Sunday, April 17, 2011

Languages, Real and Imaginary

One part of the Silver Age of D&D that I'm not ashamed to admit to having liked is the obsession with creating "realistic" fictional languages and names. There were several issues of Dragon back in those days that dealt with the nuts and bolts of imaginary tongues and the impact they had on naming both characters and locales. I ate those articles up back in the day, which is why I created several languages and scripts for the setting for my old campaign.

I, unfortunately, no longer have the grammars, lexicons, and alphabets I invented for those languages (or, if I do, I have no idea where I've put them), so I can't share them with you. And while there's a part of me that's a little bit embarrassed about the obsessive lengths to which my youthful self went to ensure that my campaign setting was "believable," there's still also a part of me that's quite proud of what I did. If nothing else, the names used in the campaign were neither knock-offs of real world names or random strings of letters without any meaning of their own.

Perhaps the reason that imaginary settings like Middle-earth and Tékumel tower over most others is that their creators gave a lot of attention to the languages their imaginary inhabitants speak. Now, even at my most obsessive, I never did anything to compare to Tolkien or Barker. Likewise, I don't think it's necessary (or even desirable) that most referees create anything remotely comparable to Sindarin or Tsolyáni when describing a setting for use with a RPG. Yet, I won't deny that there's something admirable about a referee who does give due consideration to languages and names. The Dwimmermount campaign is a case of where I don't follow my own advice. As a "just in time," seat-of-the-pants, sandbox-style fantasy campaign, I've only given the slightest thought to languages or names. Most of the time I pulled my names out of the air, drawing on whatever inspirations were available at the time. The result is certainly workable, but my teenage self would have been appalled at my lackadaisical ways.

For my new Thousand Suns campaign, I did give some thought to languages and names. Since Thousand Suns is explicitly meant to recall the sci-fi of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, I felt justified in taking a page from its naive optimism about a "universal language." Rather than invent one -- I'm much too lazy for that nowadays -- I borrowed a real one, Esperanto, feeling that, if it was good enough for Harry Harrison and other SF writers, it's good enough for me. Plus, Esperanto sounds familiar enough that no one is put off using bits of it in play ("Saluto" instead of "Hello," for example) and yet has an appropriately exotic feel (to English-speakers anyway) that it gives the impression of world-historical change between A.D. 2011 and 500 N.K. In short, Esperanto does a lot of heavy lifting for setting immersion for me, so much so that there was no need for me to create my own version of Lingua Terra, as I might have done 30 years ago.

Plus, it lets me come up with tables for first names and last names that lets me easily and quickly generate appropriate names for Terran NPCs (or PCs) that feel right, which is a great boon when running a sandbox SF campaign.


  1. I'm a fan of the constructed language, too, though it I usually only make it to the "naming language" stage at best. Mostly, these days I just base various cultures languages off an "analogous" real world language and let the Onomastikon or some online generator do the work.

  2. The languages in Tekumel are one of the coolest parts about the setting but at the same time one of the most difficult parts!

    Thanks for the files, though that service is a lot more bother than the file size suggests.

  3. MAR Barker really did some brilliant work. His grammar of Sunuz is fascinating; the implication is that learning it has Lovecraftian effects on the student, and the language really does make that sound at least somewhat plausible.

  4. Languages and "authentic sounding" names are a favorite part of the job for me when creating a setting. Often I'll take a real-world names form another language and vary the them a bit (say, substituting "U" for "O" consistently) to make the names sound familiar, but just a bit different. I love the texture is brings to a game.

  5. See, I went a different route. I used real languages for my different languages in my campaign. I also stole a period of their history for the culture of the people.

    Trade Tongue; English
    Human; Spanish (Mexico in the old west)
    Dwarf; German (Charlemange era)
    Elf: Italian (Medici trade family era)
    Halfling: French (Pre-French Revolution)
    Gnomish: Finnish/Dutch, can't remember.
    Orcish: Russian (Height of the Czars)

    I looked up how to say 'I don't speak English' in each language so that people would realize that they were talking to someone who didn't speak the trade tongue. Then one of the PCs who spoke the language would take over, and we would revert to English.

  6. Do you really need anything more than "Bree-Yark"?

  7. Do you really need anything more than "Bree-Yark"?

    Need? No. But some consistency in nomenclature is often a good thing. I like it when a setting's names don't feel they were pulled out of a phone book at random, for example.

