Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Languages; or, why we shouldn't be able to speak Dwarven

[I was going to begin a series about demigods, but after reading posts at Jeff's gameblog and Sword & Shield, I felt inspired to scrawl something about linguistics and role playing settings.]

I'm a professional translator, so I tend to spend a lot of time thinking about languages (obviously Japanese and English in the main, as they are the languages I work with, but I have a general interest in linguistics). One thing I've noticed is just how different languages can be, especially those from unrelated language families - and I don't mean different in the naive sense that English doesn't sound much like Chinese. What I'm talking about is how languages that have evolved in completely different cultural surroundings to each other have also evolved highly different modes of expression.

An example: Japanese, like most aspects of Japanese culture, is highly minimalist, especially in its most casual forms. Consider the English expression: "How have you been?". The equivalent Japanese expression is simply "Saikin do?", literally translated as "Lately how?". (Sometimes this is abbreviated to simply, "Do?", or "How?".) Similarly, when two Japanese friends meet, they'll typically ask each other, simply, "Genki?" ("Healthy?") rather than the comparatively flowery English "How are you?" (three words to accomplish what the Japanese manage with one).

Another example: one of the most common utterances in Japanese is the phrase yoroshiku onegaishimasu (or variations thereof). Non-Japanese speakers visiting the country come to recognise those words because you can hear them everywhere. It is often translated in phrasebooks and the like as "Nice to meet you" or "How do you do?", but in fact it means no such thing - literally translated it goes something like "Please behave well". It is rendered "Nice to meet you" in phrasebooks because it is often uttered when two people first meet, but it is also used in a whole variety of other situations - at the end of letters, when making a request, when complaining, when asking for something, when signing something, essentially whenever a polite turn of phrase is considered necessary.
That English simply has no equivalent phrase hints at a huge cultural difference; English speakers presumably do not and never have felt it necessary to exhort each other to "Behave well", whereas for the Japanese it is so common that it has evolved to ubiquity. Why this should be is a question for the armchair anthropologist, and beyond my capability to answer, but that a big difference in our cultural foundations exists is indisputable.

Another example: Japanese colours are different to English ones; aoi, which describes the colour we know of as blue, is also used by the Japanese to refer to the colour of fresh grass, green apples, and the green on traffic lights. Do Japanese and English speakers see colours in different ways? Who can say?

All this is a roundabout way of saying, languages which have been separated by many thousands of years of evolution are not just different in terms of the way the words sound; they are also based around fundamentally different cultural interpretations of the world.

Now, take that thought, and try transferring it to two cultures that don't just belong to two very slightly different types of human being; try transferring it to two cultures that belong to different species. Imagine the difficulty in understanding a dwarven worldview for a human - the huge matrix of assumptions, expressions and ideas which just aren't shared. It's difficult enough for an English speaker to learn Japanese and vice versa; how much more amplified would that be for a human being trying to speak a language of dwarfs? (Let alone orcs, giants, dragons...) It would not involve merely learning a new grammar and vocabulary. It would also require huge mental effort to come to grips with such an exotic way of viewing the world. Wittgenstein famously remarked that if a lion could talk, we could not understand him - the same must surely also be true of a goblin, Klingon or troll.

Would it spoil players' fun to tell them that, no, they can't communicate with other races/species except perhaps through sign language and monosyllables? I'm not sure, but I'd like to try it.


  1. You're assuming a naturalistic view of languages that doesn't necessarily have to inform a fantasy world.

  2. For that matter, are the other humanoids/demihumans even that far removed from man? I think in fantasy, they are pretty much what TVtropes refers to as "Rubber Forehead Aliens", seperate from humanity only in that they look and act a little different.

  3. Jeff: That's true, but I think it could work with non-naturalistic fantasy too; the dwarves can't be communicated with because they come from the roots of the mountains and are more akin to rocks than humans. Or something.

    Rach: I'm not a big fan of the whole rubber forehead alien idea. I'd rather aliens and other races be really different.

