I remember reading a story (I thought from Asimov) about a language evolving so rapidly that a foreigner who was trying to write a grammar could not keep the pace. Anybody knows it?

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    Hi, welcome to the site. In roughly which year did you read this story, and when do you think it might've been published? Also, did you read it in an anthology, a magazine, or online? Mar 31, 2022 at 21:57
  • Honorable mention for "The Persistence of Vision" by John Varley.
    – Spencer
    Apr 1, 2022 at 11:44
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    Thank you so much! I have been having this question on the back of my mind for years, then occasionally stepped into this site and decided it is worth a try. Amazing! Apr 2, 2022 at 6:27
  • You're welcome!
    – user14111
    Apr 2, 2022 at 8:00

1 Answer 1


"Shall We Have a Little Talk?", a novelette by Robert Sheckley, first published in Galaxy Magazine, October 1965, available at the Internet Archive. You may have read it in one of these compilations.

He could learn this language, of course.

But by the time he had learned it, what would it have changed into?

Jackson sighed and rubbed his face wearily. In a sense it was inevitable. All languages change. But on Earth and the few dozen worlds she had contacted, the languages changed with relative slowness.

On Na, the rate of change was faster. Quite a bit faster.

The Na language changed like fashions change on Earth, only faster. It changed like prices change or like the weather changes. It changed endlessly and incessantly, in accordance with unknown rules and invisible principles. It changed its form like an avalanche changes its shape. Compared with it, English was like a glacier.

The Na language was, truly and monstrously, a simulacrum of Heraclitus’s river.

You cannot step into the same river twice, said Heraclitus: for other waters are forever flowing on.

Concerning the language of Na, this was simply and literally true.

The story was reviewed on the linguistics blog Tenser, said the Tensor.

  • Mun? Mun mun mun mun! (translation: yes, that was a great story). Dunno if there are statistics on authors, but I'd bet Sheckley is at least 10% of them. Also, I might point out that the reason an outsider was trying to compile a grammar, his nation was trying to conquer them and force them to sign a peace-treaty, in their native-language. Which was problematic.
    – John C
    Apr 3, 2022 at 16:23

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