For Wordby Aeon
For Wordby Aeon
Word up, everybody says
All the younger people in the audience are going, "Hunh?" Yes, kids, back in the decade known as the "1980s," the phrase "Word Up" was all the rage. Translating it is a bit iffy; the best approximation is the mutation you're probably more familiar with, popularized by one Mr. Vanilla Ice in the 1990s: "Word to your mother." Nowadays, nobody really says "Word" anymore; thanks to a certain series of beer commercials, it's mutated into "True." In any case, what everyone's been trying to say without saying it for all this time is "I agree, I understand, Right on, I'm with ya, buddy, What we're discussing is true and right, Amen brother, Amen."
Or something like that.
The point is, mostly, moot. The reason I led in with Cameo this time is the particular wording used in the chorus of this song about the word "Word." Word up is "the code word," and it doesn't matter to whom you speak it, because it's universally understood. Word up. Of course, it's not the only Word that's universal in some capacity. There's "The Word," as in "The Word of God," and of course, there's Microsoft Word. Which, depending on your opinions of Bill Gates, might very well be the same thing. In any case, these "Words" are global, universal. They cross boundaries, are used by different people speaking different languages in different cultures, enabling everyone to instantly understand what's going on, to appreciate something because they recognize it. McDonald's is a "Word." So is Coca-Cola. So is Nike. But I'm not getting paid for product placement here, so let's move on.
Language is what separates us from the animals. Words. The Word was made flesh, and the flesh makes Words about the Word being made flesh. In the Biblical Genesis, before anything else exists, there's language. And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. But before there was light, there was a sentence, and four words. Later, God creates animals, and Adam, and the first thing Adam does is separate himself from the animal kingdoms by giving "names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field." According to the dictionary, "word" comes to us through English by way of the Old High german "wort," which is related in some fashion to the Latin "verbum," akin to the Greek "eirein" and the Hittite "weriya," which meant to call, or name something. So we're back to Adam, naming things with words. Wording things with names.
We all take language for granted. Were we unable to understand language, we wouldn't be writing (me) or reading (you) this article right now. We would be unable to communicate. We couldn't call for Mama and Dada as a child. We couldn't be taught, by way of language, in school. We couldn't sit in Internet chat rooms all night throwing raw language at one another. We wouldn't be able to understand the little man who lives inside the speaker at the drive thru window. Well, no, scratch that. We can't understand them even *with* language. But you get the point. When we think about language, it's fairly easy to understand how difficult it would be to live without it. But it's impossible to actually experience what that would be like. Even when you're not talking, writing, reading or listening, you're thinking in language. You've got little words in your head, and they no longer need you. They speak themselves.
Likewise, within the realm of Role-Playing Games, language must be taken for granted in order for the game to even exist. You can play Tic-Tac-Toe or Naughts and Crosses (or whatever you choose to call that game with the four lines, the X's and the O's), without language, but you can't read, understand or participate in an RPG session without language coming into play. You buy a book full of words and read the words and use words to communicate to other players, who speak words to describe their actions. But this is all obvious. Let's go deeper; forget, for a moment, the players, and the GameMaster, and focus on the characters. They, too, have languages. It says so right there in the Rulebook. If you're an Elf, you get Elven. If you're a Dwarf, you get Dwarven. If you're a Halfling, you get Halflingish. If you're a Klingon, you get Klingon. And so on. No sweat. In the old school Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks, you also got languages based on your class and alignment. You could speak Druidish if you were a Druid. You could speak Lawful Evilish if you were Lawful Evil. I have no idea what that would sound like, but I would guess watching C-SPAN is a pretty good approximation.
And there, in that paragraph, I've already made my point, even though you can't see it yet, can't make out the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil for the forest.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. For the moment let's just postulate that the concept of individual languages in Role-Playing Games is pure hokum. Fantasy. They don't exist. Furthermore, they can't exist. And I don't mean that in an obvious, literal way; we all know that Dwarves don't exist, and thus Dwarven doesn't exist. We know there are no real Elves, and so the only Elvish we're going to hear is at the movie theater this Christmas. We know that there are real Leprechauns, and that they speak with an Irish accent and sell us breakfast cereal.
