The way that languages are presented in a lot of FRPGs has always bothered me. Intellectually I understand that they’re playable abstractions, that the players usually don’t care, that it really doesn’t matter, but emotionally I’m still attached to the way that linguistics actually work, how mutable language is, and how they impact the very way we think.
A Common Tongue
Historically, yes, there have been pidgin and trade languages used by those who frequently interact with other cultures, but they’re a lot more limited than presented in fantasy gaming fiction, and they don’t really “solve” the problem… each pidgin is itself a language. If you speak German-French you don’t speak Hungarian-Russian and only a little French-English. These pidgins are determined by the intersections of cultures at specific places at specific times – hardly universal.
On the other hand, for much of medieval history Latin was close to a common language in all of Western Europe and Greek was in the East; if you spoke both, you could find someone to understand you no matter where you went. Still, this was in Europe during a given time period, and many of the people you’d meet – farmers, craftsmen, etc – would only speak the local language. This ties in to our next section, actually.
All Elves speak Elven. All Dwarves speak Dwarven. All Orcs speak orc. What?
This is part of a larger issue; monocultural species across the globe. Despite the vast variety among humans even on the same continent, all of the members of a nonhuman culture will share, with little variation, the same general cultural archetype, perhaps flavored by the local humans. Japanese elves have Daimyo and Samurai and all that plopped down on top of the elven cultural template.
There is some support for this, in that we can ascribe “Elven” or “Dwarven” or whatever nature to the way they differ from humanity on a biological and neurological level; if Dwarves, as a race, tend to be more staid than the human baseline, then Dwarven culture itself will come across as more somber and dour to human observers. But there should still be a great deal of variety within that spectrum.
You can see this in science fiction, too – where the human protagonists retain some sort of national identity and cultural variation, but the aliens are a single “sort” of people with one language, fashion, and set of social values.
The reason for this is obvious; it takes a lot of work to define one culture, let alone several. This is the same reason we have a single Common tongue; the humans, too, get one language.
A Few Cultural Options
Now, remember that we’re here to incorporate FRPG tropes and not subvert them, here are a few solutions to ponder that embrace the monoculture.
- What we think of as Elven is just these elves. Other elves might have different customs or speak a different language, but the ones we’re familiar with are like this. If and when we describe other groups, we’ll need to figure out how they differ.
- These elves are the only elves. Our local elves are the only ones in the setting. That’s right. Just the one group. We don’t need to define others, on account of scarcity.
- All elves from the same source, with little drift. Across the world all elves come from a common cultural source, and for whatever reason, time and distance hasn’t made much of an impact on who they are. Maybe they keep great records. Maybe “change” isn’t something they’re comfortable with. We can come up with minor variations, but overall they’re a lot more “stable” than humanity.
- Elves are just riding humanity’s coattails. They have no true culture, just variations on the local dominant race’s themes.
In Heroic Explorations, we’ll use all of these excuses and explanations at different times, for different races. The Elves might be few in number. The Dwarves might have a heavily traditional mindset. Our orcs are like this, who knows about the rest. And halflings? Little runts have no culture.
But what about Common? Do we want a single language that can be spoken anywhere you go?
Let distant places stay mysterious, and let the language barrier be part of that. We’ll have a lot of common languages, maybe one per big region, to eliminate most of the problems within our own homeland, but you go far enough East and they stop speaking Latin, start speaking Greek. Go a bit further? Maybe they speak something you’ve never even heard of. Hire a guide, cast a spell, or learn a new language, traveler.