Thursday, March 16, 2023

Some Thoughts About Language in RPGs

In my conlang dabbling, I have thought to myself "self, what about just a very simple naming language for use in RPGs for a bit of inspiration and flavor?"

Well, that project hasn't gotten off the ground and is also for a very niche audience (this is my niche, it was made for me!). But I remain on the linguistics kick and have been thinking of more practical ways of using it in games. This post will entail two of them. Several other people have written about this subject already (including me), and I assure you I will write about it again.

Scripts and Ciphers

The principle is simple: you use a non-Latin script as a cipher for English. The cipher represents an in-game language unknown to the characters, and a players learning to decode the script is representative of their character learning the language.

You can make up your own if you so feel like it, but there are also plenty of scripts out there to choose from, both actual and artistic. Omniglot is your friend here, especially the pages for alternate methods of writing English and scripts for conlangs. Quality varies significantly, but there is sufficient quantity to make that a non-issue. Top posts on r/neography will likely do good for you as well.

In practice, I would recommend mixing up the presentation if you are using multiple languages. Cipher other languages that would be relatively easy for players to decipher (Latin would be the obvious choice, but depending on your players this can get a lot more complex). Cut up or recombine words. Spell things phonetically, or use different romanization (ex: x for sh, j for y). Use single letters to represent entire consonant clusters or dipthongs. Use a script with phonemes that don't match up exactly with those of English and get creative. Remove vowels. Remove spaces. Apply a ROT13 or other cipher to the original text before changing the script. Or just limit yourself to one script - it worked for Tunic.

Or just ignore all that and use them purely for handout flavor. Playing a dwarf? Your character sheet has X script on it. This is probably the easiest method.

Some favorites of mine, in no particular order, chosen mostly according to raw aesthetic appeal.

  • Mkhedruli - It's like Tengwar but real. 10/10, no notes.
  • Glagolitic - The Witcher uses this script, and for good reason - another one with primo aesthetics
  • Deseret - This alphabet is actually terrible, but that does work in its benefit as a cipher - it's got loads of similar-looking letters and false friends with Latin characters, which can make for a good puzzle.
  • Shavian - I can't figure out if this is ugly and unreadable or tightly designed and slick. Whatever. It's an option, and it's here.
  • Ditema-tsa-dinoko - The languages this script was designed for don't have a particularly large phonetic overlap with English, so if you use it you'll either need to add characters, or change a lot of consonants. But as is a recurring theme here, it looks fantastic, especially if used in the combined / colorful forms.
  • Canadian Aboriginal Syballics - Another script that doesn't have a lot of English overlap (though Omniglot does feature a variant someone made to that end). Also, I think they are extremely cool and more people should know about them in general.
  • Sitelen Sitelen - The fancy version of writing Toki Pona. Logographic, so you will be stuck using Toki Pona's minimalist wordlist and lack of grammar unless you decide to mix it in with other scripts (it would make for a very good cartouche system, honestly, especially with this handy vector renderer)
  • Zbaeleroma - Originally designed for Lojban. Decent aesthetics, won't be too complicated to crack (especially if players know voiced / unvoiced consonant pairs)
  • Ithkuil 4 - Now, using the full version would be highly impractical, but there's a simplified version down at the bottom of the page that's a normal abugida. I think this is a really good option, honestly: the phonology has significant overlap with English, and it's obscure enough wrt how vowels and consonant clusters are written that it should prove a not-too-difficult challenge.
  • Tunic runes - If your players haven't played Tunic, there's no reason not to use it. It works!
  • Heaven's Vault script - Like Sitelen Sitelen above, this one will require a bit of additional effort, as its connected to an oligosynthetic language and you'll have to bolt together conceptual characters into words of any sort of complexity. But it is beautiful, and there is a considerable pre-existing corpus of those complex words, thanks to the game being all about translation.
  • Warframe scripts - The game's got five of them (Orokin, Grineer, Corpus, Solaris, and Ostron) in varying levels of complexity and readability, all with different vibes. Personally I like Ostron and Corpus best.
  • Hallownest Script - It's Just Really Neat.
  • Aurebesh variants - While the baseline script is a simple 1:1 English cipher and I don't think it looks all that good, with a little creative orthography and one of these variant fonts you can get something pretty cool out of it.
  • Hylian Scripts - Pretty recognizable, but decent options to keep in the back pocket.
  • Blissom's English Syllabary - For when you want to look like katakana. I like this one quite a lot.

