Tuesday, April 20, 2021

What Are Alignment Languages?

I'm going to start this post the same way I started the last one which covered "Common" as a language. 

I've been thinking a lot about RPG languages recently. (This article is pretty specific to TSR 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 related language? If my character knows Goblin, does he have a chance to understand the gist of a conversation in Orcish?
  • What the hell are alignment languages and why is there one for "Neutral?"
  • Finally, what is Common?

Alignment Languages

The concept of alignment languages was baked into the first iteration of D&D (Oe, 1974) and reached it's most elaborate state with the nine-point alignment as detailed in the 1e AD&D Player's Handbook (1978). Here are the relevant passages:

Law, Chaos and Neutrality also have common languages spoken by each respectively. One can attempt to communicate through the common tongue, language particular to a creature class, or one of the divisional languages (law, etc.). While not understanding the language, creatures who speak a divisional tongue will recognize a hostile one and attack (Oe D&D Vol. 1, 12).

In addition to the common tongue, all intelligent creatures able to converse in speech use special languages particular to their alignment. These alignment languages are: Chaotic Evil, Chaotic Good, Chaotic Neutral, Lawful Evil, Lawful Good, Lawful Neutral, Neutral Evil, Neutral Good, and Neutrality. The alignment of your character will dictate which language he or she speaks, for only one alignment dialect can be used by a character (cf. CHARACTER CLASSES, The Assassin). If a character changes alignment, the previously known language is no longer able to be spoken by him or her (1e AD&D PHB, 34).

[Edit: I missed a section in the DMG which alters the following assumptions somewhat. For now, just go with it knowing that this is my own take on alignment languages. I address EGG's thoughts in the DMG in the following post. ]

Conceptually, we are led to believe that these alignment languages are:

  • Full languages in which two proficient speakers can converse
  • Languages that "come with" a character's alignment - so they are neither learnable by someone of another alignment, nor retained if one changes alignment
  • Of a nature that discloses one's alignment when spoken, or at least one's relationship to other alignments (e.g. not-lawful).

Inferences and Practical Effects

Given these described behaviors, I think we can assume that alignment languages are gifted (and revoked) in a supernatural way by forces that are representative agents of each fundamental alignment. Reductively, we could say they are languages given by the gods. Though "the gods" could be just extra-planar beings or completely abstract forces. 

In the game, this means that the languages can serve as a kind of litmus test for alignment. "You say you are lawful; prove it by speaking Law!" Note that this could prevent characters from effectively operating in disguise (physical or illusionary), a common occurrence in D&D games.

They also serve as a kind of secondary Common. A chaotic character could speak to a minotaur in Chaotic. 

Absurdities: Neutrality and Overlap

All of this is interesting and bears a kind of strange internal logic, up to a point. I find it reaches the level of absurdity with the nine-point alignment and with the nature of neutrality in general. Here are my opinions in that regard.

Given that neutral characters are granted the Neutral language, and that it can be revoked by a change of alignment, we have to acknowledge that the Neutral force, alignment, and language is a force equal to Law and Chaos, not a position in-between them. I've found that most players enact neutral alignments as a kind of alignment agnosticism; they don't feel bound by alignment forces but rather act out of self interest. Other players treat it as a kind of religion of its own - seeking a kind of harmony or balance in the universe. It takes some mental gymnastics to imagine an intelligent force that is both selfish and seeks balance. Nature is presumably the best model - each organism pursues its own interests, but larger forces (weather, species competition, geography...) conspire to enact change (evolution). IOW, balance is achieved effortlessly over eons, but individually life is a struggle. This gives us a kind of picture of a force that is both real in-game and allows characters a range of expression from selfish or apathetic to a zealot seeking to establish balance.

That's a cool idea, but functionally, in the game, I kind of want an out. A position that is not aligned. Neutrality seems to draw people who also want characters in that space. I feel like neutrality (lowercase) should be a more agnostic state without a language. This would also create an interesting battle ground between Law and Chaos. If we treat neutrality this way, it creates a more engaging uncertainty in place of certainty. For example, if one meets a dark elf that doesn't speak Chaos, it could mean they are simply agnostic – if lowercase neutrality exists. Otherwise, the dark elf who doesn't speak Chaos must speak Law or Neutral. Having capital N Neutral means every character absolutely exists in one of three camps. Having lowercase, generic neutrality means one can be devoted to Law, or Chaos, or neither!

And what of the nine point alignment? The poles of that alignment utilize an X-Y arrangement that creates overlap. Where we had Law, Chaos, and Neutral before, we now have things like Lawful Neutral, and Neutral Evil. So, somehow, the Neutral half of LN is fundamentally different from the Neutral half of NE, otherwise the languages would overlap such that some words would be common to both. 

It just doesn't hold up. I can live with Neutral in the three-point system, but would prefer neutrality. In the nine-point system, Neutral defies logic. That's my opinion anyway. For AD&D, I would utilize a five-point alignment that is Law, Chaos, Good, Evil, and neutrality. So, Ln and nE, not LN and NE.


As a kind of wrap-up thought, I want to talk about glossolalia. This is the word for what some religions call "speaking in tongues." (Not to get pedantic about this, but there is some confusion among Christians as to whether people in the New Testament spoke in other tongues – other real languages – or in some kind of uber-angelic tongue. This debate creates actual rifts between churches and congregations.) Glossolalia is a preferable term to the phrase speaking in tongues, because it specifically means "speaking in an unknown language" (not a real world language).

Part of me was tempted to think of alignment languages as this: languages gifted by the gods that are a mark of "ownership" and for which understanding must also be gifted. If your character is lawful, they must be gifted the language of Law and others who would understand them must also be lawful and gifted the language of Law. You have to be "moved by the spirit" to "speak in tongues" and/or to be able to translate them. From the perspective of a neutral character, in a world with neutrality rather than Neutral, another character speaking in an alignment tongue might appear to be speaking gibberish. Characters without a Neutral tongue might believe that Law and Chaos speakers are simply deluding themselves. Conversely, a character that speaks Neutral would recognize an alignment tongue for what it is, an authentic god-inspired language, even if they didn't understand what was being said.

It's an interesting idea, but it presumes that the forces in question are gods, and jealous ones at that. That's not a bad assumption, but it might not fit all campaign worlds. 

It's extremely interesting to note that Gary Gygax himself was a member of a fairly extreme protestant congregation; he was a Jehovah's Witness. JWs acknowledge the reality of speaking in tongues. They believe it was a miracle of God in the first century, as recorded in the Bible. Modernly, they believe, it still happens but is caused by a demonic spirit wishing to create division in the church. So, while they don't believe people should speak in tongues, they definitely believe that people can and do speak in tongues and that it is an ability granted by an inhuman supernatural entity. It strikes me that I have never heard anyone claim that Arneson introduced the idea of alignment tongues, which makes me think it was Gygax's invention. 


  1. I once read an interview with Gygax where he said he created alignment tongues and that he was thinking of Latin and Hebrew.

  2. I think I can safely say that in the Midwest during the 1970s, everyone assumed that the Chaotic alignment language was the Black Speech of Mordor. Rightly or wrongly, Tolkein had an unbelievable huge impact on everyone's campaign. The early Judges' Guild products are a good examples.

  3. @Grymlorde. YES. I was thinking that earlier and I meant to say it somewhere in the article. Thank you for affirming that and for reminding me of it. I still think about when Gandalf makes the "faux pas" of reciting it aloud at the council of Elrond and shocking everyone. Though in D&D I don't suppose he could have even uttered it. I think I'll do a post about The Black Speech and speaking as a powerful act that causes physical harm (and if prolonged, real injury).


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