  4. Language barriers are standard fair in all of my games. I break languages down by kingdoms and races, not to mention lost languages, magical tongue, thieves cant, what have you. This can be a blessing, or a curse depending on how you look at it.

    It forces players to role-play, and try and discover different ways to communicate with those around them, not to mention that it brings home the fact that they have left their comfort zones, their home lands.

  5. Ripper X: I like the way you put it, about leaving comfort zones. It puts a whole new spin on things if you have to deal with dangerous people who you can't understand.

  6. Oh don't get me wrong, I like the idea very much... it just proves unwieldy in play.

  7. It astounds me how much my old school RPG buddies hate the idea of languages, but at the same time refuse to throw them out and let everyone speak common. The best campaign I've ever run was set in North Africa in the 14th Century, language was central to almost every plot as the players dealt with ancient languages and contemporary. It was a blast watching the characters learn someones secrets by the way that person revealed themselves through their use of language.

    But yeah, it is now commonly held that we THINK in language, that it defines the way we see the world. The trouble with this is how to you RP someone who thinks in a completely alien way. The inability to approximate alieness has soured many a Call of Cthulhu game...

  8. Tim H Well, the whole "thought is in a language, erego linguistic trends shape thought trends" came under pretty heavy fire - I know it was presented as the school of thought that people were actively refuting in my Phil. of Language work.

    (Personally, I would say that thought trends are shaped by cultural trends, and that linguistic trends are also shaped by cultural trends.)

    Obviously, nonhuman languages could be predicated on actually-alien thought processes ("Elves can't think about things ending," or "Derro can't think of individuals") in more drastic ways. I would have to make a decision, as a gamer, whether that adds anything to the game.

  9. Tim: That's the million dollar question - where do you strike the balance? Of course rubber foreheaded aliens are much easier than genuinely alien ones. But they're also less interesting.

    Five eyes: I'd agree with you re: language, culture and thought, although of course the process is a two-way one, with thought and language also influencing culture.

  10. Five Eyes's post strikes a happy medium, and I think it might be a nice way of trying it.

  11. Update: I heard today that recent studies suggest that learning words for a given color changes the part of your brain that perceives color (in addition to and besides the bits that govern memory and language, etc). The more you know!

    Also, I don't think that rubber-head aliens are necessarily less interesting than truly alien aliens, if only because the Romulans can show us more about the Real Problems of Real People than the Andromeda Strain can. OR ALTERNATELY, I just don't know how to use the genuinely alien in fiction.

  12. Jeff's comment reminds me that many bloggers want to protect a plug and play style of game where players drift in and out and the DM can pitch his campaign at conventions and play the same dungeon repeatedly. They are striving for universality but can be obtuse when someone is suggesting interesting personal thoughts on DMing. An obvious distinction in the presentation of ideas from gamers is rarely stressed but might be helpful. Either an idea is suggested for general usage and can be lauded or argued against as objectively flawed or an idea develops from personal competence and taste and is presented as an insight; 'look what is possible in this flexible game of ours.' Most of the greatest games I had were incommunicable and highly personal resting on shared interests with my players.

    I think paying close attention to language differences and constraints is a great idea for a DM who knows languages. If you had even one player who could speak Japanese, communication with elves, say, could be conducted in that language to the bafflement of the other players and it would create a not unbridgable distance to the alien race.

    These kinds of ideas don't need to be for all time. I could see myself experimenting with language in the way one might experiment with using weapon vs AC rules for as long as everyone is enthusiastic.

    This, below, is a bizarre coincidence considering the comment I made on your 18sept post:
    It's difficult enough for an English speaker to learn Japanese and vice versa; how much more amplified would that be for a human being trying to speak a language of dwarfs?

  13. Kent: Most of the greatest games I had were incommunicable and highly personal resting on shared interests with my players.

    I think that's exactly right. The plug and play experience of 'Western Marches' style games is rather alien to me, because I've only ever gamed with good friends who I've known for many years (although my PBeM games are obviously an exception). With people who you know well, experiments like 'nobody can communicate with dwarves' are perfectly possible and interesting.

    You comment on the other entry was a weird coincidence. Great minds think alike?