Parlez-vous Glantrian?: Dialects and Alignment Languages

“You spoke of the Elephant Tower,” said the stranger, speaking Zamorian with an alien accent. “I’ve heard much of this tower; what is its secret?”

—Robert E. Howard, “The Tower of the Elephant”

I’m not happy with old-school D&D’s language rules. They’re fine for dungeon crawls in which their sole purpose is dealing with the gribblies that may want to eat you. But the moment you try to simulate the world outside the dungeon, the language system fails.

Like the real world, many classic sword & sorcery settings are full of languages spoken by their predominantly human inhabitants. In classic D&D, however, each intelligent race has its own tongue—including humans, who have the “common tongue.” In addition, each character knows an “alignment language” based on their beliefs.

The conceit of a “common tongue” is fine by me; there have been quite a few such broadly-used languages in real-world history, from Latin under the Roman Empire to English today. The rules tacitly acknowledge the existence of other human languages: “The ‘common tongue’ . . . is spoken by most humans, dwarves, elves and halflings” (Moldvay Basic, p. B13; emphasis mine). But no information is provided on the use of such languages in game, and the default mode of gameplay discriminates against spending one’s precious language slots on foreign human languages when you could instead learn to talk to orcs, dragons, minotaurs and other wealthy, dangerous residents of the dungeon.

Where characters should have native tongues, they receive “alignment languages” instead. Alignments themselves are troublesome things (see this excellent Grognardia post, for example), and the presence of alignment languages doesn’t make it any better. How does one justify alignment as a descriptor of one’s personality, rather than as an immutable trait, if your alignment determines what language you know? What happens if you change alignments—do you forget your old alignment tongue and magically acquire a new one?

“You read Carsultyal, I see.”

“Haltingly,” Lord Dribeck acknowledged. “I’ve taken instruction in the six great languages. …”

—Karl Edward Wagner, “Bloodstone”

My solution thus far has been to replace each starting character’s “alignment language” slot with a single additional human language of the player’s choice. This may be the local language—in my campaign’s case, Glantrian—or the language of their home culture. This allows for private conversations between characters, as well as avenues for communication with NPCs who might not know the common tongue.

The common tongue itself is the trade tongue of the fallen merchant empire of the South, of which several nations on the shores of the Great Ocean speak modern dialects. Outside of those nations, it’s used by traders, scholars and diplomats as a lingua franca. No matter where you go, someone’s likely to speak it, especially the merchants that PCs deal with in their travels.

As to alignment languages, I’ve repurposed them as ecclesiastical languages akin to Church Latin, Aramaic or Sanskrit. The “Old Tongue” was spoken by the ancient empire of Chaos that ruled the world at the dawn of recorded history, and is still spoken by cultists of the Chaos gods. The “High Tongue” was the language of the worshipers of Law who overthrew that Chaos empire; it is still used in the rituals of many gods of Law.

Fafhrd neither answered nor frowned at that shrewd question. Instead he asked, “How many languages can you speak—besides this pidgin-Lankhmarese?”

She smiled at last. “What a question! Why, I speak—though not too well—Mingol, Kvarchish, High and Low Lankhmarese, Quarmallian, Old Ghoulish, Desert-talk and three Eastern tongues.”

—Fritz Leiber, “The Snow Women”

Meanwhile, the biggest flaw in the language system is the heavily restricted number of languages a character can learn. In Basic D&D, a character of average intelligence knows two languages, while one with 18 Intelligence may know as many as five. AD&D characters are more competent, with average intelligence allowing four languages and 18 Intelligence allowing up to nine. Meanwhile, in the real world, polyglot speakers may know literally dozens of languages. Far-traveled sword and sorcery characters like Conan or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser likewise know far more tongues than the rules would allow, and continue to pick up more languages in their travels.

I’m still working on rules for handling new language acquisition. Such a system should be easy enough to permit the PCs to communicate in foreign lands, while remaining hard enough to allow for interesting complications. I’m interested in learning what you, gentle readers, have done in this regard!

10 Responses to “Parlez-vous Glantrian?: Dialects and Alignment Languages”

  1. February 21, 2010 at 10:19 pm

    I’d say they can only “start” with as many languages as their intelligence score allows. When characters try to speak to someone who speaks a related language to one they already know, then they’d need an intelligence check to muddle through it, and if they want to learn a new, unrelated, language then maybe some intelligence mitigated roll to determine how long it would take them to pick it up, if they ever can. Maybe each month the character is given instruction, or submerged in the language they can make an intelligence check to see if they “begin to pick it up” in which case its an intelligence check with a modifier to understand someone speaking it, after X amount of successful intelligence checks the character can be assumed to be fluent.

