“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!