Bonus: Rapid-Fire Omniglot Selections
Curvetic; Heptal; Reality; Tennent; Westonian; Oxidilogi


The Languages of Generic Vernacular Fantasyland

This is not particularly practical, but it is at least a bit of additional flavor that can be used for your Generic Vernacular Fantasy Land.

Commonplace Languages

Being those that a human being can speak without magical means.

Elvish - An incredibly difficult language to learn - in great part for an inventory heavy in sounds considered rare in human languages, but even more so because the written language fossilized millennia ago, sound change has been moving along ever since, and the overall conservative current in elvish society has sunk every proposed attempt at spelling reform.

  • Features: Triconsonantal roots; tones; uvular series; retroflex series; click consonants; whistle components; pure abjad.

Dwarfish - Central to the dwarvish languages (and adopted by many languages of neighboring humans) is a logographic script carefully regulated by the centralized stonecarver councils of the Mountainhomes. As the meanings of characters remain the same (this is easier to accomplish with a dwarven mindset, less so with humans) they allow for easy transfer of information between unrelated and incompatible languages, and thus have become the adopted standard in nearly all dwarven civilizations.

  • Features: Analytic; isolating; tap-code register (domesticated knockers are used to send long-distance; high speed messages down in the caves); numerical forms used for high-density communication

Halfling - A limited phonology and restrictive syllable structure mean homophones are common, puns are rampant, and transcription into other writing systems is extremely difficult. 

  • Features: Extensive noun-class system, unique script, plain/aspirated/ejective distinction, ergative-absolutive alignment. Highly adaptable derivation of obscene terms. Let's hear it for tɬ!

Martian - There are technically three Martian language families - the most widely known off of Mars (and to non-Martians) is that of the now-liberated Red Martian underclass.

  • Features: Prenasalized stops; broad/slender (velarized/palatized) consonant distinction; sandhi; ye gods those are some large consonant clusters; phonemic vowel length; perfect direction; beautiful calligraphic script.

Orc - An experiment by sorcerers to enforce hard Sapir-Worf Hypothesis on their soldier-slave legions. Thankfully, hard Sapir-Worf is bullshit, and so in the wake of the overthrow of the Dark Lords, orcs have taken on some very creative strategies to overcome the artificial limitations of their original language. While loan words are often adapted from neighboring languages, more popular by far is making creative compounds out of the existing orcish lexicon.

  • Features: Internally-developed abugida recently adopted; artificially regular grammar and limited vocabulary; measure words; robust neologism formation; frequent loanword adoption; complex system of formal address dismantled and repurposed.

Common - There are four different languages called "the common tongue".

  • Imperial A - The language of the previous empire to rule the region; serves as a shared second language among both those once ruled by Empire A and those on the outside who wished to interact with it. Mildly synthetic, polypersonal agreement, grammatical gender, robust derivation system allows for easy formation of new words. Dialectic diversity will eventually lead to formation of separate languages.
  • Imperial B - The language of the current empire. The standard for politics, magecraft, military matters and sanctioned religions. Not commonly used by the underclasses (save in rebellious territories, where standard practice is total replacement of indigenous languages through imperial schooling). Highly agglutinative, irregular verb morphology, vowel harmony system, a couple leftover laryngeals in the phonology.
  • Free Peoples - A trade language of peoples bordering the empire. Simple phonology with (mostly) strict CV syllable structure, nasal vowel series, and I sure hope you like verbs because we've got some beautiful polysynthesis going on here. Extensive tense-aspect-mood morphology.
  • Friend-Sign - The most widespread and useful of common languages, as it is signable by any being with at least two arms and four fingers (regardless of their mouth and throat structure). A written version later emerged, representing the positions and movements of the most common elements of the signed form, and has since become equally widespread and useful.

Uncommon Languages

Being those that require some manner of magical assistance to speak or comprehend.

