jeudi 1 août 2013

Alignment Languages

Today I am dealing with a particularly controversial subject: the alignment languages​​! Wayne Rossi of Semper Initiativus Unum spoke about it a month ago here (but I just read his post yesterday beacause I am especially in arrears in reading blogs I usually follow). This post is very interesting, I advise everyone to take a look at it. However, the author evade the main question about alignment languages​​, ie their credibility in a fantasy world. It is on this point that I'm going to focus.

To start, here is the authors' paragraph about them :  
Law, Chaos and Neutrality also have common languages spoken by each respectively. One can attempt to communicate through the common tongue, language particular to a creature class, or one of the divisional languages (law, etc.). While not understanding the language, creatures who speak a divisional tongue will recognize a hostile one and attack
-Dave Arneson & Gary Gygax, LBBs.
To establish the credibility of alignment languages ​​it is necessary to find precedents or analogous situations in real life and works that inspired D&D. The most frequently cited literary example is Tolkien's Black Speech. But be aware that this creation of Sauron is not spoken by all creatures of Mordor: only a few elites speak it perfectly, while a mob of orcs stammer a patois crossed with Black Speech. Yet it is a good example of a language alignment: only evil creatures speak it more or less (with the exception of some divine creatures, like Gandalf), and it produces an effect of disgust and repulsion on all other races (because of their different alignment).

In reality, what is the closest thing to a language alignment is a religious language (which in itself is not so surprising that alignment in Tolkien or Morcook are closely linked to gods - Valars - or divine creatures - Sauron, Lords of Chaos/Law -). To get closer to the conflict between alignments as presented in OD&D or Chainmail, let's take the example of the Crusades. In those times and those places, speaking Latin in front of a Saracen amounted to a death sentence. The Latin being a dead language used only for the Catholic religion, it is closer to me as to what an alignment language should be : the basic peasant knowing only a few words in Latin (Amen, in nomine Patris, Filii and and Sancti Spiritus) but sufficient (with a few other indications, such as the sign of the cross) to be recognized as Roman Catholic, while priests and scholars being able to have religious debates in that language.

So, based on these two examples (Latin and Black Speech), this is how I play alignment languages: except priests and scholars (and possibly some races or monsters with superior intelligence) of the specified alignment, creatures know only a few phrases, words, and liturgical formulas in their alignment language, which is sufficient for be recognized as being of this alignment, but not enough in most cases to discuss (which adds a language barrier to deal with the monsters of the same alignment).

Does this sounds good for you ?

10 commentaires:

  1. Basically, you know I'm going to agree with you, mostly. Two things I'd like to highlighten:

    First, Alignment Languages (AL) only make real sense with a three alignment system like in OD&D, and even better with the "alignment as stance" vision. In the Nine fold "Alignment as ethics" AD&D version, it soon becomes nonsensical (and most people who despise AL refer to the Ad&D version)

    Secondly, AL is not envisioned as a language you use to order a draught at the tavern; it is supposed to be used to communicate with monsters ("creatures") in conjunction with the Alignment table on page 9 of M&M. Most creatures don't speak common (only 20% do), so, if you cannot speak Old Entish (who does?), better try Lawful (aka Quenya in TLotR).
    Even if Player-Character elves or dwarves know Common, nothing indicates that those in Vol 2 do. If you stumble on an elven party, try Common first, then Lawful (with High Elves), or Neutral (with Sylvan Elves).
    In other words, Common is the language of Men, but AL are the "Common" for intelligent monsters. Chaotic is the common tongue for goblins, hobgoblins and Bugbears and the “go-to” dialect of every Dark Lord trying to build a vast army of gobelinoïds from various tribes. Lawful is the common tongue of Ents, Hippogriffs and Pegasi.
    Also nothing in Men & Magic forbids a character with a sufficient INT score to learn another AL.

    The origin of such tongues is up to the DM, but in most myths language is a gift of Gods: so it is not very far-fetched to imagine the Lords of Law, the Primordial Titans and the Princes of Chaos each devised a language for their creatures in the dawn of times (but you're free to subtitute Gods and their divinely inspired language by Space Aliens -like the Vorlons and Shadows of Babylon5 - and a genetically encoded/hypnotically suggested "coded" language.

    1. Yeah, I think you're right when you consider alignment languages ​​as Common for monsters of the same alignment. But I do not agree with the fact that a creature of a given alignment can speak perfectly its alignment language : much depends on the intelligence of the creatures in question. An orc will only utter some sentences in Chaos language, because it knows only very few words and made mixtures with the dialect of its tribe, while a hobgoblin or a Nazgul will be a very fluent Chaotic speakers. I guess the knowledge of the average human is limited to a few greetings and liturgical formulas while that of a cultist won't go much further than "Ïa ïa Shub-Niggurath !".

      Playing in Sword & Sorcery, I prefer to promote a realistic explanation if possible compared to a magical / divine explanation.

    2. I never said that they would speak it « perfectly ». And I agree that the level of intelligence will determine the grasp they will have on the AL. But this is also the case with one’s native language: people of limited intellect or poor education often have reduced vocabulary, wavering syntax, poor wording, etc. Creatures like orcs probably will speak Chaotic with a hazy vocabulary and heavy accent (like the orcs of Warhammer; erm I mean “orkz”, who display a thick cockney accent).

      Speaking of orcs, those are the only monstrous humanoids who figure both in the Neutrality and Chaos column in the Alignment table. This is how I would interprete that: the neutral orcs are free-lance plunderers (the “mountain goblins” of Moria) : they speak orcish and the Neutral tongue (probably derived from an ancient Giant language; after all, semi-humans all figure on the “giant type” chart of outdoor Wandering Monsters. Chaotic orcs are the “Orcs of the Red Eye”: they have been hired (coerced?) into the vast armies of the Dark Lord. Chaotic has been imposed on them.
      On the other hand, the hobgoblins are a special breed, destined from the start to build vast armies (they have the same role as the Isengarders), so the chaotic is their “native” second tongue.

  2. Speaking of alignment languages, I'm waiting for your answers to the "Top 10 troll quastions", sir.

    1. That would a great idea for the next post (or a serie of those) !

  3. I like the way Yet Another Fantasy Gamer Comic ( does it. Alignment languages are not a language like French or Chinese, but the ability to 'speak my language', or automatically connect with another person, find lots in common. So if a group of mixed alignment adventurers band together, the Chaotics will be off in the corner scheming, the Lawful will be making plans and rules of conduct, and the Neutrals will relax or grab a brew until the action starts. Similarly, a Chaotic encountering a Chaotic demihuman might be pressed into service or invited to join a scheme, Neutrals will avoid or pass by one another, and Lawfuls would respect each other's authority and territory. I think because the artist has had to work things out visually in his comic they make more sense than the game rulebooks do on paper...

    1. That's a good explanation but whose credibility is challenged by two issues : how do you proceed if the two individuals dont share a common langage ? And how des that work with non-humanoid or alien monsters ?

    2. I don't think the credibility is challenged at all - if anything, it works better your Black Speech/Latin for the very examples you gave of non-humanoid/alien monsters, who wouldn't be able to communicate your way either.

      Instead, I think if we collapse your example and mine into one we have a workable solution or framework. For example, chaotic humanoids speak the Black Tongue and get along on a spiritual level, but if a similarly aligned mute monster shows up, they respect each other's aura or vibe. That is why you have Chaotics with monster pets like giant spiders while Lawfuls might have gryphons or somesuch.

      Sentiments distingues mon ami

    3. I think it could work very well ; maybe I will try this elegant compromise soon in my game.
      Bonne continuation !