And as Luck would have it (Charms optional), therein we find the first little speed bump we have in RPGs. It's one thing to say someone can speak a different language. But if you don't speak that language yourself, you've got to find a way to pretend you can communicate with others. Communicate. From the Latin communicatus, past participle of communicare, from communis, meaning "common."
The Common Denominator
The language heard most, however, is Common, a tongue shared by all who take part in the culture at large. With all these languages in use, it is easy for people to learn others' languages, and adventurers often speak several tongues.
Is it only me that finds that paragraph (and a bit) paradoxical? First, D&D posits that a language called "Common" is shared by everyone in the game world, to some extent. Then, in the very next sentence, we are told that there are many languages in use, that it is easy to learn these other languages, and that our adventuring characters will likely speak several of them. And then we erase the blackboard and state point blank that everyone speaks Common anyway. They build up a system of fantasy languages and then knock it all to pieces in less than fifty words. What's the point?
Don't go thinking you can point at D&D and laugh, either; TSR/WotC was neither the first nor the only creator of fantasy worlds to cop out and give their world a common language. Tolkien, master linguist, who so carefully invented languages as a child, would spend years developing his Elven language of Sindarin, derived from the real Finnish (the lot derived from the fantasy Quenya, derived from the real Welsh), with pronunciation keys, an entirely new alphabet, new vocabulary and a history to tie it all together. And then all his elves go and speak our language anyway. We take for granted not only that they will speak Elven to each other in their own time, but that when they're speaking to us, they're speaking in a language we can understand. They have to, or we can't read the book.
It's one thing to say that your character (whether you're a writer or a role-player) can speak a foreign language, or an invented fantasy language. But unless you're a serious nerd (I mean that in a nice way) who's actually fluent in Klingon or Sindarin, and you've found someone else who is as devoted to alternate languages as you are, then it's likely you're going to do something like this in a gaming session:
Gamemaster: You see a goblin step out of the bushes. He growls at you. "Hurkle murkle furkle berg," he says. It sounds like Goblinish.
And so on. You can see the problem, and it's trebly paradoxical. We try to inject a dose of reality into our fantasy games (paradox number 1) by recognizing the need for different races and creatures to have different languages. And then we realize that we, as players, can't possibly know how to actually speak those languages that we've invented, so we speak to one another in our own language, "pretending" to speak other languages because for some reason this seems more fantastical and real at the same time (paradox number 2). And then comes the good one. It's not enough that we as players don't speak the language, but our characters don't either. Dwarf can't talk to Elf can't talk to Goblin can't talk to Human. So we invent still another language, a new common tongue, so that characters of different races can still communicate with one another. We invent fantasy languages to separate races, and in doing so we necessarily must invent a common tongue to bring them back together. This is paradox number 3, and it takes us in a logical loop faster than you can say "Khazâd ai-mênu!" It's not just there in Dungeons & Dragons; it's assumed in every RPG, every book, every fantasy movie. If the characters are going to communicate, they're going to share a common language. Call it what you will. I have my own name for it, but that's later. For now, let's call it Common.
But before we can understand Common, we have to understand Uncommon.
From Babble to Babel
Wala-wa thet aenig man sceolde modigan swa, hine sylf upp ahebban, and ofer ealle men tellan! Se aelmihtiga God cythae his saule mildheortnisse and do him his synna forgifenesse!
No, a cat didn't walk across my keyboard just then. I don't even own a cat. I do, however, own a copy of Middle English Literature, edited and revised by Charles W. Dunn and Edward T. Byrnes. It's one of the few books I kept from my college days, one of those things you always think you'll use some day, but never actually get the chance to use. I think it cost me in the neighborhood of $65 at the time. It's now about six editions out of date and worth about 50 cents. But there's more to my quoting that ancient text than mere justification for an expensive purchase. Namely, that the language so carefully transcribed above for your enjoyment is, ladies and gentlemen, (drumroll please) English.
