Common and racial tongues in D&D

D&D has always had an odd approach to languages. While J. R. R. Tolkien can probably be blamed for the normalizing of racial languages in the fantasy setting, D&D never limited itself to that approach – taken as a whole, the classic D&D approach to language was…

…it was weird.

There were specifically nations, separate cultures with separate histories… but no languages associated with those – instead we had:

Racial Languages: Elf, Dwarf, Orcish, etc
Profession Languages: Druidic
Sub Languages: Thieves Cant was a form of coded language that required speaking a base language
Alignment Languages: Yeah, you could speak Lawful Good. The premise was that alignments were real cosmic forces, their were cults built around them, and hence their were cults who had their own languages to communicate in secret (which every adventurer knows one and only one).
Default language: Common, Trade Tongue… like there’s just a language made to be lingua franca, the Esperanto of these fantasy worlds… only it actually is wide spread.

I’m not going to touch on the Sub Languages or Alignment Tongues, but I did want to address what I consider the weirdest parts: Common tongue and racial tongues.

Between universal languages and cross compatible currencies – the distinctions between nations were usually alignment, and aesthetic. That kind of functioned for simply dungeon crawls, but didn’t lend itself well to world building or lore creation – because these don’t hold up to how language works in any shape or form – I mean, when was the last time you spoke “Human”?

These days there’s an effort to mix in cultural languages etc, but it always seems to fall back on depending on Common… the weirdest language. This is a real shame since it essentially locks the value of languages behind specialist scenarios, and eliminates opportunities like needing translators, confusion or ambiguity in translations, culture shock in language, etc.

Wait, Common is a problem?

Yeah, it kind of sucks both in a world building perspective and a missed opportunity cost. Plus it gives any given fantasy world a distinct 80s USA tv feel to it – where sure there’s huge cultural difference between regions, but everyone conforms close enough to a singular language to an extent everyone can understand it, with a few characters doing silly voices or random (often fictional) accents.

This is often seen as beneficial simplification – but often leads to a lot of missed opportunities. After all, as a DM your job is convey information to players and present them with interesting challenges and stories they can get invested in.

It does, however, create the impression of an interconnected world where there is some sort of means of communication to ensure everyone’s linguistic needs are covered in one language, which never evolves. So it’s not even a world where we have Reddit… just one Subreddit that we all subscribe to… where we never use terms like “yeet!” and “cringe” then yeet them for being cringe.

Because that’s how real world languages developed, people experimented and continued to evolve it through general consensus on words, structures and trends that mean their cultural values are reflected in their language and things connected to it – like talking with your hands.

Because of the Common tongue being omnipresent in the Forgotten Realms, there is no in universe group we can make this joke about. This means nerds can’t “well actually” it, so that’s good, but also means that there’s not the same communicative diversity in a massive fantasy world as there about a third of Europe. Cormyr has weird conventions about showing your status through specific items of clothing, and everyone has “accents” but nobody really communicates that differently.

So what are some approaches you can take to “Common”? And for that matter any broad language like “Elven”, etc.

Case study: Latin

While it came to be the foundation of many of the languages across south-western Europe, Latin was not the first language of the vast majority people within the early Roman Empire1 McDonald, Katherine; The Languages of the Roman Empire (History Today, Volume 67 Issue 11 November 2017) – famously the reason that we know for that Julius Caeser almost certainly did not say “Et tu Brut” as the Bard suggested is because Julius’s first language and the one he used for day-to-day was Greek (a popular choice at the time)… and because being stabbed a bunch of times doesn’t make someone particularly talkative.

Latin’s primary role in the Roman Empire was not casual conversation, but the documenting laws, and formal proclamations. This had multiple aspects that saw its continued use for centuries:

  1. By being a specific language for laws and proclamations, it eliminated the need to translate them across area of the empire – officials, judges, priests etc in all areas simply learned Latin and passed the information on to others.
  2. This had the side effect of giving people who did learn Latin greater power and importance in society – allowing it to be used to silo off professions and information from the unwashed masses and enforce elitism in society and professions – keeping the rich, rich.
  3. Being a designated language for formality meant that it was relatively resistant to change over time – colloquialisms, slang, regional preferences, etc all took place in people’s conversational languages while everyone maintained an effort to keep Latin “correct” – to the extent places with languages clearly based in Latin (French, Spanish and even Italian) kept teaching Latin separately.

All of this meant that throughout the Roman Empire, Latin continued to be used not simply for official work but in communications and then later (once the printing press was received) in publication. It was the means of reaching a wide audience of educated people people, who’d expected important works to be written in it.

Compositions by Blasio Ammon, a 16th century Catholic friar Source: WikiCommons

Proposal: Make Common and Racial tongues like Latin

So in a fantasy world… who might speak your fantasy equivalent of Latin (“Common”)?

