In the book Always Coming Home, by Ursula K. Le Guin, the author created the future Kesh language and Aiha alphabet. Does anyone with an anthropological or etymological background and experience with this book have any idea how modern languages would evolve into this? Could it just be English + 5000 years, or does it seem like there's other languages that got mixed in?

From the back of the book it is stated that their written language and spoken are completely separate things and are not interchangeable which is quite a shift from modern English, but it seems like they may be many thousands of years in the future which would allow for such drastic changes. Some words such as "kailikú" for "quail" have the similar hard /k/ and "sleep" is translated to "lahe" which seems to be pronounced similarly to "lay". These seem to be fairly rare and most words have no obvious connection or similar pronunciations.

Aiha alphabet

2 Answers 2


5000 years is a really long time for linguistic evolution, and after such a long time little resemblance between the original and the final outcome is left. So almost anything is a plausible outcome.

The feature "written language and spoken are completely separate things and are not interchangeable" has a nice scientific name alloglottography and it was quite common in the Ancient Near East. I wonder how it can survive in a society Ursula LeGuinn describes for the Kesh people because it is definitely harder to maintain than the knowledge of a simple alphabetic writing of the spoken vernacular.

The alphabet looks like a new invention but it shows some superficial similarities to Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics and may have evolved from them. Or it was just reinvented at some point of time after a period of illiteracy.

  • Thanks for introducing me to the word alloglottography, some interesting future readings on that concept. My understanding of their society for how the written language survived seems to be that it was an important system for documentation of procedures and traditions, while the spoken language was used for day to day purposes. I suppose in that way its like current mathematical notation for us, we keep it around for the sciences and math, but has next to no use in spoken language.
    – CorbinA
    Commented Mar 13, 2021 at 20:32
  • Could it be based on shorthand perhaps? Seems there's similarities to Gregg and Pitman
    – CorbinA
    Commented Mar 15, 2021 at 16:49
  • 1
    Pitmann's shorthand was a source of inspiration to the Canadian Aboriginal Sylabics (more in the linked Wikipedia article)
    – Sir Cornflakes
    Commented Mar 15, 2021 at 17:23

It's also worth noting that we currently have no attested examples of a language evolving over 5,000 years. We have attestations of languages from 5,000 years ago (that's right about when writing was first invented), but none of those languages have living descendants. We also have reconstructions of how the ancestors of English (and many other languages) might have looked 5,000 years ago, but these are far from certain. Five millennia is an incredibly long time.

So as Sir Cornflakes says, basically anything is plausible after such a long span of time. Certainly, such a distant descendant of English wouldn't be expected to have much in common with it. We might see similarities in some of the basic vocabulary (our word for "water" has changed remarkably little from Proto-Indo-European), or in the patterns of the grammar (a lot of our question words start the same way, just like they did in PIE, even if that starting sound has changed quite a bit), but really there's no feature of language that I would be surprised to see change over such a timespan.

  • 1
    I guess Coptic comes close to that timeline because it lost its status as a living language as late as in the 19th century CE.
    – Sir Cornflakes
    Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 7:46

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