Friday, May 15, 2015

Languages Your Game Already Has

This is how you make your Language skill work for you. These are your Alignment languages. This is how you set a trap with neither needle nor pit. Bards can speak all of these.

Lingua Franca

This is a common tongue agreed upon by many peoples and nations speaking disparate tongues. It is not THE common tongue, for many tongues are surprisingly common. This language has a lot of roots or loanwords common to multiple cultures. This is a language that you learn as a child but unless you travel a lot (by default all adventurers are this type of person) you won't get much opportunity to use this language. As a result you can communicate in it but not well. Finer conjugations and specific vocabulary may elude you but you can make yourself understood with a little bit more effort. Again if you're an adventurer it takes so much bumbling around and talking to clowns that by the time you can swing an axe with Level 1 effectiveness you're super fluent here. This is a conceit but a necessary one. It also means that every person from civilization - good evil elf goblin - will speak a little of this.

I'll circle back here later but this is a quick guideline for how you know which side of the argument is society vs counter-society: do you have to speak in the other's terms to make yourself understood? Then you don't have power. This reminds me of something else, probably everything else, but getting into specifics would do disservice to the overall here....


This is the language of coin. When purchase orders are made. When missives are sent amongst guildmembers. When inventory is taken or sales conducted. Traders and merchants usually speak another of the more common tongues, at minimum, and are of anyone in town the most likely to be able to talk or translate...if you're buying. Innkeepers and bartenders fall into this category, as do blacksmiths. Their individual employees may or may not speak the trade tongue but the owners and proprietors and operators always will.If orcs are running drugs or if a Chaos King sympathizer is funneling goldspice through a back door then this is the language they're using, a black market dialect steeped in sign and countersign but the same tongue. All rogues and dwarves speak this fluently but otherwise your day to day occupation reflects how good you are at this. Throwing in background fluff for a situational semimechanical logical advantage later on? Yes please. More of that and less of your entire life's story please. Again, by the time you've hit the shops and haggled a few times, been taken advantage of at least once, or if it can be assumed that your thief or dwarf friend can fill you in where needed, you're to be considered fluent in this, another necessary conceit.

Low Tongue

The way "common" is typically used in RPGs it's to refer to some form of Lingua Franca because Gandalf said common tongue once, but that assumes that the sentence he's speaking when he says that is in the common tongue. Possibly part of it is and part of it isn't, or the whole thing is but under different meanings. The tongue common to all peoples we've discussed, but what of the language of the common people? Unless your home game is very modern indeed the common man and certainly the impoverished are speaking a very different language from the nobles, the gentry, the aristocrats. This is one of the reasons nuveau riche in these cultures are so looked down on, still muttering and sputtering with a low mouth in a context where that isn't appropriate. There are some things, of course, that don't translate well, that the low tongue is particularly suited for. Rumor. Prophecy. Certain prayers. Certain types of poetry, the PEOPLE'S poetry, which is most types of poetry by volume. Fairy tales. Ghost stories. Cussin', innuendo, and fuck talk. Folk songs but who cares. If you grew up a common dirt farmer, out-caste, slave? You spend your entire day speaking this. Generally halflings, upper-dwarves, fighters, clerics, thieves, all speak this. Elves generally don't, and if they know Low Tongue at all they are still going to inevitably sound like condescending assholes.

The Word of God

In the beginning it was, and the faith of the land has been slavishly studying and sustaining it ever since. It's a dead language but in the way people look at ancient diction and idiomatic inconsistencies across translations, it is in many ways frighteningly alive. It is possible this language belonged to a party not entirely aligned with the values of its speakers, that it is a long-overthrown Lingua Franca which was taken back by the people in some bloody revolution. Perhaps it was once Black Speech, or still is to some. The thing with this language is, even if you revere a sect or path which strays far from the faith of the lands, if you're worth your salt as a spirit-speaker then you are at least a student of this language, enough to understand the holy book of another. These are the only words that the gods hear, which is why only the prayers of clerics are answered for the most part. Others may learn this language just as anyone may convert to the true faiths, but yeah: pretty much clerics. The nice thing about this is that no matter how ancient the scroll, these words never really change in their power. Perhaps that is WHY this language was chosen on the gods' behalf? Of course that supposition presumes the gods did not etch those words into the world which is a blasphemy, sometimes.

