Monday, April 19, 2021

Common is more-or-less 800 words

I've been thinking a lot about RPG languages recently. This article is pretty specific to D&D and related games, but general principles apply to other games as well. Some of the questions I've been asking myself are:

  • Why is each species language seemingly monolithic? Humans don't all speak the same language so why should goblins or lizardfolk?
  • Does it help to know a language in the same family as another? If my character knows Goblin, does he have a chance to understand the gist of a conversation in Orcish? It works that way in the real world, knowing one "Romance Language" can give you a leg up on another. 
  • What the hell are alignment languages and why is there one for "Neutral?" (BTW, my first thought is that they are bit like "speaking in tongues" or glossalalia. But I'm still mulling that over; watch for a future post.)
  • And, the topic of this article, what is Common, exactly?

The Common Concept
Let's start with how the Common language works in most games. In my experience, GMs and players think of Common as fully-fleshed language that nearly every creature in a setting can learn and speak. Further, most intelligent creatures that interact with humans learn Common and speak it by default. We can generally infer that it's a language invented by humans, though that is rarely explicitly stated. 

Common Problems
This conception of Common is increasingly less realistic the larger the setting gets. To start with, non-human species with variant mouth shapes and conceptions of language/body language would find it much harder to learn and speak Common. Lizardmen, for instance, probably don't have lips soft enough to correctly form words with b, f, m, p, v, w, and y. They would have to develop some analogous, approximation, given the lips and anatomy they have. (I bring anatomy into it because of common non-verbals, like shrugging.) Second, cultural drift, political borders, and other contrariness would both increase the need for, and spoil the efforts to preserve a universal Common, even among human tribes. There is likely to be some percentage of humans, perhaps whole regions of them, who haven't learned and might refuse to learn Common. 

New Rules for Common
What does "realism" have to do with fantasy anyway? Why do we care? Let's recognize that Common is just part of the game and tackle it as rationally as possible. The goal is to build something that is internally consistent, feels real, and is perhaps more fun to work with than classic Common. Here are some conceits that I believe would make for an, more realistic and interesting take on Common:
  • Common is a trade language developed or most heavily influenced by the most prosperous/prolific species in the area. Pretty much all games assume that is humans, but it wouldn't have to be. Your game, your choice. All species that commonly interact with the dominant one, learn Common growing up. Those that never wander or are more isolationist, don't. 
  • Common consists of about 800 words. This number is derived from the "Basic English" work of I. A. Richards and C. K. Ogen and affirmed by this recent article on functional language learning. As a result, the words that make up Common would be extremely basic and un-nuanced. The tyrannical Big Brother culture in 1984 provides a good example of a much-reduced vocabulary. All the synonyms for good and great are replaced with "good (good)," "plus good" (great), and "double plus good" (excellent). The practice of a Common language exchanges sophistication for universality: a lot of people speak it, but when speaking Common one can only communicate very basic ideas. For most things, there is only one word in common: hut, den, burrow, nest, etc. are probably all just "house." 
  • Having only 800 or so words makes the language easy to pick up in a short amount of time. It would take days and weeks to learn, not months and years. 
  • Species with mouth-shapes that significantly vary from the base-culture of Common are less likely to learn Common and, when they do, are difficult to understand. That being said, Common develops within a region to accommodate. Maybe instead of "house" the word "nest" is used because a common species can't speak an "h" easily.
  • Communication in Common takes longer (requires more patience) and is likely to include a number of misunderstandings from concept drift or simply misspeaking/mishearing. It's too simple to be useful for deep subjects.

These simple ideas keep Common powerful, but also make it a lot less useful, so that knowing other languages is a huge benefit. In fact, let's add another bullet:
  • Speaking to another culture in their own language automatically gives you a +1 on reaction rolls. It probably also means you have a rudimentary understanding of their culture.

Finally, let's assume a similar rule applies to all cultural and regional differentiations in the base-language as well. IOW, if you are of the base culture and travel far from home, you are more and more likely to rely on Common and not be able to speak the local language. It probably first pops up as heavy accent or dialect issues, so that you are speaking the same language but communication is slower and gives rise to a number of sidebars (to explain unfamiliar words and figurative language). 

As a counterpoint, we might assume that long-lived cultures experience less language drift. They are slower to adopt new and variant words. 

Practical Impact on the Game

My final thought is that, while I like all of these ideas, I recognize that they require energy in-game. This is why Common in most games is treated as outlined at the start of this article. Language barriers can be fun and interesting, but they can also be tedious. So I would generally allow a lot of latitude until someone tries to express an idea in Common that just seems really technical or nuanced. At which time I would point out the other conversant is looking confused, or angry, or trying to suppress a laugh.

Treating Common as an un-nuanced language makes learning other languages more useful and special. Thus supplying a reason for non-wizard characters to value a high Intelligence. 

The idea that your dialect of your own language becomes less useful the farther from home you travel is also an interesting one in game terms. It could serve as a signal that you are moving into a region where understanding local laws and cultural norms will be more difficult. You will be unable to pass as a local unless you keep your trap shut, and you may find yourself running afoul of local law or simply making embarrassing blunders. IOW, the GM could use it as a plot hook, to make an area feel more exotic, or even to encourage players to stick to the "known lands."

Also note that speaking the same language creates intra-party ties and politics. A human, an elf, and a dwarf walk into a tavern. The human speaks Common and local Human. The Elf speaks Elven, Common, and Dwarvish. The Dwarf speaks Dwarvish, Common, and Goblin. They can all order beer or wine in Common. Small talk is slow and sparse because they have to converse only about basic things, except when the Elf deigns to speak Dwarvish and the two of them can start commenting on the loutish human patrons of the bar ... and then possibly fall into an alcohol-fueled argument about the relative merits of smithing vs. woodcraft or some such.  


  1. Thank you so much for sharing what sounds Lizardfolk and other lipless humanoids cannot make. It's one of those incredibly obvious things once I take the time to think about it.

    As far as Common goes, there's some interesting articles on Wikipedia on Sabir (Mediterreanean trade language), pidgeon, creole, and other "common" tongues. Based on the Sabir model, I would imagine Common to be a blend of Human and all other "racial" languages commonly involved in trade.

    Alternatively, in a Points of Light/Post-Apocalyptic setting, use the Grammatica/Latin/Vulgar Latin model and call it Atlantean. Would Common be the language of government (Latin) or of the Common folk (vulgar Latin)?

    And a third model is the Norman England one. The clergy are conversant in Eccesiatical [Latin], the nobles speak Noble [Norman French], and the Commons speak Common (Middle English).

    Also, the non-Humans languages would no doubt contain sounds that could only be made by native speakers (q.v. Welsh, Arabic, & Tamil) -- and that's just demi-Humans. Lizardfolk and others with different anatomy might make sounds below or above the human frequency thus forcing the use of Comprehend Languages. After all, why should PCs be allowed to learn any language they choose? High Draconic is probably impossible for a Human to hear properly let alone speak. Abyssal might sound like multiple voices speaking simulteaneoulsy or some other chaotic craziness. The possibilities are endless!

  2. Andre Norton utilizes this limited common tongue concept in her Beast Master stories. Terrans and Norbies communicate through a limited "finger talk" since Norbie vocalizations sound more like birds.

    Norbies don't discuss "medicine"...


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