Language has an important role in fantasy. In the video game Skyrim, the language of dragons produces powerful magic effects when spoken. In the Lord of the Rings stories, Gandalf repeatedly mentions that the ‘dark speech of Mordor’ should not be spoken, and when it is, it appears painful to hear.* In Judeo-christian mythology, the entire universe is created when god speaks; “and god said, let there be light: and there was light.” So why is it that we ignore language in fantasy RPGs? The most it is ever used for is a minor obstacle when a message or an NPC requires fluency in a certain language to understand.
As I’ve already mentioned in my analysis of the linguistics skill, learning languages by spending a skill point is stupid. Not only can it quickly lead to a character knowing an absolutely ludicrous number of languages (See: The Owlbear) but it doesn’t represent the proper amount of time investment for language learning. I’ve been pondering how this could be improved, and I think I’ve come up with something workable. Characters start play knowing their “basic languages.” These would be The Common Tongue, and any languages which the character should know based on their race and class. For a human fighter, the only basic language would be The Common Tongue. For a dwarven druid, the basic languages would include The Common Tongue, Dwarven, and Druidic. From there, the character may select a number of bonus languages equal to their intelligence modifier. These languages must be of the commonplace variety, but can be selected during gameplay rather than at character creation, if the GM is willing.
After selecting these first languages, players may learn additional tongues by investing time. They must purchase a book (which varies in price from 10gp for commonplace languages, to 10,000 gp for the rarest tongues), or be traveling with a companion willing to teach them. They must spend 8 hours every day in light activity, studying this language. If they are being taught by a companion, their companion must also spend this time in teaching the language, rather than in other tasks. After 35 days (equal to 1 game month for me), the character has successfully learned the language.
A character can learn a maximum number of languages equal to twice their intelligence modifier. So a character with a +4 intelligence modifier can learn up to 8 languages. Note that a character’s basic languages do count against this maximum. So a human fighter with 18 Int starts out knowing The Common Tongue, and 4 other languages based on their intelligence. After that, they may learn 3 additional languages for a total of 8. On the other hand, a dwarven druid with 18 intelligence starts out knowing The Common Tongue, Dwarven, and Druidic, as well as 4 other languages based on their intelligence. That’s a total of 7 languages, so the dwarf will only be able to learn 1 more after the fact. If a player wishes to learn more than their maximum number of languages, they may do so by taking the Polyglot feat, which allows characters to learn as many languages as they like.
Below is a list of languages organized by how common they are. I’ve included the 21 languages in the Pathfinder Core Rulebook, as well as a number of additional languages from other sources, and some of my own creation.
*While I have read LotR, it was more than half my life ago. Forgive me if my memories are more influenced by the films than the novels.
Commonplace languages are spoken openly by many people throughout the material plane. A textbook for learning a commonplace language would be available in most book stores, and could be purchased for 10-50gp. Note that The Common Tongue is not listed, as it is a universal language, not simply a commonplace one.
Dwarven Dwarven is filled with hard sounds, much like real world German or Russian. ‘Dwarven’ is a common tongue spoken by most dwarves. However, in a campaign world with different species of dwarf (Such as The Forgotten Realm’s Shield, Gold, and Gray dwarfs) each dwarf subspecies may have its own language, separate from the shared language of Dwarven. In such a case, each of the languages would be considered a Commonplace language. That includes the language of Gray dwarfs, since the mine-dwelling dwarven species are likely to encounter their Underdark dwelling cousins with some frequency.
Elven In contrast with Dwarven, Elven has very few hard sounds. Most words are composed of soft sounds, which flow one word to the next. The few words which do contain hard sounds are among the rudest words in the elven tongue. Elven is also the most expansive language, with a massive alphabet, and a lexicon which could contain the languages of several other species at once. Elves do not have multiple languages in campaign settings with more than one elven species. Wood elves, sun elves, high elves, etc. all speak a single unified language, though certain ways of phrasing things may be more common among one group than they are among another. The only exception to this is the Drow, whose tongue is a bastardization of Elven and Abyssal.
Gnomish Gnomish is a fast language. This often makes it difficult for non-native speakers to follow conversations between gnomes, even if they do know the language. It is also an extremely descriptive language, and it is not uncommon for a noun to be followed by a lengthy list of adjectives which–in most languages–would be considered excessive. Like elves, the gnomish language is universal among gnomes. This includes the Svirfneblin, or deep gnomes, who–despite being culturally quite different from their surface cousins–are none the less on amicable terms with the rest of their species.
Halfling Halfling sounds very similar to elven, and in fact is thought to be descended from that tongue. Most of its words, however, are not found within the expansive elven language. Halfling, more than any other language, incorporates words from many other languages as well. Dwarves, gnomes, and even orcs might occasionally recognize a random word within a sentence spoken in Halfling.
Gnoll Gnoll is a particularly difficult language for non-gnolls to speak. It is filled with many high pitched sounds, and a lot of bleating and yelping. Fortunately, it is also a very limited tongue, with a vocabulary of only a few thousand words.