Secret Whispers

If you are a slave or servant or in some other way live a life not your own then you speak many of these other languages. However, for the important things, the intimate, personal things, muttering truth or safety, you also speak a hidden language only taught to the utter disenfranchised. If speaking your mind is a death sentence then you know how to disguise it.


A mix of code phrases and signs, rhyming slang, a hodgepodge of borrowed words, trills and noises, the meaning of this cant changes depending on the sex of each participant, mode of dress, and time of day. It's a way of talking about the most secret things obviously and openly. The general rules of this language can only be learned, and as a result each speaker has their own uniquely personal dialect like a fingerprint. This makes all the norms and ignorant out there none the wiser, sure, but people on the ball can pinpoint your ripples through the world using only your careless turns of phrase. Thieves and bards are the type who rely on this technique the most: those who need to discuss the illicit freely with their companions, with established codes of trust and noninterference and sharing in place which, when violated, are easily traced and punished using this very tool of their profession. Sometimes phrases make it into the other languages, and those who speak this tongue simply change what the phrase means.

Elevated Speech

Speaking high and speaking well is, at times, important. When you want to give an inspiring speech, issue an important command, lead men's bodies or hearts, make yourself known in no uncertain terms, be super direct, certain forms of song and poetry (usually of key historical importance or cultural identity)....there is a language people slip into which chisels each word with THIS. IS. IMPORTANT. Tolkein did this. Schwarzeneggar did this. Shakespeare did this. No mere dialect or grammatical shift, this is a tongue above. Fighters learn this because they receive most of their orders in it, and the great ones go on to lead with it. Politicians, priests, prophets, and all would-be tyrants know some of this. Elves obviously know it back to front, and everyone knows a little if only to make vows and curses. These are the syllables which seal such evocations.


All magic users, many dwarves and fighters, and scholars and scientists near and far know the arcane scripts and esoteric quinticlauses of the speech of all knowledge. A librarian is not a historian or storyteller with a wider array of devices at their disposal. They are spaceship pilots, capable of a unique interface with a complex array of nested and interdependent systems, and a vital one if you ever want to get any actual use out of your starship. Obviously anybody can learn this language with discipline and time but few lead lives which permit such extensive belabored study. This is also the language of lawyers, so criminals who've been caught at least once will begin to pick up a bit of it for situational use.

High Manner

The customs, addresses, introductions, taboos, posture, precedent, and dangers of the royal court and the interactions of great or ancient houses all add up to a tremendously demanding language, bottomlessly complex and getting harder with each new reign. You think some asshole with a magic sword can just come in and pledge to his majesty to slay the dragon? You'd be stoned to death before you finished saying your name. Speaking this language can be like playing story stick around the campfire, except everyone is acting to a script: you all take turns at positionally determined intervals, throwing in what you're meant to at this point in the script, and you've all got to go through the whole thing before anybody can add anything. Even casual conversation in this tongue is like reading the minutes from a meeting, or the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. The royal rulers themselves, whoever that might be, are never seen speaking anything but this in public, and so no noble or lesser regent dare do any different when not behind closed doors. Ladies in waiting, chambermen, aides and secretaries, and other personal servants may go their entire lives unable to speak anything but this, living so intimately with the court. They are given few places where they may chime in, but in this manner even one born a beggar may bend the ear of the living god. If your game has a royal vizier in it they ONLY speak this, EVER. Elves speak this like a mother fucker. These are most often heard as words of supplication or rage.

Black Speech

This may be alive in the world but usually even this is only a dark reflection, somehow brighter, of a darker light in the past, a hushed and screaming language whose very intonation boils blood and bubbles blackness from crevasses within the earths. To say it is to make yourself thinner and less because the word has taken something from you. It is to hurt the world, irrevocably, because you can never take those words back. They're out there now. It is UTTERLY FORBIDDEN, one of the ultimate taboos, blasphemies, or lawful transgressions. There are spells and gods which only work their art in Black Speech, so called because it's older than starshine. Cthulhu speaks this. Sauron speaks this. No race speaks this with facility, nor any career or creed, but some factions and nations out there do. These aren't just the Bad Guys. Those who speak exclusively or primarily the Black Speech do the worst of the worst, and if you're a big enough shithole you'll start learning it without realizing it, the words pouring from you like disease from a wound.

