There’s a great scene in Lost in Translation (albeit an apparently difficult one to find on Youtube) where Bill Murray’s character finishes delivering a line in a commercial, only to be subjected to a rapid-fire, very intense stream of commentary (in Japanese) from the director.
Which is translated as "He wants you to turn, look in camera. Ok?”
And Bill, wonderful, unflappable Bill (Who did such an amazing job of portraying a weary actor in that movie I was convinced it would be his last role ever, and the comedic idol was going to die…this movie came out in ’03) asks “Is that all he said”
The concept of language in Dungeons and Dragons suffers from the same translational problems. Specifically, DMs and players tend to skim over questions of communication and assume that everyone understands everyone else all of the time. While this is certainly convenient for gameplay purposes, and avoids some of the problems that not handwaving linguistic differences away creates, I find it deeply dissatisfying.
My sudden fascination with the Babel Piscean nature of DnD’s approach to language may have been spurred by my living in New Mexico. While most of the hispanic individuals and New Mexico natives I’ve met are bilingual, very few of the transplants (like myself) are. That means I hear a lot of conversations which are utterly opaque, and see products on the shelf whose name and provenance are mysteries. I also had the opportunity, during my masters program, to meet and adopt as a sister a young woman who speaks…well, I never actually nailed down how many languages she spoke. But she’s from India and her keyboard is in Arabic, so already I’m looking like a schlub.
My point is, we live in a world with a single dominant race (from the fantasy perspective), a piddling handful of continents…and a shit-ton of different languages; not to mention sub-languages, dialects, accents, and slang terms. If credulity is stretched by the assumption that the Dwarves of the ancient Mountain Citadel would be speaking Common in a fashion perfectly and easily intelligible by the humble, gator-skinning Men of the Swamp…then credulity is sundered by the assumption that those same Dwarves would conveniently decorate their own home with Common signs, and chat with each other in Common for the sake of any Men who happened to be around. If you’re an Orc living on the slopes of the Mountain Citadel, far from the Swamp of Man, are you going to supplement your mastery of Orcish with Common, or maybe pick up the language that the Dwarves, your mortal enemies, actually speak when there aren’t any Men around? Seems like the latter would be a hell of a lot more useful for your daily routine of stabbing bearded short dudes with crude wooden spears.
And if the concept is so easy, an Orc can grasp it…
Then there’s the question of national identity. Another of my friends in grad school was from Peru; his girlfriend, also from Peru. They were attending different schools in the U.S. and did the long-distance Skype call thing, and when they did, they spoke to each other in Spanish. Both individuals are fluent in English; hell, they were more articulate than a significant number of the other, American students in the program. But why speak English when you’re talking to someone who knows your real tongue, your home tongue?
Expanded more fully, why would the Race of Man have a common tongue? We’re not doing so hot getting along with one another in the absence of other races, and while we might all cozy up together if we just shook hands and agreed to only speak Norwegian, it hasn’t happened yet and doesn’t seem likely to. How would one nation get the others to agree that their language should be the basis, unless that nation has already subjugated the others? We saw how well Esperanto did.
So, since I’m back in the saddle and world-building, I decided to experiment with a method of bringing more reality to communication. I wanted to achieve a couple of goals with my revamp of the language system:
- Have languages be representative of the peoples and cultures I worked so hard to build into the campaign world
- Create a perception of player choice in language selection
- Make the aforementioned choice consequential from both mechanical and roleplaying perspectives
- Devise a system that encouraged players to consider the language they use in a conversation as carefully as they consider the power they use in a fight
Now, even I recognize that the last item is ambitious, but I think I’ve definitely made progress. I’m going to split this system up over multiple posts, so to start I’ll just list a few languages in the campaign world. Note that I did acknowledge three languages as quasi-Common; within their nation they represent the primary tongue for expression, though regional and racial variations still exist.
- High-Elven: The language mastered by all eladric bloodlines in the Silken Kingdoms, as well as most of their constructs. Also similar enough to Elven that knowing one lets you more or less understand the other, and communicate with people who only know Elven.
- Dwarven: The language of the Tran Empire, spoken by dwarves, orcs, and goblins. Also learned by members of the other races who wish to trade extensively with the dwarves, both because it allows one to communicate with fully 5 races (dwarves, orcs, goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears) and because dwarves, being dicks a lot of the time, won’t necessarily learn your language.
- Draconic: Ancient language of the dragons, spoken in the Ruby Caliphate; fluently by their Lesser (Dragonborn) and Shirrel (Kobold) servants. Spoken far less fluently by the Krask (Lizardmen) because krask aren’t really bred for their intelligence. A deeply magical tongue, Draconic stirs the hearts of warm- and cold-blooded reptiles alike.
That last bit is significant, as I’ll get to when I talk about the mechanics of the languages. I wanted to return to the feeling in Lord of the Rings (specifically, the movies) when Gandalf utters the Black Speech of Mordor to break up an argument about the fate of the Ring. I wanted some languages to be old and mighty, and other languages to be harsh and grating, and still other languages to be underused, and to have each type mean something for a player who learns to speak it.
That’s all for this post, then! It’s an idea of where I was going with the linguistic changes I wanted for Tinderbox…and presumably, any game I run in the future.