Language in RPG Worlds

Posted by on April 25, 2011
"Writing on the Pont de l'Alma next to the scene of Princess Diana's death" by on Flickr

"Writing on the Pont de l'Alma next to the scene of Princess Diana's death" by on Flickr

Been listening to Merlyn Bragg’s audiobook The Adventures of English, which traces the history of the English language starting from its earliest days in England.

Which sparked some ideas about languages in role-playing games. D&D-style worlds usually have half a dozen languages: a Common or Basic tongue that’s known by 99% of civilized people, a few species-specific languages, and maybe a few religious or otherwise esoteric languages (equivalent to Latin and Ancient Greek in our world).

But Bragg makes it clear that languages must constantly fight for their lives. Every unique language in existence must have at least one reason for existing right now that makes it more valuable than a common language.

After the Norman Invasion, French became the national language of England for centuries. It survived because the English resented French. English was the language of the English people, which survived through spite and adaptability. Instead of being an ornery holdover from the past, it absorbed large amounts of French to become an even stronger language, creating a vocabulary for similar concepts with different shades of meaning.

Applied to role-playing worlds, this has some interesting possibilities.

In some worlds, races are widely separated by physical distance; dwarves still speak Dwarvish and elves Elvish because those races keep to themselves, and rarely need to speak Common. In that case, adventurers encountering dwarven or elven civilizations will be unable to speak with nearly everybody. Imagine your party having to rely on a translator, and wondering just how accurate the translator is.

Also, any writing left behind by dwarves or elves will invariably be written in Dwarvish or Elvish.

But let’s look at tighter-knit civilizations. Why do dwarves speak Dwarvish? What about Dwarvish has allowed it to fight off Common? Are there vocal proponents of Dwarvish, campaigning to keep it alive? Does it have special uses?

Let’s look at D&D 4th edition; every single one of its languages is a racial language (besides Common, the special case):

  • Common
  • Deep Speech
  • Draconic
  • Dwarven
  • Elven
  • Giant
  • Goblin
  • Primordial
  • Supernal
  • Abyssal

This assumes a world in which each primary race lives mostly alone amongst its own kind. Every language choice can be defended; giants probably aren’t going to learn a new language. But it’s a rather dull idea.

Imagine a world in which primordials, gods, angels, and devils all speak variations on the same language–they were all created at roughly the same time, anyway–but the devils developed Abyssal as a magical tongue with strange properties. A curse spoken in Abyssal actually works–but its words and grammar are closely guarded by the devils.

Or what if the Primordial language is woven into the world itself, so that speaking sentences in Primordial shifts the world to your whim? Of course, doing so draws the attention of the Primordials themselves.

Where is the language of scholars? An ancient, dead language provides great adventure hooks, especially if its meaning is not entirely understood. Even better if it’s used for prophecies or clues to a treasure.

My, the possibilities.

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