Ghoul - Vocal components often described as consisting of "gibbering", "yipping", "howling", "meeping", "keening" and "snuffling". Heavily dependent on scent to carry additional information; humans both lack the ability to detect the meaning-shades imparted by these scent-markers, and are repulsed by the use of rotting flesh, skin oils, urine, and fecal matter as components of grammar. Ghouls' vocal mimicry permits them to speak human languages, but makes communication no less unpleasant to those human participants.

Deep One - The extreme physiological variety between icthropai lineages means that their languages trend towards mutual unintelligibility. Despite this, there are some common elements shared (often in conjunction with each other) among them: ultrasonic whistles and clicks, carapace / mandible / claw scraping, pressure bubbles, modulated electric currents, and color change. Communication between lineages and with humans will need either specially-engineered translator hybrids or direct use of magic.  

Giant - The languages of the giants are heard by humans only as a deep, distant rumbling, as if a train is passing by. Their immense size (and thus, the immense size of their vocal cords) render their speech so deep that most of it exists in the infrasonic, well outside of the human hearing range. Their unique chambered respiratory systems (a necessity in getting sufficient oxygen) permit them to inhale and exhale simultaneously and without ceasing, as if playing the bagpipes.

Dragon - Imagine being able to remember that you once knew the song of the sun, but not able to remember the notes. That is what it is like to be a dragon - to be aware that you are becoming more and more like an animal with each passing season and, unable to stop it, losing that awareness until there is nothing left.

Aboleth (Benthic) - The ordovician masters communicate mind-to-mind, through direct transferal of their trench-deep thought. If an aboleth ever needs to speak to a non-aboleth, it will simply tear the language-knowledge out of the victim's mind, re-assemble it in the necessary order, and play it back in the victim's own voice.

Goblin - Gobbledegoblin is the linguistic form of Calvinball - perpetually in flux and hewing to no rules longer than what's considered entertaining. It's a funhouse mirror of the listener's native language, mocking prescriptivism and propriety with purposefully "incorrect" usage and absurd traits (noun classes based on species of freshwater fish, armpit-fart tone systems, common words get their meanings radically changed, so on and so forth). It is more of a language game than a language itself, which is fitting for goblins.

Lithic - Delicate organs of vibrating crystal; clusters of silicate chimes; wind howling through funnels of sculpted stone. A few of the lithic ambassadors can use these features to imitate human languages; a skilled occultist will be required as an intermediary otherwise. There are theories that these features are either mostly ornamental or engineered specifically for human benefit, and that lithics an home in the upper mantle instead communicate through controlled release of radioactive material.

Imperial Elder - The pentatone musical language used by the Elder Empire is an echo of the flautists of the azothic court of MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI and the drumming of great Skarl. Whether it was purposeful imitation, coincidence, or the result of some sensitivity to the Dreamer and its attendants is unknown, and perhaps never known to begin with. The written form (recovered in a vast corpus from the Antarctic capital city) is a direct graphical depiction of Elder mouthparts and the appropriate tones for each note-concept - while incredibly complex to learn and impossible to speak without aid, machine translation has made impressive advances towards translation.  

Imperial Shoggoth Interface Language - A code of chemical signals and truncated musical tones, used to give commands to the amorphous beings. While the hated enslavers are long dead, hard-coded recognition of the Interface Language remains in the mainline descendant clades. The Polyps and Dark Young carved this knowledge out of themselvesmillions of years ago.

Yuggothic - A combination of bioluminescence, mycelium-ferried electro-chemical signals, chitin-clicks, and hyperspatial ripples. Undeciphered; even those who are host to symbiotic strains of the yuggothic mega-organisms are incapable of describing how any of the components correlate to discrete information.

Mi-Go Machine Interface Language
- Undeciphered coding language used in the brain-interfaces of human-compatible Mi-Go hard-tech.

Yithian - We only have knowledge of the scribal shorthand script through the tablets recovered from the Pnakotic ruins, but this has proven enough to serve as a (slow, incomplete) means of deciphering other texts found within the library.


Last are the languages that I didn't get around to writing meaningful blurbs for but wanted to mention for completion's sake: Kobold, Cynocephalic, Akeloi, Drow, Derro, Cetacean, Octopode, Corvid, Ape Sign, Elephantine, Alignment Languages, Class Languages


  1. The bit on Elder Thing language is based on the excellent Starkweather Foundation scenario for Delta Green by mellonbread and Will Roy.