  2. 2 Chris Newman
    February 22, 2010 at 1:44 am

    There are way to many languages in the DnD universe, to make it easier i wish monsters didn’t each have their own language but a behavior pattern or body language that you can learn and slowly pick up more as you advance your travels. So There would now be two sections, one language one monsterology(couldn’t think of name) and you can have a reasonable chance of learning alot in both.

  3. February 23, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    As always, you post an interesting comment that I have not considered too deeply in my travels. One thing that you need to take into account is that, barring exceptional language-acquisition skills, simply ‘learning’ a new language while traveling would be nearly impossible for an adult. A prodigious child whose parents move them throughout the realms may know five or six languages, but even an 18-intelligence child would be hard pressed to learn a new language without a focused term of study. Your average 9-12 INT character probably wouldn’t be able to learn more than a handful of sentences.

    That said, a few major languages, such as how the age of sail was dominated by Portuguese, would definitely be known by all relevant players in any sort of national stage.

    Thanks for posting!

  4. February 23, 2010 at 4:56 pm

    @Wicked Wizard: A bit of internet research suggests that one check per in-game month is probably not too far off the mark. Note, however, that old-school D&D has no provision for attribute checks! Presumaby the proper response is to design a “language learning table”?

    Language Learning Table

    Roll 1d6 per month of instruction or exposure.

    1: No progress made.
    2-5: Advance one level of fluency.
    6: Advance two levels of fluency.

    Modifiers (use all that apply):
    * Add your Int modifier.
    * If the language is similar to a language you know, add 1 or 2 to the roll, based on the degree of similarity (DM’s discretion).
    * If the language is completely alien to all languages you know, subtract 1 or 2 from the roll, based on the degree of alienness (DM’s discretion).
    * If you only know one language, subtract 1 from the roll.

    Fluency levels:

    0: Can’t make heads nor tails of it.
    1: Elementary grasp; you know a few useful phrases, typically involving courtesies, transactions and directions.
    2: Limited proficiency; you know enough of the language to hold stilted conversations on simple topics.
    3: Full proficiency; you can hold straightforward conversations on most any topic.
    4: Accented fluency.
    5: Unaccented, native fluency.

  5. February 23, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    @Chris Newman: According to ethnologue.com, there are 6,909 known living languages in the real world. I don’t know that the typical D&D world has anywhere near that many languages!

    Still, I’m curious as to the nature and function of your “monsterology” proposal. What use would a PC gain from their knowledge of monster body languages and behavior patterns?

  6. February 23, 2010 at 5:12 pm

    @adventurematerials: It’s worth noting that learning a third language is much, much easier than learning a second language, even as an adult. And even the most dull-witted D&D character already starts out knowing two languages! They also typically learn through immersion, which has significant advantages over studying in a classroom for a couple of hours a week.

    Modern American monolingualism is a historical anomaly. Meanwhile, we’re not so worried about real history as we are about sword and sorcery settings, wherein even a traveling actress may know eleven languages! I’d much rather err on the side of leniency in my game, especially when I can back up that lenient approach with real-world facts.

  7. February 24, 2010 at 1:23 am


    Good points, all. Plus, anything to make your game more Howard-esque is only for the better!


  8. February 24, 2010 at 8:22 pm

    If the goal is to model S&S fiction… does Conan, et al, have trouble communicating with their fellow adventurers? I haven’t read all of REH’s stories, but I can’t think of any where Conan’s or other peoples’ accents are anything more than a device to show how different he is from them and vice-versa. I can think of instances where he can’t read foreign script, which might also be worth noting for D&D.

    Perhaps the languages known indicates literacy. But you can muddle through or even do well after a couple of months of hanging out with an Ogre.

    Btw, in Burning Wheel they have something called Low Speech that all animals speak. Something similar for D&D monsters would work well.

  9. February 24, 2010 at 8:53 pm

    If the goal is to model S&S fiction… does Conan, et al, have trouble communicating with their fellow adventurers?

    Characters often have trouble communicating until they master a common language; this is typically resolved quickly for the reader by glossing over long stretches of time in just a few sentences. I believe this is especially common in “sword and planet” fiction like Burroughs’ Barsoom stories.

    Fortunately, this particular problem doesn’t trouble us in D&D because all PCs know the “common tongue.”

    I haven’t read all of REH’s stories, but I can’t think of any where Conan’s or other peoples’ accents are anything more than a device to show how different he is from them and vice-versa.

    REH uses language as a barrier when it suits the need of the story. For example, take “Beyond the Black River,” where Balthus the Aquilonian is the viewpoint character; we see Conan and a Pict exchange words in Pictish, and Balthus doesn’t understand a word of it.

    It’s also worth noting that Conan, unlike your typical PC, survives dozens of adventures without being killed by a bad roll of the dice. Old-school play makes allowances for naturalism that we don’t see in the source fiction.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

February 2010

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