The First One

That for which Black Speech is the true shadow. The oldest of all language which has the power of true naming and real making. It is a language few can speak but all may understand, deep within them, the emotion and meaning if not the specific words. It is NOT the first language written down but it is spoken, in differing dialects, all across the world where oral traditions have thrived. When it was written down it was in places that knew writing ANYTHING down was some of the strongest magic you could possess, and that magic shaped those places. Finally it is the language spoken by the oldest things, things which were never created, which never developed, which never changed, which simple Were since there was a place for them to Were. This is a language all druids, some monks, fewer clerics and elves, and basically no other humanoid thing - few things an uneducated man would call alive in fact - speaks. Even in pitch dark and bone cold the First One warms and brightens the soul, though not the surroundings, and it is a language which powerful speakers can use to move mountains. It is the language of the so called savage or primal faiths but these people know nothing such as faith: they know things which are so, and which do happen.

Ancient Man

When the civilized peoples first erected their own codes of speech they were set down in this script, which can be read but not spoken. Some traditions hold that man's was the first writing. If those traditions are correct then this is perhaps the most powerful script in any world. We know that this is where modern languages of man came from but we cannot say what it was, who it belonged to, and how it was used. It is possible that every line read in the script is blasphemous. It is possible it was the first Black Speech. It has a relationship to modern tongues which only those who devote themselves to the study of man, or the studies of language, or the studies of power, can understand....magic users, bards, clerics, druids, and their betters.

The Machine

This is a manufactured language. First, it is one with rigid, sometimes recursing, logics; second, it is one which is hungry, devouring all known languages in search of new words and concepts; third, it transforms and destroys what it cannot use; fourth, it is the chief instrument of an ordered and Lawful society. This is not Lingua Franca yet but one day it will be. It exists to achieve reform and shape the world into one thing. It will never accomplish this but much will be burnt in service to this goal. It is revision and future. It is now and life. It is preposterously boring and the gods ignore those who speak it. That said if your characters' goals are served by the continued existence of society in any recognizable form, even an evil society of skeleton fuckers, then they speak this. Otherwise magic users speak it pretty well. It was rather their idea, for it makes them more powerful, in the same way that diverting a river lets you burn more forest.

Heaven and Hell

This is a language of ecstasy and agony which may be spoken but never accurately written. It is exaltation and babble and a communication of physical sensation which not even emotion may convey. Devils, Demons, Asura, Angel, Guardian, Servitor, they all speak this language. The creatures of hell speak it backwards, or in rhyme, or inversely, in accordance with DC Comics law. Some dwarves know this because they have dug deep enough to find heaven or because they have been infiltrated by hell. Mostly though it's...who you'd imagine. Everyone speaks this, all the time, they just don't KNOW that they do. Few types are fluent outside of the types we can never become.

The Last One

It's from the future. It hasn't happened yet. This is an entirely visual language, the province of prognosticators, and it echoes back to us for them to decode and translate. The Sight is not something you can learn but the tongue can be 'hacked' using all the drugs. I mean use just all of the drugs. Hunter S. Thompson saw the future. Spenser knew this language.

Body Language

We all understand it innately but the only people fluent and consciously so are certain monks and, of course, Muscle Wizards.


The language of all magic is a semiphysical form which magic takes, which means that the act of writing it, reading it, thinking about it, fights you back. This is why it's so hard to record a spell in a book or scroll, why it's so hard to keep them in mind, why when you study your book the script is never the same twice. This shit moves, resists you, and the words as you copy them physically try to kick your ass. That shit is harrowing. It is arguably worth it. These words come from the place all magic and fire came from, which isn't a place where those things come from: it is magic, it is fire. Magic and fire come from magic and fire. Even inoccuous spells like Light are taking something which shouldn't be possible in the world and ALLOWING THE POSSIBILITY OF POSSIBILITY, thereby making it possible, CROWBARRING in the force of another plane of existence and power using the physical manifestation of air circulation. Magic users ruin themselves in the effort and age of learning to do this without turning themselves into stone trees who shit gold, but elves have a bit longer to do so and are usually both healthier than these mages and also able to accomplish a bit of martial discipline in their time.

Sign Language



This is the language of military, of force, of war. This is the one time in this list I tell a lie because this is a hundred true LANGUAGES but they all owe to the same root language, the same root word and concept really: distrust. This is the Lilith tongue which gestates all codes, ciphers, and sign. When the word comes which breaks the world it will not come from a magician's tower or a squid faced Bat. It will come from here, and if you've ever lifted a sword in service of a kingdom's cause you know a little bit about it. Maybe you will be the lucky one.

