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.