One of the literary pillars of fantasy RPG gaming is the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Probably because Tolkien was a linguist, language plays a large role in the tale. Just about every culture gets at least one, half of which you can find dictionaries for today.
All those different tongues didn’t just give Tolkien an excuse to write elvish poetry. Their existence and divergence told the story of Middle Earth. Their musicality or harshness gave character both to the culture and to those who chose to speak them. Gandalf seemed all the more wise when he seemed to know every language ever spoken, and the threat from Mordor seemed even more ominous when Gandalf wouldn’t even speak aloud the native words written in its script. Even the Hobbits’ cheerful lack of a language in preference of just speaking whatever the closest other people spoke was evocative.
Similarly, language has long been a part of role playing games. Unfortunately, it tends to be relegated to a mostly unused list on the character sheet. This is a shame, however, because we’re ignoring a tool that can be just as useful to us as it was to Mr. Tolkien.
Today alone, I’ve heard several languages in news casts. I hear another just about every time I stop into our local Chinese restaurant. Even within a couple miles of my home, I am exposed to a variety of languages.
Granted, fantasy heroes probably don’t have international news casts, but any large city they go to would have immigrant populations. What if the characters live in an isolated area where travel is difficult? They might be less likely to encounter immigrants in that case, but they’re more likely to encounter divergent dialects among the isolated population.
Thus, even in their native land, a fantasy character is likely to encounter a variety of tongues. On top of that, however, our heroes tend to travel a lot more widely than I do, much to my regret. This raises their chances of exposure even more.
How many languages are in the Star Wars movies? Every species seems to have their own, and everybody seems to be multilingual. Either that, or they can read the subtitles too. How about Star Trek? They’ve got the giant cheat of the Universal Translator to keep the plot moving at television speed, but I still know people who own a dictionary of Klingon.
Language might be less of a barrier in a futuristic game, but it can still provide great color. How often do the alien species in your favorite media take a break from speaking English to swear in their own tongue? Also, the PCs’ dependence on their Universal Translator or Linguasoft is just begging to be exploited for the story.
Uses of Language
The media that often inspires our games uses languages frequently. That’s all well and good. How can we fit it into our games?
Speaking the same language as a particular group goes a long way toward being included in that group. This is something you learn quickly when traveling. People are likely to look better upon you if you at least make an attempt to speak the local language. Similarly, not speaking it can very much result in exclusion.
This could be as simple as getting a discount with the foreign merchant if you speak his language. Other uses could be to give bonuses on other interactions with the group. It could also be as portentous as the use of a shibboleth in the way that gave the word its current meaning: to decide who lives and dies.
In both our recent Swords and Sorcery campaign, and our current Pathfinder one, we’re operating in a very foreign environment. The locals speak a dialect that very few others know, which has made for very interesting attempts at communication. It was exactly this situation that inspired Charlie’s awesome Mistranslator.
It makes for a whole new kind of puzzle to figure out how to communicate without a common language. It ends up being something like trying to play charades in character. I guarantee amusement for all.
Ever heard two doctors talk to each other, and realize you didn’t understand half of what they just said? It would probably be almost as bad if you followed me to work. “Yeah, that routine’s a kludge full of hard coded magic numbers, and he completely ignored the machine’s endianness. They still want to send the OFP through TRR.”
Any specialized group is going to develop its own jargon. A classic example would thieve’s cant, regrettably missing from D&D since 3E. However, professions as varied as butchers, bricklayers, and knife sharpeners have been known to develop their own cants. The same is true of socioeconomic or ethnic subgroups.
Sub Rosa Communication
People have also long used seemingly innocuous things to convey information. For instance, the language of flowers. While someone listening to a cant might not understand the conversation, here they might not even know communication is taking place.
It would be an interesting challenge to try and figure out how the opponents are conveying their information. This could also be a case of unintended consequences. The players could get very unexpected reactions, for example, if they were unintentionally communicating happiness while attending a powerful person’s funeral.
Languages can be a great way to make characters or groups stand out. Much like an accent, you can use made up words as a touchstone. You can even use word combinations or pronunciations within a single language to differentiate groups (eh, innit, g’day).
Go Forth and Discourse
If you get nothing else out of this post, I hope you’ll at least pay better attention to how your characters speak. It was sort of a revelation to me when I realized how much a shorthand language quirks could be for character or world history. So use more languages, if only so more of us can use that neglected corner of the character sheet!
Do you have ideas on how to use language in a game? Do you have a great example? Did you get a crazy response from the Mistranslator? Have you ever had the unaccountable urge to shout ootini!? Let us know in the comments!