"Well, duh," some of you are saying, especially those of you who've read The Canterbury Tales without a gun to your head. "Of course it's English. Look, you can see the words 'God' and 'his' and 'and do him his' in there. It's obviously English. To be more precise, it's Late Old English in the process of becoming Early Middle English on its way to Modern English, picking up influences from other Germanic languages along the way. But it still gives one cause to pause and consider that in just about 900 years, we got from that to something like this:
"Alas that any man should be so proud, should exalt himself so high, and count himself above all men! May the Almighty God show mercy to his soul and grant him forgiveness for his sins!"
Knowing where we are, it's easy enough to look at this and see how we got from there to here. But just for a second, go the other way. If we dig back far enough, we get to a point when humans didn't talk much. This had much to do with the fact that they weren't biologically capable of doing so; their brains were too small, their larynxes were too high up, and there was nothing on television to talk about around the water cooler anyway. Then, some point around 100 to 150 thousand years ago, humans evolved into, well, humans that could talk. And at some point between then and about 40 thousand years ago, they started to think about things to talk about. For starters, they probably talked about the fact that their lowered larynxes greatly increased the risk of choking. Well, OK, not really. We don't know what they talked about, or what they sounded like. But it's around here that scientists believe the earliest languages probably formed. They draw such conclusions partly from observing children as they learn to speak, partly from looking at modern languages, and partly from
This sounds like foolishness, but after all, children do say "Ma-ma" and "Da-da" and "Poo-poo" before other words. Simple sounds strung together to form more complex words, bereft of meaning until imparted with such later on. Hooked on Phonics. The word "barbarian" comes from the noises the Greeks thought the primitive savages made as they grumbled to one another in a different language; everything sounded like "bar bar bar bar bar" all the time. Stripped of the ability to communicate with others, human beings *do* communicate like this, with grunts and gestures and simple noises. Tarzan showed us that much, after all. And as recently as the 1500s, experiments were done in which small children were locked in towers away from all human contact to see what sort of language they'd speak. The theory was, they'd speak Hebrew, reputed to be the language of the angels, the "Ursprache". As it turns out, they didn't get much beyond "erk" and "oof." Pure babble.
The Divine Theory of language origin has been around for longer than that, however, and it usually boils down to a "Big Bang" theory of one sort or another. The story you're probably most familiar with is The Tower of Babel, from Genesis 11:1-9. Babel is a play on "babal" which means "confuse." Babble is confused speech. But you knew that. For those of you who know the whole thing by heart, skip over the next part; I assume nothing:
1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.
It's important to realize here that the reason God intervenes is not because the people are building a big tower. This has nothing to do with hubris. You may have been taught that as a child, but you were misled. And the truth of the matter is right there in the words. The people have "one language," and they want to "not be scattered over the face of the whole earth." They like all speaking the same language. They don't want to spread out. They're happily living in Babel (i.e., the Babylon area, i.e., Mesopotamia, i.e., the root of civilization), and they don't want to move. They like it there. But God has other plans. He's recently told them all to be fruitful and multiply, and to spread out across the entire Earth, even though they'll suffer and have to work at it. Now, with them all speaking the same language, "nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them." They've got it easy, in other words. So Bam, God sprinkles a little Essence on the people and they suddenly all speak different languages. And then they have no choice but to spread out and conquer each other throughout the rest of history because they all speak different languages.
What you probably didn't know is that the Babel story appears in different languages, in different cultures, in different religions, in parts of the world that are entirely cut off from the Middle East. Just like almost every religion has an Adam and Eve story and a Flood story, many have a Babel story. In Africa, the Kabyle say that people started to speak in different languages after an argument. The Iroquois likewise believe that languages split after a child was killed in a family argument. Some blame god; Amazon tribes believe that god split language up so that people would need him, and couldn't rely on each other, and the Navajo similarly believe that the "Changing Woman" created peoples of different languages and sent them in varying directions. And so on. A whole slew of stories that basically say the same thing, either anthropologically or religiously: that languages split from a common tongue at some point in the past, back when we all lived in Babylon. Babylon, from Bab-ilim, "Gate of God." Knock, knock, knockin' on Heaven's door, and when God comes, run away and laugh. And God shakes his fist and the earth trembles, and Babylon becomes Babel.
But what if we want to go the other way?
