World-Building 101: Watch your Language!

Anyone who has read Lord of the Rings has encountered the fictional elven tongues Tolkien created for Middle Earth. Anyone familiar with Star Trek has heard snippets of Klingon. Fans of Star Wars can more than likely recognize Huttese, and for serious fans it’s not unheard of to be able to read, write, and speak any of these imaginary languages. Fictional languages lend depth and life to a setting, and can be used to great effect in a roleplaying campaign.

Of course, unless you and your players have a lot of time and are willing to devote both time and effort into creating and mastering a constructed language, chances are you will neither want nor need to do so to. If you and your players ARE all interested in constructing and learning a language for your game, then by all means go ahead. For the most part, however, that is an unnecessary level of detail and effort that can be avoided.

Constructing parts of a language, however, can still be worth the effort. A few phrases, a writing system, and perhaps even a rudimentary grammar can all be invaluable in creating the sense that a full language exists. Throwing together a simple “phrasebook” for some of your constructed languages may be useful to help your players pepper their speech with exclamations or sayings in-character using their linguistic knowledge, or provide a choice epithet or two. Even a bit of detail provided about the language without any vocabulary attached to it can be sufficient to spark the imagination. A few points you might consider:

Who speaks the language? When creating vocabulary or even just how you want the language to sound, consider the primary speakers. Savage monster races can have more sharp, guttural, crude languages, where races like elves and eladrin might have more fluid and beautiful languages. Some creatures may find it difficult to produce all the sounds in human or demihuman languages—try to consider the speech apparatus involved.

What is the language commonly used to discuss? The old saying goes that an Eskimo has fifty words for snow. Concepts that are important to a culture are frequently given more robust vocabulary than other less-frequently used parts. Dwarven languages may contain a large vocabulary relating to concepts found in mining, forging, or metallurgy, but have only one word for tree.

What other languages or dialects are related? Languages don’t exist in a void. German and English, for example, share a common ancestry, as do Romance languages. Language “families” might allow partial understanding of one language by creatures fluent in a related language—though this may be wildly inaccurate thanks to “false friends”, or words that sound the same but have dramatically different meanings. For example, Gift in German means poison, and not something that is given in friendship. Dialects are regional or social variants of a parent language—different pronunciations or colloquial vocabulary might be in use.

How is the language written? This can be quite complex to answer. First, consider whether the writing system is an alphabet (with one character representing one sound), a syllabary (one character represents a full syllable), an abjad (as an alphabet, but with vowels omitted and interpreted from context), or are glyphs or pictographs used to communicate entire words or concepts? What sounds exist in the language—without getting too technical, consider that some sounds in English are represented by multiple characters (ch, sh, th) and other characters can represent multiple sounds (c, g, x). Consider how the writing is oriented—is the language read from left to right, right to left, top to bottom, spiraling outwards, or alternating between two or more of these options? Constructing a writing system that feels real can be extremely rewarding and interesting, but it can also be the most time consuming and complicated step—unless you are creating grammar and vocabulary as well.

Are there idioms or concepts that are difficult to translate? Many languages have concepts or idioms that are difficult or impossible to directly translate. These are often sayings or phrases that communicate a figurative rather than literal meaning. “Kick the bucket” is an example of one such phrase in English—it becomes meaningless if translated literally. Other concepts might include specific honorifics for which there is no direct equivalent or words describing things or concepts not found in other languages.

There are many other ideas you may wish to explore when developing a language, but the above should be enough to get you started. Plenty of resources are available online for the dedicated DM who wishes to create a full blown constructed language for his campaign.

Three more points to consider—first, for simplicity’s sake, it’s generally easier to avoid trying to codify and detail each and every language, dialect, and language family found in your campaign world. In the real world there are over two hundred and fifty languages with 1 million or more native speakers, and easily double that number in languages spoken by smaller populations—and that is counting only living languages. Trying to represent even a fraction of that number of languages in your game world is probably well beyond the scope required—especially since with that many choices, if no direction is provided, your players may have no way to communicate with each other!

Second, you’ll probably want to give your campaign’s languages better names than “Dwarven”, “Elven”, “Common”, and the like. By giving the languages proper names, you lend verisimilitude and let your players know that they should put thought into language selection, rather than simply choosing languages as an afterthought.

Finally, languages as a campaign element are useful only as long as your players can understand them. Keep track of the languages your players have taken for their characters, and avoid creating situations where vital information or rewards are available only to speakers of a language your characters don’t speak. Use languages to enhance your game experience, not to limit it.

Comments (3)

Andy (March 4th, 2010)

I like this. It’s a really good overview of fantasy languages.

cRAVE (March 5th, 2010)

More great advice! Thank you so much for continuing to offer advice! :)

River (March 5th, 2010)

Ah! A field I’m well familiar with. There’s a whole community of hobbyist linguists who develop conlangs—constructed languages. Some of the best advice for beginners I’ve found in these pages:

Naming Languages from LangMaker

The Language Construction Kit from Zompist

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