Who doesn’t love a rollicking hack-em-up adventure, where the good guys go in and beat the bad guys to a bloody pulp, steal the loot, and save the day? That’s the stuff fantasy stories are built on—deeds of derring-do, swords and magic. Who doesn’t delight about daughty heroes who weild power and conquer evil? Conan the Cimmerian with his mighty sword! Belgarion the wizard with the Will and the Word! Danaerys Targaryen with her dragons and her army of Unsullied!
Bilbo and his bumbling band of bearded brothers had a different kind of story. For Tolkein, fantasy was more than just a tapestry on which to paint strapping warriors rescuing busty women from evil warlords. His brand of fantasy was less a description of fights than a tapestry of a world. And he loved to describe that world.
His Middle Earth was a realm of language. Everything from descriptions that he gave to the lyrical dialogue, language held a special place in Tolkein’s heart. Songs, riddles, and rhymes peppered his stories, from the band of dwarves in The Hobbit to the lamentations of the elves in The Lord of the Rings. He even created his own alphabet and large swaths of spoken language throughout his works. His fantasy realm became the defacto tableau for an endless number of fantasy worlds, down to present day Dungeons and Dragons. But somewhere along the line, that love of language was lost.
Chainmail and D&D
So, D&D started its storied life as a supplement for wargaming, created as a way to let wargamers play characters rather than move units around. An adaptation for a game called Chainmail, it drew its inspiration directly from Tolkein. It was wildly successful, and easily the most powerful engine for the explosion in role playing games over the past fifty or so years. It has also become an inspiration for later fantasy novels, even spawning a number of series’ set within D&D campaign settings.
Since its inception, it has been more concerned with providing rules for combat than worldbuilding. And although it has given us a wealth of tables designed for all aspects of combat, it has left us with a pretty flimsy set of guidelines for a number of other aspects of role playing games. Like language.
The Common Tongue
In D&D, as with many other fantasy RPGs, characters speak the common tongue. This is a terribly convenient mecahnism for allowing people to communicate with one another. After all, consider your typical adventuring party. You might have a barbarian from the trackless northern tundra, an elven archer from the summer country, a dwarven priestess from beneath the middle mountains, a halfling rogue who grew up in the shelter of his family’s hills, a teifling sorceress from the far east, and Bob, their leader, who is your typical farm boy-turned sellsword. How in the name of the gods are they supposed to talk to each other?
This kind of diversity is one of the things that makes D&D so much fun to play. But without a common language, it can be downright impossible to keep a party together. So the inventors, in their wisdom, just said everyone can speak a common tongue.
While this is helpful for ease of play, it has absolutely no basis in historical accuracy. At one time, Latin was considered a common tongue. But who really spoke it? Typically, only leaders and learned men (and, occasionally, learned women) understood the Latin tongue. The common people rarely did. And often, leaders would employ translators and emissaries to communicate with Roman officials because they could neither read nor speak it themselves.
After the fall of Rome, things only got worse. Germanic tribes, Vikings, Franks, Saxons, Moors, and Arabs all spread their languages and cultures throughout Europe. Other people, like the Italian principalities and Greeks, resisted the influences of outside cultures. A new type of Latin, perpetuated by the Holy Roman Church, took root and flourished. But it was still only the priest class that used it fluently. While each language influenced others, some to more profound effect, village life throughout Europe was still largely provincial, and most of that life was carried out in the regional dialect or language.
After Charlemagne’s unification of the Frankish tribes, French became the “Lingua Franca” of the world. Under Moorish rule, an empire that stretched to the Iberian Peninsula spread the Arabic language. And the language of the ancient Britons was a collection of Celtic tongues, followed by the language of the Angles, then the Norns, then Norman French, each of which had their influences. Prior to the advent of mass media, Britain had not only different accents or dialects, but many different languages that were incomprehensible to communities that were often less than a hundered miles apart. In short, there was no “common tongue”, not even among the British; there were only those languages that were useful among a certain subset of society.
One of the more fascinating and useful aspects of language is how it evolved. Celtic languages dominated the British Isles, even under Roman rule. With the invasion of the Western Germanic people, like the Angles and the Saxons, their language began to drive out the Celtic tongues. But even as they spread, they evolved, adopting much of the vocabulary and cadence of the tongues they were replacing. The Norns, or Vikings, brought their own language, which was similar to the English (from the “Angles”) that had become common throughout the isles. And, while Norman French never conquered the British Isles in the way that English did, their influence can be seen throughout English.
Of course, English is, itself, an offshoot of German. Its grammar and many of its words are still Germanic. The same can be said for the Scandanavian languages. But recognizing that English is a Germanic language doesn’t do you any good if you’re stranded in Frankfurt, trying to figure out how to get to the train station. You’re reduced to the true common language: pantomime and prayer.
But understanding English helps a LOT if you’re trying to learn other languages. Learning Latin helps with French. Understanding the roots and origins of your language helps you pick up other related languages. In this respect, much of Europe throughout the ages has found “common tongues”; not in the sense that people could have conversations with their far-flung neighbors, but in that the speaker of one Romance language could get to the root and make basic needs understood.
So, where does “fun” come into all of this? When it comes to playing, “common” is a useful, if unrealistic, trope. A common tongue dispenses with the formality of having to figure out if people can understand one another. But it also strikes out when it comes to world building.
Realistically, there have been many “common tongues” throughout history, many inhabiting the same continent at the same time. Latin, Frankish, and Andalusian Arabic were all common languages in Europe during the reign of Charlemagne. They all united large swaths of people and were used for trade, government, and religion. Having a number of different “common tongues” that are regional can add flavor without sacrificing realism.
When it comes to your different regions, try looking at how they are related. If two nations have a common origin, you might want them to speak the same language. On the other hand, you might want to give them different dialects of the same root language. These dialects can offer common communication with a little bit of back-and-forth, but can also be used as a sort of “secret code” that can only be clearly understood by speakers of that dialect. If you’re not sure how that would work, try watching the movie Snatch and figuring out what in God’s name Brad Pitt is saying. Half the time he’s incomprehensible.
Language, as much as anything, is an indicator of culture. In storytelling, the language that your characters speak will not be “basically English”. It will have its own rules and syntax, different meters and cadences, and will be good at communicating that specific culture. You don’t need to model all of that in order to make vivid, dynamic cultures. You should, however, be aware that language is a primary function of culture. Your world should reflect that. And, whether you choose to make a complex set of rules regarding language or smooth it over for easier storytelling, language is an excellent opportunity to create another layer of vibrancy in your world.
One last thing….
They didn’t exist. There has never been a historical or even literary justification for them. If you’re playing D&D and still using these, please stop. Please. Just. Stop.