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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Say it like you mean it

So in my perusal of Jeff's Gaming Blog, he brought up an interesting point about languages. We'll begin with the Common Tongue, the lingua franca of the D&D setting. All PCs are assumed to know this one. However, most PCs manage to know a few others as well -- Elvish, Dwarfish, Giantish, Draconic and Orcish being some of the most popular.

Most people think of "Common" as being "English," itself the major trade language on Earth in the 21st century. I'd assume, though, that the Common Speech of D&D is much simpler; that's why everyone seems able to learn it. Learning English is hard; we who grew up with it take it for granted. It has a LOT of spellings that don't make sense phonetically (think of every word you know that has "gh" in it), many cockeyed pronunciations, and more irregular verbs and conjugations than I care to think about. English doesn't make sense. You just memorize it and move on.
Plus, one might consider that the Common Speech of Europe in, say, 1285, had a LOT fewer words than English in 2010. How big a vocabulary do you NEED to grow food, pay taxes to your Lord, beg for mercy occasionally, and never go further than thirty miles from the place you were born? I'd say Common's pretty easy. Hell, even orcs and goblins learn to speak it, and goblins are about as degenerate as you can get in the D&D worlds.




Elvish? Harder, I'd think. I think of Elvish as being somewhat like French -- dependent on accent and pronunciation, and remarkably easy to screw up in ways that either piss off the French or have them laughing uproariously at your barbarous yet hilarious mistakes with the language. That, and you need a great many nouns and adjectives to describe trees, wood, leaves, forest, animals, and so on. This doesn't even begin to touch on the vocabulary you must need to manage magic -- I'd even go so far as to think that the Common speech words for various magics and magical effects are loanwords from Elvish.



Dwarvish. I imagine this as being a very no-nonsense language... no irregular verbs, no screwy tenses, no effed up pronunciations. Oh, and lots of hard consonants and glottal stops. However, it is somewhat loaded down with nuances... I envision different tones altering different words, like in Vietnamese (where the same word means "dog," the color orange, and "ice cream," depending on how you pronounce it)... I envision Dwarvish having the same kind of tonal thingy for "work" meaning "work for a living," "work on a private project," "desperately working against time," "work to learn," and all the other kinds of work. I mean, you know this is a race with about six hundred different words for "rock." Hell, imagine this taken to the extreme in a race that lives in Carlsbad Caverns, for potato's sake! I know exactly one word each for "stalactite" and "stalagmite." How many might the dwarves have?
Orcs. In most worlds, orcs are barbarians, but they do have a culture. They might well have a fairly complex language. Goblins and ogres, on the other hand, I would think don't. Why, in first edition, did goblins have their own language at all? You'd think they'd borrow one from Orcs or Humans or something. I mean, this is a race whose entire idea of reasoned diplomacy consists of "Gimme that, or else." Ogres are much the same way, but with an even greater reputation for stupidity...
In first edition, Gnomes could understand the languages of burrowing animals. I'm not sure I'd call this a "language." I mean, do badgers and gophers have their own distinct linguistics? I'd think of it more as "the ability to communicate." Hell, by that standard, my wife is fluent in Cat.

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