Goblin Like Gnomish, the Goblin tongue is extremely fast paced. The chattering of Goblin often sounds comical, which belies how many synonyms they have for acts of violence. Goblins learn to speak it at a remarkably young age, and some anthropologists surmise that the language is actually instinctual for these creatures.
Orcish Orcish is a brusk, primitive language without artistry or style. Any of its subtlety comes from gestures made with the hands, head, or face. Note that these two are not considered separate languages, but a single language which combines vocal and gestural elements.
Giant The language of Giants sounds very similar to the Dwarven tongue, and in fact uses the same alphabet as Dwarven. The various types of Giant (Hill Giant, Stone Giant, Ice Giant, and so forth) have not quite developed their own sub languages. However, they do have very distinct dialects, which can take some time to grow accustomed to.
Gestural Languages Most cultures have developed gestural languages which are similar in style to their spoken languages. These have a twofold purpose: first, they allow those who are deaf and/or dumb to communicate. Second, they allow for silent communication during military action–though those who learn the language for its stealth applications normally have an extremely limited vocabulary. These languages include: Gestural Common, Gestural Elven, Gestural Dwarven, Gestural Halfling, Gestural Gnomish, and Gestural Giant. The other common species have not developed any detailed gestural languages, though that does not mean they are not capable of extremely basic gestural communication.
Like common languages, uncommon languages are mostly spoken by creatures on the material plane. However, most human and demi-human cultures will have had little to no contact with the creatures who speak these languages. As such, they can be difficult to learn. Textbooks for learning these languages are likely to be found only in universities, or the bookstores of large cities. Purchasing one will likely cost between 200 and 1000 gold pieces.
Aklo & Sylvan To someone who speaks neither Sylvan nor Aklo, the two languages might sound identical. Even non-native speakers sometimes fail to understand why a word from one language can’t be used while speaking the other. But to the creatures who speak these languages natively–the fey–the two tongues could not be more different. Speaking a word of Aklo within a Sylvan sentence is profoundly offensive, and vice-versa. It is also said that a plant which grows hearing the Sylvan language daily will flourish and grow strong, whilst a plant which grows hearing Aklo will become twisted and thorny.
Aquan Primarily the tongue spoken by water based outsiders, Aquan is none the less ‘uncommon’ rather than ‘rare,’ because the many water dwelling peoples of the material plane (such as merfolk) speak it. Aquan is strange, in that it can be heard as easily through water as most languages can be heard through the air. Additionally, it has been found that speaking this language wets the mouth of the one speaking it, though one who does not understand the language cannot replicate this effect by speaking the same words. There are some tales of people surviving for weeks without water, sustaining their life by speaking Aquan aloud to themselves.
Auran Like Aquan, Auran is a tongue primarily spoken by air based outsiders. However, many flying creatures on the material plane also speak the language, and this allows it to be more commonly known than most outsider tongues. Most native speakers find it frustrating to converse with non-native speakers, since they often don’t have the lung capacity to speak Auran easily. As a result, they need to take a breath after almost every word, giving the impression that they’re constantly exhausted from physical stress. Despite that fact, those who speak the language actually find it much easier to breathe while speaking it–an ability which comes in handy when faced with poison gases, or low oxygen environments.
Draconic Though the language of dragons is spoken by Kobolds and might be thought to be common, the dialect which Kobolds speak is composed only of the simplest words, with no regards for grammar, and numerous mispronunciations. While this works fine for the Kobolds, true Draconic is a much rarer and much more complicated language. In order to speak it correctly, a creature as tiny as a human needs to almost constantly shout the words in order to create the proper volume and inflection.
Undercommon The common tongue of the underdark is most naturally spoken in low, quiet tones. In that deep place it serves the same purpose as The Common Tongue does on the surface world: it is a universal language, which is none the less distinct from the specific racial languages found there.
Ancient Common Many of the commonplace languages slowly evolve over time. While an individual’s life is too short for this gradual shift to matter, after countless generations it can be impossible to decipher a book written in a language you ostensibly speak. As such, many languages have an “ancient” counterpart which must be learned as a separate tongue. These include: Ancient Common, Ancient Dwarven, Ancient Gnomish, Ancient Halfling, and Ancient Giant. The Elven language is unique in that it does not evolve, save to occasionally add new words to its expansive lexicon.
Drow As mentioned above, the language of the drow is a bastardization of Elven and Abyssal. Unlike elven, the drow tongue does evolve over time, and ancient versions of it do exist. Though, the older an example of the drow language is, the more it resembles Abyssal words shoehorned into Elvish conjugation and grammar.
The Gravespeech Intelligent undead are imbued with knowledge of this tongue upon their reanimation. Many of its guttural sounds are difficult for a living creature to create, but learning the language is a coveted rite of passage for necromancers. Those who chant their necrotic spells in this tongue swear that their command of the undead is strengthened.
