Monday, May 10, 2010
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.
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.
UPDATE: How this actually works in the real world: English becomes Globish.
Art by Jean-Leon Gerome and Hermann Meyerheim.