  2. I play mostly online these days, which offers opportunity for language-games that would be impractical in a live session. In one of my settings there's a faction of NPC who only speaks in emoji (representing energetic, silent charade), and another who speak an obscure dialect of an already-rare language, represented to PCs who speak that language as V-S-O sentence structure with weird use of adjunct clauses (i.e. "he bit him in such a way, the dog, the man, viciously"). Maybe there's a possible article about player skill affecting character languages. I don't know if anyone else would be willing to play in a campaign where the Elf, Dwarf and Orc languages are all separate minigames, but I'd run it.
    The simplest language-game an NPC can play works just as well in-person as over the internet: only responding to questions, and only answering "yes" and "no". You can drive a party of PCs into the ocean with a couple of well-considered, truthful, yes-no answers.

    1. Oh yeah, Emoji! The robots in Admiralty Blues have emoji as a special language and I think that's rad.

  3. I had some fun thinking about Draconic when I was running a 5e game for a friend(because I needed something to improve the setting of forgotten realms for myself), most of it was conveyed with external narration but it did still add colour to interactions that was fun to watch change how he engaged with them.

    The meat of it was High Draconic, the dialect spoken by the Big Lizards, had 3 grammatical genders(metallic/chromatic/other) and an animate/inanimate distinction tacked onto that.
    where the dragon refers to itself, kin, and desirable objects with the category it belongs to. Refers to undesirables and enemies with the other category. And everything else from rocks to people with a neutral 'other' category.(with some give in the boundaries of each category for expressiveness)
    which meant stuff like initial interactions referring to my player as food-that-speaks with other/inanimate reference... shifting to other/animate as recognising the worth of this creature that keeps wandering into dragon hunting grounds... to finally, after curing the dragon's blindness, being addressed as her equal with chromatic/animate.

    the kobold dialect had 6 grammatical genders accounting for a trinary gender system, objects, dragons and non-kobold-sentient creatures(which don't get referred to with kobold gender markers).

    Language is always a little hard to express and explore in a monolingually conveyed tabletop, aside from maybe in naming conventions, but I really love playing with that space and I really love seeing how other people do it.
    Let's hear it for tɬ!!!!!

    1. "The noun classes in Draconic are dragon, different type of dragon, and everything else in the universe" is very on point.

  4. I love the Carcosan entry. Fantastic

  5. Conlangs are one of those things that I know I'll never properly understand but I love the challenge of teasing meaning out of individual posts. If that makes sense.

    Gobbledegook is fascinating, given the implication that any paticular recorded instance is a deliberate parody of the other non-goblin participant. How do goblins speak when no-one else is around to hear them? Do they even speak, except when they need to deal with outsiders? There's the potential here for some Art-of-Not-Being-Governed type shennanigans.

    1. Tolkien called conlanging the secret vice, and he was spot on the money. It's a very good rabbit hole for certain types of people, what with the infinite fractal complexity.

      Goblins, when not observed, collapse into a stable waveform of Buildup - what we see as goblins is in fact only the Punchline stage of their life cycles.

  6. The Mi-Go's language is a fun one, fits in well with their "sci-fi version of the fair folk adapted to UFO abuction lore" thing they have going on.

    There is a DG bonus material on Detwiller's patreon The Hudson Book, which is about a tome by a Nazi scholar who researched the tome Unspoken Cults (or whatever the fuck the German title was) and its author. The Nazi's tome touched heavily on Aklo as some kind of bizarre puzzle box tool for the principles of hypergeometry. It's rituals involved meta-magic effects done by invoking this or that secret vowel that hides origami-style within the framework or something.

    One of the scenario seeds for the book is the original author of Unspoken Cults (who should be stone dead for centuries now) walking into a modern German police station fresh as a daisy, yelling warnings about the Nazi's tome must be tracked down at once, because the book is "finishing my work".

    The DG scenario Star Chamber also touches on Aklo, as a suggested reason for whatever the heck is "corrupting" the Tcho-Tcho people. Apparently, learning and speaking Aklo erodes your sanity into violent cruel paranoia. It has no equivalent phrase for "I love you".

  7. I love the cipher idea. I attempted something similar with the Elf Signs in Low Road. This has more room to grow.