  • Nobles, aristocrats, senators… people who make laws
  • Lawyers, advisors, judges… people who comment on laws and their impact
  • Scholars and academics… people who learn about all kinds of stuff
  • Merchants, navigators, etc… people who travel and need to understand proclamations

Who wouldn’t speak Common?

  • Guards, soldiers, crews, and other people who depend on taking orders
  • Peasants, farmers, tradespeople, and those who don’t expect much to change
  • Fops, dandies, and people who have others to inform them

So… why would adventurers know it, how would it benefit them and what would the limitations be?

Most obviously, if adventurers are people who accept quests, and travel, it means they’ll be able to understand proclamations such as bounties, rewards, notices of danger, etc and also be able to understand the general laws, etc.

Other benefits include that, even if they are reliant on local translators for the day to day – they still have a way to communicate with the elite who are in charge of things relevant to them such as nobles, judges, etc and can not just understand the proclamations but reasonably engage in them.

(Of course, adventurers from more humble backgrounds may struggle to maintain the expected level of correctness and formality with the language when dealing with societal elites – and some regular NPCs will have understandings relevant to their business.)

The timelessness quality of it would also mean that it can provide interesting clues in ancient books, ruins, tablets found in loot hoards etc that might not be immediately obvious the conventional looter/visitor – thus giving them a reason why they’re the special one who picked up on this ancient plot hook.

They would, however still need to rely on either knowing the regional/cultural languages or hiring a translator for many of the day-to-day, including hiring the NPCs who guide them to a location, do their shopping for them or even (if the dice or the plot demand it) find the plothook writings they cannot decipher for themselves.

Case study: Chinese

As anyone who paid attention while watching the wuxia film Hero (2002), the Chinese language has an interesting history where the first emperor essentially enforced (with eager brutality) one written language upon all the groups within his empire – and those groups adapted it to their spoken language. Fast forward to today, and the same alphabet is still in place and used by various dialects of Chinese – albeit in the Traditional and Modern formats.

In a sense, really Chinese doesn’t exist as a spoken language – it’s an agreed upon system of writing used by multiple languages: Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, etc. The government of mainland China may not approve of this statement though, so please don’t share it with them.

This functions partially because it, unlike European languages, uses a conceptual rather than phonetic alphabet – letters represent concepts and ideas, and the speakers applied the sounds they felt best matched it. This helped preserve the forms in some ways, but can lead to some terms being lost to time as they are made of multiple concepts mashed together, with an assumption a speaker of the day could work them out through context.

Anecdotally, I have a first hand story from a Malaysian Chinese friend that they once had a gathering with four Chinese speakers, who had been communicating in writing for months – who all had to speak English because while they spoke five forms of Chinese between them, there was no other lingua franc for speaking.

Proposal: Make Common like Chinese

So imagine you’ve got your fantasy world, and you’ve got dozens of languages that have all just decided to use the same alphabet and writing format. People of varying nations can read each others signs, but the further they get from home the harder it is for them to make themselves understood in speech.

Now you can still include your handouts with written text etc, provide your riddles carved on walls but also create situations where parties need translators or guides to explain the local custom to them in a conversation, rather than a DM monologue.

You can also convey the age of the writing and create tension through the uncertainty of what people mean (eg “There is a collection of symbols that follow, to you they do not parse but you can determine they mean something about lightning, magic, red stones, fire and rebirth”.)

After all, just because everyone can read at a functional level doesn’t mean everyone is a historian, reads at an academic level, etc. This can create a situation where some understanding is possible, but were simple translation magic cannot simply resolve the matter. Preventing the easy bypass and requiring the party to find a way to engage with the puzzle and be the first ones to solve it through doing the work to understand exactly what the esoteric combination means.

If you want to keep it as a spoken tongue, simply make variants so that you can speak normally with people who speak Common (Waterdavian) and can have penpal who speaks Common (Cormyrian) but won’t be able to have quick chats with them due to the gaps in the spoken tongues… and you might not even realize it until you meet them in person.

Also, it would provide amazing epic fail results when attempting to translate from one language to another, without suitable expertise.

Proposal: Mix and Match

As I mentioned, it’s not just “Common” that has this problem per se, it’s all the racial languages – elves who live deep in the woods on one continent won’t have the same linguistic needs as elves who live on a mountain sanctuary on another.

So, feel to mix and match them… letting your players get uniquely different experiences and understandings.

If Common is like Latin, and Infernal is like Chinese then it creates the feeling they are entirely unrelated in their origin – and thus a character who has both has multiple perspectives on communication – and gives plenty of opportunities for mystery through issues in translation, and a different understanding in context etc.

Consider mixing it up further – Infernal is like Latin, but each level of Hell has it’s own sub-variety so communication with minor devils is tricky, but the captains and the devils you might make a deal with are all arrogantly fluent in core Infernal.

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