Thursday, March 27, 2014

World Building in 30 Days - Languages

Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts.

― Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

Anyone can speak Troll. All you have to do is point and grunt.

― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

The father of modern fantasy JRR Tolkien had an affinity for languages. I can see why. He jokes in a letter to CS Lewis that the whole history of men leading up to the sinking of Numenor was a etymological pun for Atlantis.

Etymology is a curious subject. It ties us to our past bridging centuries and millennium. English itself is a hodge podge of German, Latin, French, Greek and another half dozen languages. If you want to delve into this subject more I recommend the History of the English Language pod cast. Personally I can't get enough of the stuff. I use it a lot in naming things. I use it in puzzles for my players, and high brow tongue in cheek hints to character motivations in NPC names. Did I mention my family calls me the pun master? If you're stuck for naming someone or something boil them down to their essential trait and look up the etymology of a synonym, or the meaning in a foreign tongue. You will find a word to use that will sound right to you.

Our real world contains plenty of examples of the evolution of language. Experts are starting to believe that the Tower of Babel may not be as much a myth as many folks believe. A judge in India demonstrated that most western language originates from a Proto Indo-European base tongue. Others in the field have since demonstrated twenty-seven words common in all languages spoken on earth, though opponents strongly dispute the methods. The Proto-Human ideal is still a facinating concept and one I embrace in my fictional world.

RPG Mechanics

When playing an RPG there are two things to consider. How much do you want to bog players down in simulation of real language? How much flavor do you want to add to roleplaying scenarios? Balance your rules on the subject carefully.

In theory I like the idea that my players start out only speaking the language they grew up with. This seems plausible. I even like the idea that only certain classes read those languages. As a player these rules suck. It makes every roleplaying moment a pain to play out, like a Han > Threepio > Ewok situation. In an OSR game with a single leader or caller this could actually simplify some things but it does leave most of the table with nothing to do. I further like the idea of a fluency indicator, a 1-5 or percentile rating of a characters ability to speak a language. 1- pidgin or halting speech, 2- able to read some words and speak coherent thoughts, 3- able to read most words and form complete sentences, 4- read and write as well as good speech, 5- perfect fluency, accent and can extrapolate to similar languages and dialects. But this is a lot of book keeping for minimal gain.

In practice, my players get their hereditary language and one of two common trading tongues based on where they were born. Players wanting exotic races are thus at a disadvantage, but this can be overcome. In addition if a player opts to speak to a NPC in its own tongue, they get a bonus to a skill check in newer games (3.5, 4E etc) and an adjustment to the reaction roll or roleplaying attitude in my OSR game. Players can buy, via time and money access to as many languages as their intellect will allow, screw the fest tax. NPCs usually speak the appropriate common and if not a peasant a second racial language. Sages, royality and priests usually speak at least three languages. Lastly, known languages give PCs a chance to muddy thru a situation where an unknown language may be encountered. A language in the same dialect will communicate 90% accurately, in the same family will give the speaker 70% chance to communicate effectively. Outside the same family it falls to 25%.

Major Language Families in Ea-reth

  • Common
  • --Eastern Trading Tongue spoken in Ovelesk
  • --Western Commerce Speak spoken in Yathe
  • --Thieves Cant - available only to thieves and assassins

  • Ancient - Proto Ea-reth language
  • -Yae - runic script of the dwarfs and giants - Old Norse, German and Slavvic as real world inspiration
  • -Drae - pictographic language of dragonkin - Egyptian, Sumerian, Arabic as inspiration
  • -Fey/Vai - flowing script - Finnish, Quenya, and Sindarin
  • -Tor - pictographic language - Mayan, Chinese, Japanese
  • -Gawds - symbols as words - None
  • -Mae - Latin alphabet - English, Latin, Romance languages as inspiration
  • Yae
  • -Dwarven
  • --Khazad
  • --Khemblin
  • --Kohle
  • --Gullaga
  • -Giant
  • --Goliath
  • --Minotaurian
  • -Goblinoid
  • --Tribal Dialect
  • --Norgathi

  • Drae
  • -Draconic
  • --Arkhosian
  • --Omarondian
  • --Qal Met
  • -Dragon
  • -Draegarian

  • Fey - Vai
  • -Elven
  • --Green Elves
  • ---Desert Elf
  • ---Grell Elf
  • --High Elven
  • --Blue Elven
  • --Grey Elven
  • ---Gnomish
  • ---Deep Gnomish
  • -Black Speech
  • --Orcish Tribal Dialects
  • Tor
  • -Torrian
  • -Pey
  • -Tanni (Deep Speech)
  • --Infernal
  • ---Tuarthian
  • --Abyssal

  • Gawds
  • --Supernal
  • --Primordial

  • Mae
  • -Common
  • --Marsonites
  • ---Kalesh
  • ---Akhabarian
  • ---Barbarian Tribes
  • --Daganti
  • --Dogan


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