Most rare languages are not spoken by creatures native to the material plane. They are the languages of outsiders, and their words carry great power. A textbook for learning such a language will be difficult to obtain. Likely only a few exist in the world, and they will either be owned by wizards and kings, or guarded by fearsome monsters in a dungeon beneath the earth. Purchasing one would cost not less than 5,000 gold, and could be as expensive as 10,000 gold, or higher.
Abyssal Every word in the grammarless language of demons sounds horrible. Some are reminiscent of a retching cough, whilst others sound disturbingly like a wail of pain. Those who speak it often find themselves prone to acting irrationally for a time afterwords, and respond a little more spitefully to minor annoyances.
Celestial The language of the upper planes always feels good to speak for creatures of good alignment. There is no distinct sensation, but your breathing becomes a little deeper, and your mind a little clearer. By contrast, most evil creatures find it unpleasant to hear. Not quite as bad as nails on a chalkboard. It’s unlikely that the language could be used to detect evil folk by watching for people’s reactions
Ignan The language of fire based outsiders requires a rasping voice to pronounce correctly. Speaking it drys the mouth of the speaker, and prolonged speech can apparently begin to drain a body of its water reserves. It is not recommended to speak the language at length without a beverage nearby. Those who do speak it find themselves temporarily immune to natural fire damage for a few moments after speaking.
Infernal The grammar of Infernal is so strict and obtuse that it makes the language almost impossible to speak until you can speak it absolutely fluently. An incorrectly conjugated verb is enough to make an entire sentence completely indecipherable. And a small error in a lengthy conversation can completely change the meaning of something spoken twenty minutes earlier. The impenetrable nature of the language provides a new dimension to the old phrase “Devils always speak in contracts.”
Terran All of the words in Terran are extremely short. In fact, each of the letters in the Terran written language can also be used to spell a single-character word. The language does not lend itself to lengthy conversations, and is best used to facilitate brief exchanges of necessary information. Speaking the language makes the ground somewhat more welcoming of you. Those who speak it often mutter to themselves as they travel, and swear that their feet hurt much less at the end of the day because of it. Of course, this application is most useful when falling from a great distance, as it reduces the amount of fall damage taken by 1d6.
Treespeech & Seavoice When the trees rustle, and the waves crash, subtle words are being spoken by nature itself. No one, not even fey creatures, can actually learn to speak in either Treespeech or Seavoice. Both languages are created by forces far beyond the ability of a pair of lungs and a single larynx. However, after careful study and a great deal of listening, one can learn to understand what is being said. An astute listener can learn a great deal about who and what is nearby, and it is impossible to become lost when you understand the language of your environment. As a special requirement, both of these languages require a Wisdom score of 14 or higher to learn.
Secret languages are known only to a chosen few. Helping an outsider learn it, or writing a textbook on it, is a grave offense. Special conditions must be met in order to learn any of these languages.
Druidic Druidic is a known only to druids, and taught to them through communing with nature. Druidic spells with verbal components must be spoken in druidic, or they will not work.
Thieves’ Cant Spoken in the underbelly of society, Thieves’ Cant is a carefully guarded secret of those on the wrong side of the law. Teaching it to anyone on the ‘right’ side of the law is enough to get your throat slit.
Drow Sign Language Though many societies have gestural languages, as mentioned above, the gestural language of the drow is taught much more universally amongst their people. In the underdark, where many creatures hunt by sound rather than sight, the ability to pass messages silently is essential to survival. Given the violent nature of drow, even allowing an outsider to witness too much of the language might earn someone a violent execution from their superiors.
Language of the Church Historically, the official language of the catholic church is Latin, despite the fact that the language has been dead for the majority of the church’s history. Using a language known only to educated members of society allowed the church to create a veil of secrecy between the clergy and the lay people. No one can question how certain teachings were derived from sacred texts if only the clerics can read the sacred texts. Many, or even all churches in a fantasy world might have secret languages of their own. They need not be a method of deception either; a goodly church may simply wish to keep its secrets safe from those who would exploit them.
There are some languages which simply cannot be learned. Hearing them puts a mortal in danger of losing their sanity, and speaking them threatens a mortal’s very existence.
The Dark Speech The true name of The Dark Speech is not known, and if it was, it could not be shared. It is the language spoken when the evil gods gather to converse–not even their mightiest servants are fluent in it. Most mortals would immediately die if they attempted to utter even a word in this depraved tongue. In some cases, however, the most powerful individuals can learn to speak a one or two words of The Dark Speech. They none the less suffer terrible pain from doing so, but the destruction their utterance can cause is sometimes worth the pain.
The Words of Creation The Ineffable Language of the Logos has been mentioned before. Even the most powerful gods cannot speak this language fluently. Instead, they utter only a few key phrases at a time, like a wizard invoking a spell’s trigger. A single word can rearrange the multiverse, or un-make a man.