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.
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.
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.
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.
Carcosan - [THRONE DECREE 6511-45 - ANY PERSONS FOUND TO SPEAK THE LANGUAGE REFERRED TO BY SAFEGUARD EUPHEMISM 'SAFFRON' WILL BE SENTENCED TO DEATH ALONGSIDE ALL KIN WITHIN FIVE DEGREES OF RELATION]
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