germany (and some still exist).

So Japan considered having the whole country switch to English. Did any country actually do something like this?

share|improve this question
I know china has tried to enforce one dialect, but I don't know how well that's going. – DForck42 Oct 24 '11 at 17:48
@DForck42: That would be similar to Israel - creating a common language where there was none. Lots of countries went through this, e.g. Germany (High German is only one of the many dialects). But that's not really what I am looking for. – Wladimir Palant Oct 24 '11 at 17:49
I didn't think so, that's why I added it as a comment. – DForck42 Oct 24 '11 at 17:54
Considering China still has many dialects, I'd say not that well. They did redo the characters under Mao to simplify them, which is why there are Simplified and Traditional Mandarin today. I know it's a lot, but you could probably look at some of the countries that came out from under colonialism in Africa or SEAsia to see if they went back to their original language. – MichaelF Oct 24 '11 at 19:15
China did redo its written language with new simplified characters, they also redid the spelling of the transliterated words using Latin alphabet forming Pinyin. Regional dialects and even minority laguages exist within China such as Mongolian, Tibetan. There is a movement to ensure everyone learns Mandarin (Putonghua - "Proper Speak") however this is in addition to, not instead of local languages. I taught at a school in Inner Mongolia where classes were all given in Mongolian and Mandarin was taught as a second language. – Rincewind42 Oct 25 '11 at 6:20

10 Answers 10

up vote 30 down vote accepted

Scotland has gradually changed to using English without being conquered by England. Now I shall temper that a little in that there have been English speaking people living in Scotland just as long as there have in England. The Anglo-Saxons settled south east Scotland as well as north east England. However, English didn't become the majority language for hundreds of years after that.

Scotland had several native languages such as Scots Gaelic, Pictish, a Brythonic language similar to Welsh, and also some Norse or Norn speakers. The Angles brought in Old English. Magnus Magnusson's book "Scotland, The Story of a Nation" has a map of this distribution on page 35.

Old English changed to Middle English and then split to become Scots and Modern English. By the late middle ages just three languages remained. Gaelic, Scots and a small minority English speakers. (Map of Languages in Scotland circa 1400)

After the Union of Crowns and latter Union of Parliaments, Modern English started to increase in use and Scots and Gaelic withered. However, the Union wasn't an invasion. Scotland was never conquered by the English. In fact the opposite. The Scottish king inherited the English crown.

Today almost nobody uses Scots. Instead they use Scottish English with a few hits of Scots. There is a small group of Gaelic speakers but no where near the number of just 200 years ago. Wikipedia gives numbers of 297,823 speakers (18.5% of total population) in 1800 and just 58,652 (1.2%) today. Thus I would argue that Scotland has changed it's language without being conquered.

Mongolia would be a contender for a second answer. Mongolia split from China during the early 20th Century. At that this they used a mix of Mongolian and Chinese (Mandarin) and a little Tibetan. They had there own Mongolian script for writing. However, today if you travel to Mongolia, you will see little use of the Mongolian script. It was replaced with Russian Cyrillic script. The strong influence of of the Soviet Union, which bordered Mongolia, brought about a change in the written language of the area. However, although the Soviet Union had a strong influence, Mongolia always remained a separate nation state and was never conquered by the USSR. Today Mongolian script is usually only seen in Inner Mongolia, within China. Outer Mongolia changed.

Taiwan would also make a third answer. This one maybe politically contentious depending on how you view the status of Taiwan. However, before 1949, Mandarin Chinese was a minority language on Taiwan. When the Republic of China government relocated to Taiwan in 1949, a large number of refugees from the Mainland settled there. Today Mandarin Chinese is the majority language. So officially, the language changed without invasion.

Some Taiwanese will not agree with my assessment as they consider Taiwan to have always been independent form China and was assigned to Chinese control, and occupied after WWII. However that is a minority opinion. Others will disagree with me on the opposite argument that Taiwan is not an independent country and thus as part of China, doesn't count.

