17 December, 2012

The Issues of Goblin Language


I’ve read through all the old articles explaining different people’s perspectives about languages in D&D. The bits about Gary Gygax reading some sword-and-sorcery series where one of the characters was able to speak a “thieves-cant”, which could be interjected into other languages, or which could be ”spoken” in such a way that only thieves could understand it. I’ve read numerous debates about “alignment languages”, and how they might supposedly work in real life (none of them sounded very convincing to me). Perhaps the best response I’ve heard to this argument is that different people might speak different dialects with inflections representing their religious beliefs. I understand the notion of cultural languages, and racial languages, but then we also get the fantasy staple of a “common tongue”.

I’ve been thinking about whether to put languages into the Goblin Labyrinth game. I can see reasons why the concept of languages should be put in, and reasons why it shouldn’t. I’m certainly not adding the notion of alignment languages, because the goblin game doesn’t have alignments to start with…and I’m not planning to add them at any time in the future.

One of the best reasons to put language variety in.

There are billions of goblins with short lifespans, and most don’t have the time to learn how to read. History is generally an oral tradition, or shared orally by those few scholars who are able to read the old texts. With this in mind, language is incredibly fluid it will evolve based on te needs of the communities where it is spoken and different communities will have different needs. A mining community will develop more words relating to ore, underground environments and mining equipment; while a fishing community will develop more words for types of fish, weather patterns and fishing gear. It’s just a fact of life…if you need to be more descriptive in one area, then you can probably afford to be less descriptive on other areas…the metaphors of the mining community probably won’t make a lot of sense to the fishing community, and as these metaphors become more a part of the language, the two become different dialects and eventually drift into separate languages. This occurs at the timescales of human life (roughly 20 years per generation), imagine how much more rapidly it would occur at the timescale of goblin life (roughly two months per generation).

There could theoretically be millions of languages, each spoken on average by a few thousand people.

A specific story might be told within a specific community where a single language is dominant, but there could easily be dozens of other languages present in the community, and more if the community is a hub of trade.

One of the best reasons not to put it in.

I’ve already established that the goblins have a communal memory. They rapidly mature in the first few weeks of life drawing knowledge from a hive mind as they reach adulthood. If this hive mind is universal, then a single language would be shared.

A quick look at a movie such as Labyrinth (which is where the goblins draw most of their inspiration), there are numerous species of creatures and they all speak a common tongue. They speak with different accents and dialects; some may only speak in simple terms while others are quite elaborate, but they all speak the same language ad can be basically understood by one another.

I’m tending at the moment toward a universal “Imperial Tongue” spoken by virtually all goblins at a basic level. Beyond this we have cultural tongues spoken only by those who belong to the said cultures, and those who have regular dealings with them. Languages exist at three levels; you don’t know it at all, you can speak basic words and understand basic concepts, or you can speak it fluently.

Since everyone speaks the standard “Imperial Tongue” this would work fairly simply in play. If two characters are from the same culture, their players may talk normally to one another, if two characters are from different cultures they may speak to each other in simple phrases of no more than 3 words (or two words and gestures). It adds a bit of chaos and confusion into the game…very goblinesque.

This isn't too far of a deviation from the rest of the system, where all abilities are divided into basic and advanced versions. It's also good because traders and diplomats now become more important in the setting because they can talk fluently with a wider variety of people. It hopefully pulls the focus of the game away from simple gathering and combat.
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