From Babel to Babylon
I was there at the dawn of the third age of mankind. It began in the Earth year 2257, with the founding of the last of the Babylon stations, located deep in neutral space. It was a port of call for refugees, smugglers, businessmen, diplomats, and travelers from a hundred worlds... Babylon 5 was a dream given form: a dream of a galaxy without war, when species from different worlds could
live side by side in mutual respect.
Frighteningly enough (and adding to my earlier suggestion of something unholy about the Redmond, Washington area), Microsoft uses the "Babel/Babylon" comparison on their website in a discussion of XML standards - "Coupled with technologies introduced by the Internet," they say, "XML is demolishing the integration Tower of Babel and is creating a Babylon of XML Web services." OK, so Microsoft is a bit confused here; the Tower of Babel story represents not integration, but deviation, splintering, confusion and chaos. Babylon represents the state before Babel, when multitudes lived in peace and harmony and all spoke the same language. Babylon 5 wasn't a name just picked out of a hat. When they say it was a dream of bringing together people from different worlds, they meant it. Babylon, both Biblically and in the critically-acclaimed TV series, was all about the Common.
In the Cyberpunk novel Snow Crash, author Neal Stephenson speculates that the "common tongue" people spoke before Babel was Sumerian, a language which, his characters note (in the present tense, no less! Bravo!) is no longer in existence. He (and they) also go on to postulate, with varying degrees of seriousness, that it was a hacker named Enki who split people up into different nations, with different languages, basically to protect them from a virus. Natural mutation, in-breeding, evolve or die... there's a whole other column, a whole other series, just waiting to be explored there. For now, let's stick to language, because there is a very widely-accepted theory that this sort of thing is, at least in part, correct, if you look at what's known as Proto-Indo-European.
The theory of Proto-Languages has its detractors, many of them strict Creationists who don't agree with anything that even tastes faintly of evolution. Which is somewhat surprising in the case of Indo-European, because many of those who support the theory generally agree that it had its roots about 6 thousand years ago, which, perhaps not so coincidentally, puts us right around 4000 BC, which is when a lot of Creationists theorize the "world" was created. World, civilization, to-may-to, to-mah-to, it's a moot point. What we've got here is a root, Common language, the ancestor of many of the world's modern languages.
Since we're thinking Biblically here, the basic rundown goes something like this:
This is all pieced together somewhat cleverly, by comparing words that describe similar things in different languages to see how they sound when compared to one another. By comparing like words with similar sounds in widely different languages, gradually one can trace back along linguistic paths and find Indo-European. For example, in Sanskrit, the word "trayas" means the same thing as the English word "three," which is "tres" in Spanish and "trois" in French and "drei" in German. The English "father" is like the German "vater," Latin "pater," Sanskrit "pitr," and Persian "pedar." English "daughter" is akin to German "tochter," Greek "thugater," Sanskrit "duhitar," and Armenian "dushtr." English "is" is even more obvious: ist, est, esti, asti, ast; German, French, Greek, Sanskrit and Persian, respectively.
On a more basic level, similar languages resemble each other phonically. They may have different alphabets, but the range of sounds made is basically the same. Among Indo-European-derived languages, syllables are typically vowel sounds, or consonant sounds followed by vowels. The vowels "a" and "i" appear in something like 87% of all languages; "u" follows close behind at around 82%. "E," the most common vowel in the English language, is pretty far behind at 27%, as is "o," at 29%, but in languages that contain "e" it appears 85% of the time. The consonant sounds for "m," "k" and "l" appear most often (94%, 89%, 84%), and if there's a sound for "t" then there's an 83% probability there'll also be a sound for "d." So all those uncommon tongues are more common than you might think.
This is not to say that *all* languages come from Indo-European. Not at all. There are lots of other Proto-languages. Among them:
Russian linguists go so far as to postulate that there was an even more distant root language from which all these other roots sprung, back about 15 thousand years ago. But I'm not inclined to dig so far back. What we're dealing with here is, after all, the notion of a Common language in Fantasy and RPGs, not world history. Which is why it's time to yank us back out of the past and into the present day, since that's where the works we're dealing with are firmly ensconced. Last I checked, there were no RPGs written in Proto Indo-European. But all Fantasy RPGs are written in the same language nevertheless.