Singapore will be my fourth contender as an answer. The official languages are Chinese, English, Malay and Tamil. The Last two, Malay and Tamil, are the native languages of the are. English came in via conquest and colonial rule. However, Chinese is now the largest language in use (49.9% of total population) but Singapore has never been conquered by the Chinese. Rather a large influx of Chinese immigrants has changed the cultural balance of the country.

share|improve this answer
Thank you, nice answer. The case of Scotland is similar to Denmark-Norway, technically Scotland and Britain were already the same country when the change occurred. As to Mongolia, its independence from Soviet Union was rather theoretical, and things like introducing Cyrillic script is something the Soviet Union would do on occupied territories (Moldova being another example). Finally, Taiwan is an interesting scenario that I know very little about. Looking through Wikipedia, the story seems complicated. What language did they speak before 1949? – Wladimir Palant Oct 25 '11 at 7:04
Ireland & Irish is a very similar sitution. However the popular narrative is that Ireland was conqured by England, so it might not really apply. All depends on how you'd define 'conqured' – Rory Oct 25 '11 at 9:45
Taiwan had been a part of China for quite awhile, so I am not sure it counts here. It'd be similar to almost any other territory of China, although at this point since the pre-Communist government located there the culture definitely changed. My wife is from Taiwan so we have many interesting conversations on this. – MichaelF Oct 25 '11 at 11:40
@ Wladimir Palant: While Mongolia was heavily influenced by the USSR, but it was not conquered by the USSR. It also was not a true part of the USSR. Mongolia is unlike ex-soviet states like Kazakhstan or Georgia which were fully part of the USSR. Mongolia can more be likened to the Easter European states or to North Korea. Very heavily influenced by, but not actually within, the USSR. – Rincewind42 Oct 25 '11 at 14:00
@MichaelF As I said in my answer, Taiwan's status is one of great political debate. The People's Republic of China and the Pan Blue Alliance parties of the Republic of China will agree with you, however a great many other people will disagree. The island has seen control by the Japanese (1895-1945), The Kingdom of Tungning (1662-1683), partial Dutch control (1544-1662), partial Kingdom of Middag (around 1540-1544). Only in the periods 1683-1895 and 1945-1949 was Taiwan part of China. However, the qualifier for an answer to the question - the language change to Mandarin was post 1949. – Rincewind42 Oct 25 '11 at 14:25

The Roman Empire, at it start under emperors Julius Caesar (44 BC) and Augustus (27 BC) had Latin as its main language, and the one spoken by its elites and leaders. At the end of it, with the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453, the prevailing language of the elites was Greek. The main change came under emperor Heraclius (610 to 641), whose reforms upon taking the throne included the introduction of Greek as the official language.

share|improve this answer
You mean Byzantine Empire, right? Given that this empire didn't include Rome but was strongly influenced by Greece (which actually was part of it) this change is less surprising. – Wladimir Palant Oct 30 '11 at 15:59
@Wladimir Palant: I mean the eastern part of the Roman Empire, which later (starting in the 16th century, a good 100 years after its fall) was commonly being called the "Byzantine Empire", yes. – Martin Sojka Oct 30 '11 at 16:13
@MartinSojka, you meant 6th century, not 16th. Regarding the rest, I agree it was Roman: upper class of Eastern Roman Empire was Roman, the law books, common with the Western part, were written in Latin, much communication was in Latin, etc. At some point, though, the official language was switch to Greek, which was the de-facto language of the majority of the population. – Michael Sep 30 '13 at 16:14
@Michael: I meant the 16th century. Specifically 1557, the year Hieronymus Wolf published his "Corpus Historiæ Byzantinæ". – Martin Sojka Oct 1 '13 at 14:04
@Michael: As Byzantine is a late 16th century word in English, it appears that Martin is correct: google.ca/#q=etymology+of+byzantine – Pieter Geerkens Jan 10 '14 at 3:59

How about the Holy Empire?

Joseph II (Holy Emperor, King of Germany etc) changed the language of the Empire to German in 1781 (Patent of Toleration), from Latin, and sometimes from local languages.

Here is the thing: there is some inherent, anachronistic assumptions in the question about the language of a country. Before XXth century without public education, without media or even general literacy you speak whatever you wanted. The country of a langue was formalized only in things like language of administrative offices, military command and such. 99% of the population didn't need to speak these more than elementary level (if at all).

share|improve this answer
Greg - Did Emperor Joseph II change the offical language of the Holy Roman Empire by decree from Latin to German, or did he change the official language of his hereditary lands such as the Kingdoms of Hungary, Croatia, Dalmatia, and Slavonia, Rama, Serbia and Cumania, Galicia and Lodomerica, Bulgaria, Bohemia, etc., the archduchy of Austria, the duchies of Styria, Carinthia, and Carniola, Milan, Brabant, Luxemburg, etc., etc., etc.? – MAGolding May 25 at 20:20
He changed it for all the lands – Greg May 26 at 8:15

Of course, it happened many times when the country was conquered, later got its freedom and returned to the previous language, that it used before that last conquest. Sometimes the language even started to change before the real freedom came, as in Czech lands in 19th century, when they started to learn they own almost dead language.

