Describing Fantasy Languages - Discover RPG
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Describing Fantasy Languages
“A big, burly dragonborne shoves his way into the tavern. He's got dark blue scales, and a massive scar across his face. He marches over to your party with a scowl and starts barking words at you in this low guttural language from deep within his chest. It sounds like he's gargling rocks.
Some of you recognize the tongue as draconic. Does anyone speak it?”
At Discover RPG, we offer advice from our personal experiences with tabletop rpgs, and while they are mainly framed around Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition, it doesn't mean you can't apply these principles and ideas to whatever game system you enjoy.
So take what you like, leave what you don't, and feel free to make it your own!
Dungeons and Dragons (and a lot of fantasy) is usually set in a world made up of disparate cultures or sentient species with their own traditions. And with that comes languages.
Language Proficiency is a very common mechanic in tabletop rpgs, and you can make that mechanic work for you when you're worldbuilding.
Describing how the language sounds helps engage the imaginations of your players on a different sensory level than they might be used to.
We're not talking about inventing an entire language, or filling your world with jargon that you made up. Think about how languages sound in the real world.
There are different common sounds that you could describe. You could mention rolling R's, or hard consonants.
In tonal languages, like Chinese, the way you verbalize the same word could change its entire meaning.
Any language, real or fictional, can have a "vibe" to it. A flavor that is imparted by the way it sounds.
Some people think certain languages sound romantic, or aggressive, or guttural, or playful. Those are words that you can use to describe how your fantasy language sounds. Especially when you first introduce it in a campaign or a session.
You can also go more poetic, and use metaphors for what tone the language is evoking.
And its totally fine if you want to lean into basic fantasy tropes to make this easier for you. "Elvish is delicate and magical while dwarvish is brittle and stone, like the mountains."
You could also just pick a real world analogue: In a pinch, or as a joke, in the past we've said elvish sounds like French, or dwarvish sounds like Spanish, or German. It adds levity and a very quick frame of reference for your players, and you can get some good goofs out of it, too.
Or gnomish: I often use Norwegian as an analog, with its melodic and playful, bouncy feel. And sometimes my gnomes speak really really fast with lots of overlapping sounds and you probably wanna practice a little bit before you actually try to talk like this.
(Logan: because I'm not very good at it, but I have fun with it)
And don't forget that languages can also be tonal or percussive. Think about how the physiology of the creatures speaking the language might have developed how it sounds.
Fish people incorporating gurgles and water spitting into their speech.
Primordial languages that literally sound like rushing water, or a rockslide, or the flickering and crackling of a bonfire.
I always like the idea of Infernal feeling very seductive.
Very smooth, and full of rolling R's and long S's. The linguistic equivalent of a candlelight dinner.
You can improve your players' experience. Add that little extra something special to make them "feel" the weight and reality of your world.
Set the tone of a culture, or even an individual when you first introduce them. Make the players FEEL like they are isolated in a foreign place when all they hear is sounds they don't know.
Make it relatable and strange when your party's skill monkey suddenly bust out into a bizarre dead language they've never heard.
You can set or subvert expectations for an NPC, who happens to speak, say, goblin. It's a horrible guttural belching language. But then the person turns out to be pretty sweet.
Think about how the psychology of the creatures speaking the language might have developed how it sounds.
When you take a step into the "why"
Or "how" of some language, you might find a few nuggets of inspiration for how things work in the realm where it's spoken.
What if Abyssal sounded as insane and raucous as the Abyss itself? To a non-fluent speaker, it's just incomprehensible, atonal noise, with no discernible rules or logic to it. But maybe its more about intent than rules.
Maybe certain languages lack nuance because of their limited vocabulary. Like they don't have words for snow or friendship, so their cultures are crafted by the lack of some of those concepts.
To recap, here are some tips to help you describe foreign languages to your players
Try to describe the literal sounds of the language
Describe the emotion or sensation that hearing that language evokes
Offer real world analogs for reference
And remember, take what you like, leave what you don't, and feel free to make it your own!