The Language of Role-Playing
Americans do not speak 'English." Even before our rebellion against England, our tongue tasted of Indian -- succotash, succotash, we love to say it. Mississippi, we love to spell. We speak American. Our tongue is not something slow and mucous that plods like an oyster through its bed in the sea, afearing of taint or blister. Our tongue sticks out; it is a dog's tongue, an organ of curiosity and science.
Of course, on a very basic level, I'm entirely wrong. You can find lists of RPGs written in other languages that will prove quite the opposite. And that's true. On the other hand, the sort of writing found in Fantasy RPGs is the same, regardless of whether it's written in German, Italian, Sanskrit or English. It's distinctly American.
American, which is more politically-correctly called "Modern English" (I prefer Postmodern English) is a mish-mosh of other languages. Modern English itself is something of an anomaly, because in its own unique way it's jumped boundaries, grabbing not only Germanic but some Romance as well. It's a mongrel on its own. But American is a snarling, bestial, wild mongrel running loose in the yard. Devouring anything that it comes across and making it part of itself. Moose and mosquito and tomato and ketchup. Tycoon and typhoon and racoon and chipmunk. Ranch and rodeo and lasso, hurricane and renegade and alligator. Kayak and igloo and hickory, squash and jaguar and chocolate. Karaoke and tea, futon and tattoo and taboo. Launch your website in Los Angeles and you're speaking four languages at once. Or one. American.
The American language is the true Common, the true polyglot, the Babylon out of the Babel, glossololia in a bottle, just 65 cents. American takes a base of English and grabs interesting words along the way. While the French desperately try to preserve their language's purity by banning words like "Internet" and "L'hamburger," Americans poo-poo the French and invent even more words. Dotcom. Cyberspace. Email. The language evolves faster than the dictionaries can keep up, and no nation is safe.
America Online in Europe is called America Online.
But this article is not about America, or the Internet. It's about language, and how it's taken for granted in Role-Playing Games. And we take for granted not only that RPGs will be written in our native language (because otherwise we can't use them), but that regardless of language, RPGs, particularly fantasy RPGs, are also written in American. Again, as with most things, we have to deal with this on two levels. On the one hand, the statement is true on its face for most cases. The RPG phenomenon is, for the most part, the fault of Americans, and American society, and the American entertainment industry, and it's no surprise that most RPG materials thus appear from American, written by Americans, for Americans.
But I'm also being more than just ethno-centric here. Step back for a moment and compare American as a language to the sort of language you encounter in Role-Playing Games, the style, the flavor. Unless you're a language freak like Tolkien (a definite non-American) was, you don't want to sit down and invent a whole new language. You want to get to the good stuff. The battles, the dragons, the sweeping action. You don't want to grind your own pepper, you want to cook the steak and taters and then reach for the pepper shaker, sprinkling liberally, if unevenly, over your juicy creation. So you take your native tongue and you invent a few fancy schmancy words and yea, verily, you toss 'em in hither and yon to make things sound olde.
And here we come upon one of the worst sins in the Fantasy and RPG industry: "lingual sprinkling," the same sort of semi-random adoption of "new and interesting" words that the American tongue does all the time. Of course, it's a venial sin, an excusable one, a little white sin, because it's necessary. Sometimes it's Pseudo-Old English (actually more like Early Modern) with oldes and thees and wherefore art thous, and sometimes it's pure fancy. Pick up almost any Fantasy or Sci-Fi RPG, any supplement, any adventure, read any novel or short story, watch any film, and you'll see the same thing over and over again: modern language with a few "fantasy language" words thrown in to spice things up. It's been this way since the dawn of the RPG industry; take the good old Dragonlance Chronicles, for example. Elf, dwarf, orc, dragon, all recognizable words, fantasy words, but also common enough to qualify as "ordinary" in the RPG realm. But this is fantasy, so we need something fantastic. So Emeril kicks it up another notch. Bam, here's a kender for you. Bam, he carries a hoopak. Those are hoopy doopy sounding fantasy words, even if kender is obviously derived from "kinder," as in "kindergarten." In similar fashion, Richard Adams' Watership Down gives us rabbits who apparently speak perfect English, yet tend to sprinkle their language with foreign sounding "rabbit" words, such as efrafa and elil and silflay.