  8. In my AD&D game world, each nation on the continent had its own language (there were about 9-11 nations if memory serves). There was no such thing as the 'common tongue of man'.

    If a player had multiple languages he/she could learn due to Intelligence bonus, they could learn as follows:

    -Each 'nation' language learned included customs (I purposely made some nations have differing customs).
    -Each language of other races (Elvish, Dwarvish, Orcish, etc...) was ONLY the language. Not customs, rituals, etc...

    A huge focus of the game (including the long-term storyline) was amongst the politics of the various nation-states. Knowing multiple languages was essential to success.

  9. Perhaps the reason that imaginary settings like Middle-earth and Tékumel tower over most others is that their creators gave a lot of attention to the languages their imaginary inhabitants speak

    Is it really fair to say Tékumel all? Almost no one has ever heard of it! It might be 'quality stuff' to its tiny fan population but there's plenty of evidence to suggest that the mass of readers don't actually give a damn about that level of detail at all. (If they did, there's always 15th century France, right? At least the language is consistent...)

    The number of people who'd say Jo Rowling's Hogwarts towers over all other fantasy worlds is surely orders of magnitude larger than those who'd wave the flag for Barker's stuff, and Rowling didn't care a bit about getting all the details right (rightly so). Which brings me to the point that no one would care at all about Middle-Earth were it not for Tolkien's two novels. What makes Middle-Earth an appealing setting is the intense emotional connection people have with it - just like they do with their own world.

    This detail-is-better worldbuilding fallacy is a big reason RPGs are so scary to normal human beings. :)

  10. Tekumel rules. Can't convince me otherwise. I too blew it off for decades, but then i broke down and pruchased it from Tika's and I'll never regret it. While it isn't important that a referee develop their own languages in their game-worlds, regular players do appreciate consistency and attention to detail, even if it's just "color" or "flavor".

    James - Esperanto is perfect for a futuristic Sci-Fi setting (it's exactly what popped into my head when you were broaching the subject). But if you want to get hardcore, don't rule out Japanese or Chinese! ;D

  11. Thieve's Cant from Dragon 66 for the win. Now if I could only find my booklet...

    Each of the four-page segments following this page can be
    removed from the center of the magazine and folded and
    trimmed to produce a pair of pocket-sized translation dictionaries
    for Thieves’ Cant.

  12. there's a great website i use for generating names called
    you can enter up to five words and it generates loads of possibilities based on combinations of letters from those words. so, for example take 5 names of dwarves from the hobbit: thorin, bifur, dwalin, gloin and bombur, and you get tons of dwarfish sounding names:
    i just enter unusual english words and see what happens. the more syllables, the more interesting words get generated.

  13. some lovecraftian portmanteaus :

  14. I like the idea of constructed languages, too--but more for archaic, dead languages than requiring players to learn to pronounce stuff correctly. They work great as setting to add flavor to place names and such, but I always found in game play there'd be some idiot insisting we aren't pronouncing something right and it just interfered. I like the depth that novelists go in world construction, but sometimes, I just want to play the damn game without having to take a foreign language exam.

    Also, I'm with phf--the service you are using to host these files is a hassle. I shouldn't have to fork over an email address so that I can receive even more spam to download these. Maybe it's time to sign up with Brad's

  15. Totally down with this. I actually wrote a language for gnolls some years back that was tentatively accepted by Dragon until editors changed. Now, I do think that's unwieldy, and re-purpose real languages for certain races (like, exact same correspondences as Infamous does, above). In light of that, Esperanto seems like the perfect choice for SF.

  16. For easy generation of consistent names, I've found the Ever Changing Book of Names to be the a fantastic time saver. Either choose a predefined language to create name lists from or you can even create your own rules for it to use.

    If you want to do it by hand, there is the Language Construction Kit which can be used for something simple as creating a consistent sound for your names and words or as complex as a complete grammar and vocabulary.

  17. I usually position real-world languages in a way that evokes a history. If English is your common tongue, then maybe the older language is German, & then OLDER language than that is Old Norse. Fair enough-- then the old OTHER language can be Latin, with the Romance languages filling out the modern descendants.

  18. "tables for first names and last names"


    Tre bona!