Thursday, September 22, 2022

RPG Linguistics

In many editions of D&D, everyone learns a handful of languages at character creation, and then either never thinks about them again or never has the one they need. I propose an alternative, with 5e as a base.

Characters learn fewer languages.

Everyone knows common. There are no racial languages. Only learn a second language if your background calls for it.

Each language satisfies a narrative function.

Common—common is great. Everyone knows common unless there's something strange happening. Don't think about it.

Ancient—dead civilizations speak and write this language. You might know it if you're a treasure hunter, a time traveler, or a classics major.

Ceremonial—this language is a secret for religious or magical reasons, like Druidic or Hebrew. From a world-building perspective, I'd limit myself to one of these per setting, even if that requires some contortion.

Underworld—this language is a secret for reasons of discretion, like Polari or rhyming slang. Dialects change, but learning on-the-fly is built-in to its rhythms. Written, this is the ability to read hobo signs, notice graffiti, etc.

Technical—this is how experts in a field talk about stuff. Even if you're a published author on the topic of applied divination, you can still muddle through someone's notes on optimal well-drilling or drop some convincing techno-babble.

Otherworldly—aliens and old Gods speak this. (Angels, devils, and other outsiders speak common: they want you to understand them.)

Foreign—someday you will find yourself somewhere where they only speak French. Until then, it's a social signifier of a misspent education, a party trick or a bit of flavor.


  1. Languages centered on function is a good places to start. I particularly like "Technical" as an option.

    Where I tend to stumble the most is simply forgetting to integrate language into my adventures. There's always so much stuff higher up on the priority list that it doesn't occur to me to include until the players are deep in conversation with a mud monster who really doesn't have any reason to speak common. :P

  2. In certain settings, I could see Animal being a language. Or even just the language of the Earth, or the language of the World.

    Earth would be the most versatile: animals, plants, stones, fire, wind and water

    1. I was just thinking this the other day, after running across this blog post:
      I think I wouldn't give it as a starting language, but "speak to animals" makes sense for a druid (or another animal), and possibly "speak with rocks" or something could be magical, but I might prefer to fold that into "otherworldly" unless it's a spell or special ability.

  3. Hah. I've recently been thinking along very parallel lines:

    About a year ago I came up with a sort of elaborate listing of languages and cants:

    Eventually incorporating the whole business into a GLOG hack. While I did kind of enjoy using different languages as a means to feed the players clues or background about different aspects of the dungeon and setting, I got the impression it was a little much, and people weren't routinely looking for info and clues their languages could help glean.

    So, in an upcoming game I'm looking into a simpler, more abstracted system, very much along the lines of what you're proposing. I'm retaining the implication that there *are* many different languages out there, and each of the languages they know is a whole group of thematically related languages they've picked up due to their background.

    Categories I was using were:
    * Trade Tongue - Common. Many folks know it, but using it exclusively marks you as an outsider.
    * Local languages - Any languages and cants common to the area the campaign will mostly take place. You fit in.
    * Outland Languages - You don't know all foreign languages, but through travel or whatever you have picked up any non-local languages relevant to the adventures.
    * Ancient - Any historic texts and inscriptions.
    * Otherworldly - Any beings not from this plane of existence.
    * Wild Tongue - Secret druidic language, also fey, intelligent plants, spirits of the natural and dream world, and one type of non-intelligent animal of your choosing.

    It might not be a perfect verisimilitude modeling of reality, but seemed like it