The place they really get you is, of course, in the names. Nobody is named Tom, or William, or Bert (unless you're writing The Hobbit; those are the names of the three trolls who get turned to stone). And the only place you'll find Tim the Enchanter is in a Monty Python movie that's making fun of itself and everything around it. No, this is fantasy. These are Role-Playing Games. We must have Fantastic sounding names, even if there's no reason for it but to sound unusual. Tanthalas and Raistlin and Tasslehoff Burrfoot, Alhandra and Regdar and Tordek. Sprinkle some apostrophes throughout for even greater effect. Jo'barr and Fa'aldu and F'lar and the worst of the bunch, Drizzt Do'Urden. I don't know who deserves the more painful room in the hell of too-damn-many apostrophes, McCaffrey or Salvatore. Of course, even Tolkien deserves a bit of razzing here; Bifur, Bofur and Bombur might have been based on real ancient languages, but they're still just as silly as Sleepy, Dopey and Bashful.
But they sound different, they're in a different language, and so they must be fantastic. Forget the fact that a name like John Smith is perfectly medieval, has a detailed and meaningful etymology and heroic connotations to boot; it's too ordinary for fantasy. We need different, and hence acceptable, by virtue of being different. Never mind that the same sort of silly naming schemes are used elsewhere, and would be derided were those same names to be used in the context of a "serious" fantasy setting. Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels gives us Lilliputians and Glumdalclitch and Houyhnhnms, but we know those are silly words, so we don't think much of them. And when's the last time your characters sailed to Ka-Troo to "Bring Back an It-Kutch a Preep and a Proo a Nerkle a Nerd and a Seersucker, too?" [from Dr. Seuss' (rhymes with "voice") If I Ran the Zoo].
But, of course, it's not all random. It's non-nonsense. There are rules, and the reason there are rules is because language has to have rules, even if it's a mongrel tongue. In the 1600s, there were those who firmly believed that God spoke Swedish, and the devil spoke French, for no other reason than that was what they wanted to believe (and probably because the French are evil, but that's another essay). Likewise, today, Dwarves speak with Scottish accents, Elves speak with Irish accents, and Orcs and Goblins speak like a cross between angry Germanic barbarians and cavemen. You won't find an Elf named Orgbar Rockhammer any more often then you'll find a Dwarf named Corellarian Eveningshadow. It would seem the ancient Epicurians had it right when they stated a belief that language arose out of general agreement. We need to speak, so we will. Dwarves need to be named Thulbak and Crombar, and so they will be. Elves are Elves are Elves (and occasionally Eldils), and Earth is Urth is Oerth.
"You will never hear a dragon say 'Ya mon!'," says one website about Fantasy languages. And he's right.
For now, at least.
If you can speak three languages you're trilingual. If you can speak two languages you're bilingual. If you can speak only one language you're an American.
So what, then, is the point? Perhaps there is none. This is a column on things taken for granted, and thus by its very nature it can't come to conclusions, suggest changes, or suppose that things could be done differently. In the case of language, what we take for granted is what's necessary for RPGs to be RPGs. Which is, basically:
And so we're back where we started, which is right where I expected I'd be. For RPGs to work as RPGs, they must be understandable, which requires Babylon, a Common tongue shared by all in order for communication and gameplay to take place. Yet at the same time, to seem fantastic and be realistic within its fantasy, RPGs must also play Babel, and have other fantastic languages, which is usually accomplished by tossing in a "lembas" here and an "eored" there, as a reminder that what we're dealing with is Fantasy.
Is there a solution to this problem? Should there be? Is there even a problem to be solved? Not for me to answer. What's certain is that language is something we all have to take for granted when we pick up a game, or a Fantasy novel. Being aware of how language functions, why it's there at all, and how characters communicate with one another certainly can't hurt. That, then, is my purpose, here and throughout this column's run. I don't propose to change the world, or your mind. We're all lost in the same dark forest, for better or worse. I'm just trying to drop some breadcrumbs so we can see where we've been, and better gauge where we're going.
Just lembas for thought.