The question is formulated obviously by a person, who lives in the mono-language culture. There are others, too. In the older Europe people very often used many languages - one at home, other in the village, third in the town, two more - with traders. For example, in Dagestan even now there are villages, where 2 languages are used that are no used in any other place. Of course, they also know 2-3 wider known Dagestan languages and Russian, too. How do you count these people?

And the picture in all old Europe was as that one. There were very many languages in France, in Germany, really in any country. They were no dialects, they were really very different.

share|improve this answer
+ point for pointing out that many parts of Europe was multilingual. It is especially true fro towns which were often bi or trilingual. – Greg May 18 '15 at 12:14

All of the countries under Roman rule gradually migrated away from common Latin into their own distinctive languages. One example Is French, which is a modification and combination of Gaulish and vulgar Latin. England reverted to English as the official tongue of the court sometime in the 13th century after 300 years of french.

share|improve this answer
Could you expand this answer? From all I know most Roman provinces didn't use Latin as their main language - so they didn't exactly migrate away from it. Do you have any particular example in mind? And England's case is interesting but your answer lacks any details and/or references. – Wladimir Palant Oct 25 '11 at 19:52
@WladimirPalant Changed Post – rerun Oct 25 '11 at 20:04
I wouldn't count the Roman one. Every language on Earth changes gradually over time. – Nate Glenn Oct 25 '11 at 21:12
Even if Roman provinces used Latin they were in fact conquered by germanic tribes that mixed their languages with those in the region, forming the Romance languages. – Wilhelm Oct 26 '11 at 3:28
England reverted to english with out invasion. Latin was introduced by invasion but the derived languages are amalgamations. – rerun Oct 26 '11 at 5:30

Many countries have changed their official languages.

South Africa had two official languages (Afrikaans and English) before 1994 and now has 11.

Bolivia used to have only one official language (Spanish), but now it has 37 (yes, 37).

Rwanda went from having French and Kinyarwanda as its official languages to having English and Kinyarwanda, and now has English, French and Kinyarwanda.

In the U.S., Louisiana went from being French-speaking when it gained statehood to becoming bilingual and then in the 1920s actually banned French altogether, before trying to restore it in recent years.

You can find lots of other examples if you look around.

share|improve this answer
I wouldn't call that "changed" - that's adding more. – Oleg V. Volkov May 26 at 19:55

Although there were many languages spoken throughout the Byzantine Empire (or Eastern Roman Empire), its court and administration language switched from Latin to Greek over time.

share|improve this answer

In the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Ruthenian gradually became the main official language replacing Lithuanian. After the country became a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Ruthenian was superseded by Polish.

share|improve this answer

Ancient Aramaic was adopted as a "lingua franca" by most of the Mesopotamian states in the eleventh century. The Neo-Assyrian Empire, an Akkadian speaking culture, managed to conquer the Aramaean cities, a major center of trade, early on, which included internal exile for the Aramaean elite throughout the Assyrian empire. The meant the ruling class and clerical class Assyrians were likely to also speak Aramaic, making it easier for inter-city trade within and without the empire.

It's almost analogous to the Roman elite adopting Greek after the conquest of Greece, except commoners and nearby trade partners also adopted the conquered tongue as well, while the conquering Assyrians retained their own language as their primary tongue for a while. (And this would get weird when the Chaldeans took over, and energetically re-established Akkadian as the language of the empire.)

share|improve this answer

I believe Alaska would also count. I can't imagine there were many (if any) English speakers living there before it was sold to the United States in 1867.

share|improve this answer
I would say that the purchase fits in the 'conquered' category with a little stretching. – Oldcat Jan 9 '14 at 22:37
There would in fact be a lot of English and French speaking trappers living there. That was part of the reason the US ended up purchasing the land... – jwenting Mar 3 '14 at 9:50

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.