Monday, July 5, 2021

Speaking My Language

A very early memory of mine is staring at the inside covers of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language my parents owned. Printed on those covers were all sorts of images pertaining to the topic of the evolution of the alphabet used by English speakers. I was incredibly fascinated by what I saw there, particularly the Greek alphabet, which I soon committed to memory and used extensively as a "secret code" throughout my childhood. My fascination with the alphabet eventually led to a fascination with languages more generally, though I tended to devote the most time to dead ones like Latin and Attic Greek – not very useful in the real world, alas!

Original Dungeons & Dragons addresses the subject of languages fairly early in Book 1: Men & Magic, with the following bit of text:
According to the guidelines set forth here, a character knows one additional language for every point of Intelligence above 10. That's in addition to Common and an alignment language, as well as any others known by virtue of the character's race. AD&D makes use of similar guidelines, as shown here in a section from the Players Handbook.
As you can see, Gygax set the threshold for learning another language lower than in OD&D – a score of 8 – and lowered slightly the maximum number of languages gained through a high Intelligence score (to 7, down from 8 in OD&D), but the overall change is slight, especially when dealing with demihuman characters like elves, who start the game knowing multiple languages regardless of Intelligence score.

Tom Moldvay's 1981 revision of OD&D makes more significant changes, as this table demonstrates:
In Moldvay Basic, no character gains an additional language unless his Intelligence score is at least 13 and the maximum he can gain is three at 18 Intelligence. That's quite a big change from either OD&D 1974 or AD&D, but it's a change of which I approve. 

In my opinion, OD&D '74 and AD&D both make language acquisition too easy, thereby obviating the need to find and employ translators or otherwise struggle with cultural differences in an adventure. In my ongoing House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign, languages regularly play a role in the action, with characters taking the time to find tutors to instruct them in new languages or, when that's not an option, finding locals who can act as interpreters. It's not only led to some fun moments of roleplaying, it's helped to add a layer of reality to some sessions. 

I suppose the argument could be made that most players and referees of D&D don't care about such things. That they come up in EPT, a game designed by a professional linguist, only makes sense, but Dungeons & Dragons is not such a game. That's a perfectly legitimate position, but, if one really doesn't care about such matters, what's the point to Intelligence guidelines at all? Why not simply dispense entirely with worrying about how many and which languages a character can speak? That seems a better solution than making languages so easy to learn that even characters with below average Intelligence know at least one additional one and high Intelligence demihumans can speak huge numbers of tongues. 


  1. ” In my opinion, OD&D '74 and AD&D both make language acquisition too easy, thereby obviating the need to find and employ translators or otherwise struggle with cultural differences in an adventure.”

    Maybe Gygax was too generous with how many new languages a character may learn, though it is important to remember that in AD&D, actually learning a new language takes between six and twelve months of daily practice with a tutor, according to the Players Handbook.

    1. You know, that's an obvious interpretation of the rules, but I don't think we ever thought of the "extra" languages as simply being the capacity to learn them; rather, they were your starting languages.

      Of the three examples cited above, however, only Moldvay's indicates that the extra languages might already be known (which might be why there are far fewere of them). OD&D, on the other hand, says a high-INT character "may learn" additional languages, and AD&D clearly says the additional languages are a "possible maximum."

      It's much more reasonable to be able to *learn* 5-7 additional languages instead of already being an accomplished linguist at level 1, but you would have to spend the time and money to do so.

      I'm embarrassed we never realized that. :)

    2. ” It's much more reasonable to be able to *learn* 5-7 additional languages instead of already being an accomplished linguist at level 1, but you would have to spend the time and money to do so.”

      Indeed. Unless you are an elf, in which case you actually are something of an accomplished linguist even from the get-go.

  2. Real life experience tells me that the ability to learn languages depends far more on your long-term exposure to them in everyday use than applied study, and that's largely independent of anything I'd call "intelligence" - at best a good memory is helpful, but hardly vital for basic fluency. Being raised in a multi-lingual environment is the best route to fluency for many people, and in a fantasy environment with racial and alignment languages on top of the regional, ethnic, and even religious ones we see in real life it seems like there would be more opportunities for that kind of formative learning to happen.

    This is also a world where (for ex) gnomes can talk to small burrowing creatures without the use of magic, implying that relatively sophisticated communication is a thing even for animals intelligences, all Watership Down style. Plus translation magic like Tongues and Comprehend Magic are definitely a thing, so picking up basic vocabulary, syntax and grammar should be easier even for completely novel laguages.

    Then again, I'm a US citizen and American English is my primary (and only really fluent) language, so what do I know?

    1. I'd rather say both exposure and intelligence are involved, and that each emphasizes different skills. Exposure helps with pronunciation, idiom, and things like discourse markers and what people tend to talk about, but intelligent people assimilate the grammatical and writing systems of a new language much quicker, and they are more likely to use meta-thinking as they learn. They generally also reach a higher level of proficiency.

  3. We've got a lot of historical evidence that being polyglot was pretty common among the upper classes & widely-traveled classes in the Renaissance and early Enlightenment, don't we? And less reliable evidence, but in the Ancient world as well, I think.

    I've been thinking recently as a DM that my players don't know *enough* languages, although I guess the starting languages ought to be few (aside from whatever's provided by background) and most of them learned during play.

  4. In D&D, with each non-human stock having its own language, knowing or being able to learn a large number of languages seems critical, and you can't drag a host of translators into the dungeon with you.

    I think RuneQuest does a reasonable job with languages, in my campaign, PCs really should know both Praxian and Sartarite, and Lunar is helpful. There are several other languages that are useful. Most characters know one or two languages with a few based on background getting 1d4 additional languages.

    I think the best way to handle languages is to actually make them part of your setting in a logical way, and THEN decide what makes sense for PCs having multiple languages.