…blank looks from the players… “Hey,” you say, “that is the word for mouth on this planet! And they use Twizinkle for a cute, small furry rodent that steals carrot from farmers. Here we’d call them rabbits, but the characters don’t know that word, and besides, the fur on a twizinkle is much more coarse and longer anyway…almost like hedgehog, or gohrut, but not as stiff!” …still getting blank looks, til one says, “um, can we say OK, or is there a four syllable word for that”…
I LOVE CONLANGS! CONLANG = constructed language. They are great fun, particularly when you can create your own writing and symbols! Unfortunately, there is little value added for RPGs, particularly compared to the huge amount of work needed to make it consistent and believable. Not that they don’t have their uses, but they are quite limited. This post is about this favorite thing of mine, and why it is not generally useful, and the times that it can be. Also, I’ll conclude with some techniques for creating usable Conlangs, as well as a few resources for the more adventurous of you.
To understand what I am talking about let me refine the idea. A constructed language is simply a language that did not evolve naturally in our world. There can be some notable discussion on this such as “Does technical jargon count as a CONLANG?” or “So who defines a natural evolution? Is “Telephone” part of a CONLANG?” Simply put, yes to both, but that is not the debates I want to get into. I am more looking at the languages of authors, or screenwriters; Vulcan or Klingon from Star Trek, Elven languages from Tolkien and a host of others. Many of the languages from Star Wars, or all of the languages from Game of Thrones. There are folks out there whose job is creating believable and pronounceable (with a human mouth) languages for their fictional race of beings. Sometimes this includes a symbol set to relay a written language. These languages usually add depth to a story, as well as even allowing for plotting around misunderstanding of a particular nuance of phrase. And for the scripted, planned and designed things that these are they work brilliantly. I could go into how some people even create root languages and shift them so you can have related languages, as well as linguistic rules and so on…but I will have better resources for that at the end.
Sounds Cool! Why don’t they work?
It is cool, but they don’t work because your gamers already speak a native tongue and perhaps a few others. In a game world, that means you would either have to spend several game sessions teaching them another language so that they can play in your world. Or you can introduce the appropriate words, phrases and turns of phrase as they come up and explain what they mean…and then explain them again if and when they come up, because your players didn’t remember that the position of the ess sound is only important when using the religious form, so that even though the word sounds different from when you used it, in passing, with a 3 minute explanation 3 weeks ago, that this is the same word, because it is not a religious but a formal setting, and so the prefix doesn’t change the meaning, its only an honorific…Yes! Even a simple language can have such distinctions, and in fact usually simple languages have many more rules to try to make a limited vocabulary fit more complex issues. Furthermore, it takes a significant investment of time and commitment to create a language and language rules, not to mention consistent sounds and maybe even a graphic symbol system to serve as a written medium. Keeping this in mind, CONLANGS seem to be solely a tool to show how clever you are while taking a significant time investment, but only adding a small bit of flavor to the setting that needs to be explained almost every time you use it! Seems there are better uses of your time…
Why do you even bring them up, then?
Aside from the fact that etymology fascinates me, they do have their uses, and with out a huge outlay of work. When you are creating a setting for a new game one of the things to consider is language. You don’t have to think about it in a “how many symbols are in their lexicon” kind of way, but in a “what does the language sound like?” way. For instance, you are creating a modern-day setting where the Roman empire never fell, and all the Roman citizens have Greco-roman names. When someone creates Senator Cheezwaddle, it kinda ruins the mood. Since you know what the language should sound like You can create and enforce some simple “Sounds Like” rules. You know that hard constants are rare, and usually only at the beginning of names; Julius, Guyas, Jermania. You know that names are usually short, and usually 2 syllables long and end with vowels or sustainable consonants. Given these simple rules, you could alter the senator’s name to be Geezwadus! Ok…maybe not a great name, but much more in your “Sound like rules” Naming is a great place to begin CONLANGs, and if you really want, create a simple table with, say 4 parts: Part one is a prefix for the name…and it might be blank, maybe half the table has no prefix. Part two is a single or double syllable name. Part three is an appropriate suffix and part four is an adfix, that again is more than half blank. This would assure that all the names are sound appropriate, and you might have different tables for males and females or for citizens and non citizens.
A further use of language “sound like” rules is in naming places. When you are naming your locations, you could use the standard Old English naming style of descriptive place: Blackmoor, Cold Hill, Fall Bridge or Oldford. Great and viable names…but what if you have set the world in somewhat of a Russian steppes style? Enter Google Translate! Then they become Cheryynmavr, kholodnogo kholma, padayut mosta, or staryy brod! But you are only looking for Sounds Like, so make them a little more english freindly and the become Cherrymvar, Kholmanogo, Padaymost and Star Ybrod! Using this same technique You can populate nearby kingdoms, or worlds, and the places can have the local name and then a name in common tounge or mechant Cant, or whatever all of your players supposedly use! So, the capital city of Star Ybrod (Old Fording in the common) is the home of the Velkiy Volshnik Krolya,or the Grand Wizard King! And now you have some sound right locations, a title and their more common names. As a ref, you just need to be aware of where the info is coming from as to what name to use. If it is an ancient scroll refereing to a temple in the city, it might be and “Old Form” of the local language, so you add a phoneme to each word and it becomes Strara Ybrodoh, but when a foriegn merchant is talking about the trade guilds there, she would liklely use Old Fording.
However, what if you want to be 1st person rather than narrative when your players encounter a language they do not speak? You can’t use a real world language…one of your players may speak Russian better than you! In place of all of this, …Make shit up! If it is a harsh language, Orcish or Klingon, then lots of hard sounds and spitting. If it is a melodious language, like Latin or Elvish, then hums and long vowels, susserants and few plosives. If they are trying to ask a question just keep repeating your sounds. If they don’t sound like they did last time, well, the speaker has changed to a different dialect or style because they obviously didn’t understand!
Aside from names of things, another place that conlangs work is simple, oft repeated phrases: “Yes”, “no”, “more please”, “Kill it with fire!” In many of my games I create (or steal from) languages, but only a dozen or so words, and usually, then only use of them is for things like that. Players all know the words Ja, Da, Si, Hai, Hola…but when you put them in a gaming world, they have the same meaning, but you have added some definite spice to your campaign. Players pick it up fast, no explanation needed. You can add a few other phrases in either a known language, or a pure conlang, and so long as you use them consistently, they become usable and enjoyable AND put a bit of memory on your game with almost zero work.
One final point before some references: Never underestimate the value of a note written in a foreign language. There are lots of references you can use to create a written language, but in general you only need to decide what it looks like, and you can create nonsense that looks great! Maybe it is carved into stone…in that case, straight lines…maybe it is written on delicate tissue like paper, then brush strokes…Whatever you like. You can even just type up your message on a word processor, misspell a lot of the words, take out all spaces, then put two spaces every 7 or 8 letters and convert the whole thing to one of the graphic or wing-ding fonts…It don’t work half bad, and you have an instant foreign message…a local scholar can “Translate” it, of course some of the words may have the wrong meaning…or the the city may no longer be call Cheynvar… I could go on…but this is already a bit long.
If you are interested in looking up more info on creating your own language there are any number of websites and blogs, but here are a couple of books that I have used and really like: The Language Construction Set, The Conlangers society, Random Names and of course Seventh Sanctum