Monday, May 10, 2010

What's Common?

Riffing on Oddysey’s latest posts, but going the other way, part of my world design process is deciding just what the language “Common” is. It’s a handy device to make sure everyone can talk to each other, but it also implies something about the setting. The Common tongue grows out of power; everyone speaks it because it was the native tongue of those with some sort of authority. That power could be political, but it could also be commercial, cultural, or religious.

In history, there have been a handful of common tongues. Latin, of course, is the one most folks think of. Not only was it the language of Rome and her empire, but it was bequeathed to the Catholic Church that followed. Most didn’t speak it well in the Middle Ages. It’s common to come across documents written with Latin words but local grammar, which makes understanding a real mess. And the closer you get to the Renaissance, the fewer outside the church who speak it.

A few hundred years after the Renaissance, the rise of France’s cultural power made French the lingua franca of diplomacy and culture. But in the world of the burgeoning science of geometry, the lingua franca was Greek, because so much of the work being done was based on an ancient Greek foundation.

Today, the closest thing the world has to a Common tongue is American English. While the vast American entertainment-industrial complex is primarily responsible, the fact that English is the native language of the ‘net certainly doesn’t hurt.
So we’ve got lots of models to work from when thinking about where Common comes from in a campaign. It can be the language of a great empire, either past or present, of some international organization like a church, or the language of scholars or popular culture. Which it is will define something of your campaign.

Traditionally, the Common tongue has been the language of a fallen empire in my campaigns. That fall wasn’t too long ago; everybody has family history of the days back when the empire still stood, though for short-lived humans that may have been great-great grandfather’s day. In my current Doom & Tea Parties game, Common is the language of the Second Lizardfolk Empire, still standing but also clearly on its last legs. In both cases, the collapse of empire gives the world a Points of Light feel. Pockets of civilization remain, but between them can be seen the unraveling of culture, law, and safety for the common folk, with lots of opportunities for brave (or unscrupulous) adventurers.

In a previous campaign, the Common tongue was a trade pidgin of Gnomish. The gnomes, being great traders who occupied a hilly land near the center of the continent, went everywhere and traded with everywhere. With the gnomes and their trade comes news of far-off lands and connection to them as well. The rampages of a dragon in far-off Gebelstor meant imports of iron would become rare, raising the price. Elven raids along the coast of Berian, breadbasket of the continent, might lead to hunger and malnutrition throughout the lands. There’s no end of adventure hooks for our heroes to chase as the gnomes bring word of great happenings from the icy wastes of the far north to the tropical Emerald Coast. Everything feels connected, and where that connection is mostly felt by its absence with the fallen empire, in the a campaign strung together by trade every action the PCs have can be seen to reverberate through the economic web of
the gnomes.

UPDATE: How this actually works in the real world: English becomes Globish.

Art by Jean-Leon Gerome and Hermann Meyerheim.


greywulf said...

I'd argue that the closest real language to Common is Mandarin - it's spoken by the most people and is the common trade tongue between a huge number of people who otherwise have widely different languages and dialects.

And "American" English is only spoken in one place: America. Add the number of English speakers in India, Nigeria, UK and all the rest together, and "American" English is only a small proportion of the total.

BigFella said...

@ greywulf

I seem to recall hearing that in the case of Chinese, while different dialects abound the alphabet is shared, so, for example, someone who speaks Cantonese can communicate in written language to a Mandarin speaker, even if they can't speak to one another.

A common written tongue might be an interesting idea to pursue. What about a campaign world where the verbal language barrier is present but written information can be understood easily?

greywulf said...

That would be very cool indeed.

Thinking about it, you could say we have exactly that right now - we use pictograms, symbols and signs to a massive degree and they're (generally) universal. We might not be able to "say" the symbol that represents the men's restroom, but we all know what it means :D

Transplanting that into a fantasy realm, I could imagine a runic/pictographic alphabet(like a simplified KanjI) which conveys concepts and ideas in a way that anyone can understand.

Yeah. I dig that.

Anonymous said...

Greywulf- I would say that a good argument can be made for 'English' as the modern common. After all you can go most places and find an English speaker (and it is the language of flight controllers and pilots).

But common languages do need a why they exist in a game world. Mine is imposed by the Draconic Imperium.

BigFella said...


The "language neutral" nature of a lot of modern signage would definitely add an interesting dimension to a post-apocalyptic game setting.

In that OR a fantasy realm, the other thing that makes a common written tongue an interesting addition is it makes communication between intelligent creatures with vastly different anatomies more believable.

Communication with a dragon, or a xorn, or what have you, seems to make more sense if you're using flash cards or pointing to pictograms on a chart.

2eDM said...

just another option, but I remember reading somewhere(possibly an idea brought up in a forum) that the Common "Trade" tongue in the Dark Sun campaign setting was likely a Slave language that the population at large picked up.