Thursday, October 28, 2010

Lockout: The Problem With Language Part 1- Suntory Time

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.


  1. On the issue of language, I abhor the existence of the name, "Common". In my game world, any common tongue is given the name of the geo-political body that introduced it. So it's Nerathian, or Latin, or whatever.


  2. I support the actual game of Tinderbox I'd love to refer to each protocommon by another name, since the even the eladrin would probably feel ridiculous speaking a language whose name is "Like our ancestors, but more good."

    Unfortunately, I still haven't seen great adoption of the Caliphate races being renamed, even in applications. That's what held me off from renaming the goblin races, though again I think that it's illogical for them to follow their current naming convention in any organic society-"Okay, we're gonna call the small ones this thing. Then the bigger ones a prefix on this thing...cause in our language that means bigger. And then we'll name the really big such a fashion that while everyone will expect the name (which is the combination of two animal names) to in some way reflect on the creature's general appearance, we're really just talking about their nose."

    I'm glad you brought up Latin too, Atli, as that is a real-world example of a language whose use has permeated vast areas of the globe. The only example I was really holding onto was English, but our retroactive forced adoption of that language feels like it rests on military might that I can't see the Men of most campaigns maintaining.

  3. There's also the possibility that any linguistic binder between societies is a mercantile one, or a learned one. Language dominance most typically comes from military conquest, but it's possible a dominant mercantile force could exist that forced local societal units to learn its language to trade fully with it (I'm thinking of the Red Wizards of Thay here, from Forgotten Realms, or even the LE wizards from Melnibone).

    Similarly, there could be some linguistic body that provided advanced access to education -- perhaps dragon scholars or something of the sort wandered the land instructing creatures in some forms of magic.

    As I write this, it sounds like a stretch to me, especially in a military-dominated land, but I hope you take my point.

  4. I do take your point, and that's another sensible-sounding way to give a Common-esque language to a game world; especially one that had a history of colonialism from a power which reached an early level of advancement as you say.

    But you're also right to point out that it's not quite the fit here, less because of the merchant question, but more because of the contemporary nature of the three nations. The dragons are ancient, but I'm allowing that they took time to reach the peak of their advancement (and are really in a sort of decline now, and for the last several thousand years, as the progenitors of the race grow old and disinterested in breeding). By the time they were setting about to build a civilization, the elves were hard at work destroying their homeland in the pursuit of magic, and the dwarves were just meeting the goblins underground.

    Thus, fast-forward a few hundred years, and the various civilizations are bumping into each other at roughly equivalent levels of advancement and power. The elves have better magic, the dwarves have bigger armies, and the Lesser are, well, bigger. Thus no one rolls over the other, and much like Three Kingdoms-China (this campaign is very Eastern-inspired) none can really profitably try to conquer the other without becoming an easy target for the third. Similarly, they can't forge an alliance with the third to attack the second one, because it's almost always in the interests of the ally to abandon the conflict mid-stream and switch sides, then mop up both nations.

    Plus, each race has their own individual problems that keep them somewhat insular (and thus using their own national language instead of that of a nation they trade with): The Silken Kingdom is still focused on research foremost, and have lots of internal problems to juggle with volatile races like tieflings and genasi; the dwarves are still at war with two powerful insurgent forces on their own lands, and have all of the operational challenges associated with having a far-flung empire like that of late Rome, where the distances are less horizontal and more vertical (the seat of their power is subterranean, and they don't have roads on the surface); the dragons, of course, are dragons...their nation is really a collection of city states ruled by dragons, with all the fragile alliances and backstabbing one would expect.

    So each civilization has an impetus to learn the language of the other cultures in order to trade for their advancements and resources, but not so much of an inducement that they adopt that language over their own. And each civilization offers enough to the others that none appear as the clear "We should get with this guy" culture.