Saturday, October 1, 2022

Constrained Language as Language

 "Slang, jargon, and symbology" for GLoGtober 2022.

There's a fruitful question in roleplaying games of how to depict languages. It's common for a character in a dungeon game to speak multiple, possibly including a language they share with all members of their cosmological alignment, and for ease these are often treated like "channels." All languages are essentially the same, but with a different membership. This works fine. "For ease" is a great reason to do something a particular way in these games. But interesting challenges and interesting characterizations can occur when you treat different forms of language with different constraints.

Some examples
  • A "common" trading language that is a full-body sign language. To speak it, you have to use an entire humanoid body plan. You can't be carrying anything in your hands, like say an arming sword.
  • A language with constrained but flexible vocabulary, like Toki Pona.
  • A language with constrained vocabulary and form, like Elden Ring messages.
  • A language with a mostly uniform spoken form and regionally-specific ideograms, such that one can only read the writing of one's neighbors.
  • Dungeon hobo signs
  • An alignment language whose form can be imitated in writing, but which makes all imitations ring hollow when spoken aloud. Studying common formulations, the member of an enemy alignment can write in this language just fine, but speaking it reveals that they are an outsider to that way of thinking.
  • A supernally clear language from which misunderstanding is not possible. A lot of players and the PCs going "by which they mean" and "which you understand indicates"
  • A supernally ambiguous language. Referential and imprecise. Implications based in stated absolutes. When a player slips up and speaks unambiguously, the DM interprets it as though they hadn't.
  • A language with such a simple alphabet that it can be tapped out or encoded into simple signals, like Morse Code.
  • Languages with just a couple grammatical tics to remind you they're different from the ones your characters normally speak.
Applying a light hand with these can have a good effect. A normal dungeon game in which alignment languages have constrained vocabulary, Elvish is imprecise, and Dwarvish has no first-person is achievable and, in my eyes, neat and evocative.

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  1. Something of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in this. It would be interesting to delineate further perhaps by domain in languages as well. Or even what you can achieve by using particular languages. Like, Celestial could be a language of black and white terms, with no ambiguity or room for dialectic, discourse, or compromise. Not the language to conduct diplomacy in, for example. Although if you want to pull the wool over someone's eyes with jargon and technical filibustering, Infernal would be perfect. I wonder if by taking these languages away from 'this one is only spoken by demons, this one only by fire elementals' and give them a wider remit, it would make them more applicable to a player's experience in game. I've written something similar about the dwarven language previously.
    Yeah, really neat idea. I like it. :)

    1. Thanks for your thoughts. It really is sort of like the Sapir-Whorf idea, but of course it just needs to communicate a vibe to English-speakers (or whatever languages are spoken around your table) instead of actually forming the architecture for a way of thought. You could reverse the examples you gave and have something a bit less intuitive that still works well if presented well by a DM.

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