Languages and Your World

I recently read a post asking if you had ever ditched “Common” as a language from your campaign setting, and how it went?

Language is a complex issue, and not all of us have the advantage of having studied linguistic anthropology in any degree. Using “Common” has been a long-standing means of narrative sleight-of-hand to not have to constantly rely upon a translator in day-to-day activities that your player characters have to undertake.

Ask yourself this: how frequently do you have to interact with foreign languages on a daily basis, and how do you deal with that?

Most of us do not. Those who do, find that things function much easier if they learn the other language they are having to interact with on a regular basis.

“But learning another language is hard!”

Except it really isn’t. Monolingual English speakers in the United States are in the global minority. You may also be surprised that there is no singular spoken English language, but rather a whole contingent of English dialects, some which you may be able to easily understand, and others not so much.

Most people in the world are multilingual. The most significant factor is exposure.

Take myself, for example. My primary language is English (dialects are “Ozarkian” and “American Broadcast English”). I studied German for years (don’t ask what dialect specifically, but from what I understand it would have been the primary dialect of Berlin). I never actively used it though. I was not using it conversationally, nor was I trying to read German texts. I can still pronounce most German words, and can even still pick up the meaning of spoken or written German on occasion, but I never became fluent. After years of not using it at all, I am still effectively monolingual. Had I actually been exposed to it by, say, spending a few months in Germany, Austria, or another German speaking area, I would have more than likely at least become conversationally fluent.

Why should your game be any different? You don’t need to go overly complex and crunchy with it. But you should ditch Common. Why? Because it is rooted in Imperialism/Colonialism. The notion of a “common” trade language is something that has been pushed by certain major world powers for a long time. Taking away another culture’s language is key to destruction of that culture. This is how languages “die”, and how even if the populace is not physically wiped out, their descendants only have fragments of their once rich culture left. Now, if Imperialism/Colonialism is a major theme in your setting, having the “common” tongue be that of the corrupt empire trying to destroy everything in its path would be fitting, but to fit that narrative, if your protagonists are fighting that system, would they really want to run around using the language of their oppressors?

“But it’s just a game!”

Then why signify what language your characters are speaking in at all? If you feel you need a narrative solution, maybe create some form of “universal translator”. Science Fiction stories have been doing that for the better part of a century, at least. Look at what Star Trek or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy did. Don’t look at what Star Wars did, because it basically used the Common short-cut.

For me, differing languages and dialects make for a much more immersive and interesting world. Not everyone agrees, and I get that. Personally, I find settings that rely on Common to be uninspired at best, and upholding concepts of Imperialism/Colonialism at worst.

How to make it work in your setting:

First option – “Universal Translator”. As mentioned above, this is found in science fiction quite frequently, but can also work just as well in your magical fantasy setting. Does the system you are using not have a spell that does the same, or is that spell prohibitively high level? Create a spell or modify an existing one. Make it a low-cost or zero-cost cantrip, and maybe limit it somehow to languages .

Second option – If your player characters are globe-trotting adventurers, just let them know a lot of different languages. Even looking at European history alone, you can find accounts of scholars and travelers knowing over a dozen languages. Player characters in most TTRPGs are supposed to be “special”. They aren’t just some kid who grew up worm-farming before picking up a rusty sword and going to fight some local bandits. Or maybe they are, but once they move on from the hills and valleys they grew up in, they are going to learn a few things, including some expanded language skills.

Third option – If the game you are playing has skills, make languages low-cost skills, or even “two-for-one”, as in for every skill point into “language”, the character gets proficiency in two additional languages beyond their background language(s). I would even suggest that you may being multilingual the default, with all characters having two background languages that they are fluent in.

Fourth option – Go deep. Create language trees with different dialect branches. Really map out what these languages are, how the dialects developed, and what affect isolation (or lack thereof) has had on the development of dialect.

“I notice you use ‘language’ and ‘dialect’ separately. Why is that?”

Think of them as broad and narrow terms. For instance, English is considered a Germanic language, as it originated as a dialect of what could be dubbed Old German. Old English still followed much of the syntactical and structural rules as its German roots. Over time (and invasions), English evolved to absorb elements of Norman French (which has similarities to Latin and is the actual basis for a lot of those “Latin” legal phrases), and just kept on using “loan” words, resulting in the contemporary language family of English. But if you really dig into it, the bones of German are still there.

As most of you are aware, there is no singular English language. There is English as spoken by high society Londoners; English as spoken like New Yorkers; English as spoken by rural Minnesotans; English as spoken by Scots; English as spoken by Southern Californians; English as spoken by those in Kolkata; and more! All of these are examples of English dialects. African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is also a dialect of English. All of these dialects are also COMPLETELY VALID dialects, with their own internal rules and structures.

You know what? All of that diversity of even a single so-called language is amazing. Language is morphic and ever evolving. Reducing that experience in your TTRPG setting down to “Common” is reductive, and honestly, boring.

“But I don’t want my players to have to dedicate all that space to what languages they know!”

Do you make them keep track of equipment? The reason why some groups shy away from details like this is because they want to play hack’n’slash, and that’s okay. I’ve had plenty of fun in games that hand-waved a lot of detailed elements. You may not want an immersive game. You may prefer to just have everyone walking around speaking your iteration of English (or Spanish, or German, or Mandarin, etc.).

“How detailed do I need to get?”

As detailed as you want, but do not feel like you need to give the dedication to the issue the same degree of attention as Tolkien, creating entire spoken and written languages for your fictional world. That’s cool and all, but not everyone has the time or the extensive academic knowledge of linguistics that Tolkien did (his academic focus was language and literature, after all). Just try and avoid linking your languages to cultural stereotypes.

“This seems too complicated.”

Then don’t use it. A lot of fictional narratives just don’t even pay any attention to language, unless it specifically sets the scene. For instance, if your PCs are in a room with some NPCs, and those NPCs make comments to one another in Esperanto. Well, does one of the PCs happen to know Esperanto? Your game may not ever go outside of a small area. It may entirely take place in a single skyscraper or banquet hall. There are a lot of different games that can be played, and different languages don’t always need to be a feature. If you are going for an open-world sandbox setting though, ditch Common. It’s a junk concept.

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