Silent Language

Distinct from Sign Language, this is the language of true understanding or enlightenment, the ability to know what is said when it was never said, to know the heart of another you never met or knew. Telepathy is a wrong way to think about it. It is an instinct which can be honed, which many people tap into, but which few can accurately read. When comics in the 60s kept referring to women's intuition they meant this. Neo had this in the Matrix a little. Merlin from TH White definitely. Sherlock Holmes. Jesus. Buddha. Santa Claus. It is an understanding that comes before the phase of language where you try to understand something, which fucks up every model of communication I can remember but I started drinking 4 entries ago.


There is something out there moving outside of any system we know. Not in heaven or hell, and not better than them, just different, maybe stranger, and outside. Maybe it's older, but it's not oldest. It's just older. This is the language of causality, the language of things happening, and if you ever hear this language or speak in it the events surrounding that conversation will be momentous. No one in all creation or past it speaks this as a matter of course, fluently, but a few people are particularly attuned, who feel the vrmmmm vrmmmm of the entire universe, and strangely Halflings are among them.

There is a language of Beasts, and each beast has its own language to its species.

There are the languages the races cultivate - gnome, dwarf, elf - not versions of these above nor replacements for them, merely additional affectations and intonations that can't be accurately described in terms of what they aren't or how they are used by beings not raised in that culture. The concepts simply don't translate - speaking elf is being Elf and vice versa.

There are a million little dialects and neighborhood colloquialisms all across the great world but they are simply strange shapes in the sand rather than something else entirely, water or some shit, and so may be understood in the concept of sand. Languages. Sanguages.

There are of course the Songs of the Kind, which are something else entirely...

There is the Hush of the Dead, the unspeech where nobody speaks, which breeds silences, which few ever even hear and fewer hear without being terrified or mad. No one can be said to speak this by definition, and it has no script, but crickets shut the fuck up and dust falls hard enough you can hear it like snowfall.

There are the languages of colors which must only be spoken in conjunction with other tongues, lest they awaken things. There is also the language of Only Darkness Beneath Forever, which is mostly scratches, wails, and echolocation, and gives you a funny accent depending on what kind of metal you are wearing.

There is Robot.


It should be obvious from the Background or Career or character bio or circumstances of the module which ones you begin play speaking - for the most part the answer will be "most of them A LITTLE but some well" - but if you and your DM reach a dispute on it simply fill up your BX proficiencies with these or, if you're using LOTFP style skills, it's pretty easy there too: you begin with the logical ones and whenever you think you should have facility with a language, CHECK, and if you fail then just talk to someone who DOES understand that language. Talk to them a lot. You're allowed to try again after you level up.

This is a lot more usable list of languages to me than broad categories of humanoid types-by-language or every supernatural creature having its own languages. I mean of COURSE they do but how the languages are used, not who is using the language, should matter more in play. It matters more in fiction. Especially the fairy tale feel I like getting where I can in games. Or was the important detail whether the wolf speaking Common to Little Red Riding Hood?

And in case that isn't punishingly obvious, all Lawful characters know the Machine, all Chaotic characters know the Black Speech, and all Neutral characters know the First One, and you can fuck off with the rest of your alignment questions right out of here.

That was too confrontational and I apologize but won't erase it because, a little? Like I said this took several breaks to write and I began to drink.


  1. To be historical - every region has a different Low Tongue.

    I like this approach. My own houserules have a much less inventive list of standard languages that would work cross-campaigns. Learning the language of gnolls so you can speak only to gnolls seems so dead-end compared to learning Bestial.

  2. Oh certainly true verisimilitude would dictate distinct regions all having their own versions of these and sometimes multiple versions. While this didn't start out as an article about how languages should be gamed, just how they were actually used, I probably would just stick with something like this if trying to game it. Oldschool dnd has a weird combination of overly specific and too specific, "I speak Kobold and Common," kind of thing. I don't think I've close to presented it but I think there is a middle case there. I think it's probably striving not for ease of use (gameability) or accuracy (reality) but for fictive resonance, steering into the made-up-ness of what we're doing by making language in games be about what the speaker wants and why, thinking of it as a toolbox like a thief or scientist or fighter selects from, rather than where their kingdom is and who they momma be.