So, before I begin effectively putting my foot in my mouth, I should point out that I know at least one blogger, Graven Utterance, has a background involving linguistics. I barely have a high-school education. So I’ll defer to their wisdom when it comes to this subject. I’ve also not spoken to them at all about this idea.
When it comes to RPGs, languages are a large point of contention for me. It seems like, at least in modern interpretations of the oldest game, Race=Language, plus “Common” which is what everybody is speaking at the table. Also, everybody chooses to speak elvish and no monsters speak that. That’s anecdotal, I know.
But like... that isn’t how languages work in real life. And a lot of you may be groaning at that last sentence, especially as Gygax himself wrote that the game isn’t about simulating the real world in the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. And sure, if you don’t want to ground your world in this level of realism, that’s ok. Nobody asks how Rocket Raccoon and Drax both talk to Starlord. You can effectively hand-wave that and still tell a good tale and have a good game. Hell, mere paragraphs before advocating that the game isn’t simulationist, Gygax basically says (paraphrased) “If it isn’t fun, get rid of the rule.”
Either breezing through or coming to a complete impasse is never fun. And making choices that have no impact is also not fun, which languages feel like. One of the tenets of Old-School dungeon design is “Maximize Impactful Decisions”, meaning that player choices matter, and I think languages are a fine place to re-vamp that. In my case, I’m making them both a little more realistic, and also, a little more... Weird.
First and foremost, “Common” is replaced by regional languages. The Swiss speak French and German, Canada speaks French and English, and Japan speaks Japanese, but Osaka has a regional dialect. Some nomadic peoples of Mongolia share some mutual intelligibility with Yupik and Inuit. My own language, English, is a horrifying Frankenstein of whatever it can get it’s hands on (“My bon-vivant friend gifted me a katana for Saturnalia last Thursday. YOLO.”). And this is just referencing speaking a language, let alone writing.
A halfling that grows up amongst a Dwarven mining camp that trades with local frog-men isn’t likely to use much Halfling-Language. A human that moves to a smoke-choked inner-city of automata is gonna know how to Beep-Boop her way to an Electrolyte Beverage at a Robo-Bar. Coastal Raiders will speak a different tongue than Kingdom sanctioned wizards.
This gets more interesting as you start thinking of other factors in your world: magic, monsters, and the influences they will have in language as a whole: Dragons have a language, but you don’t have a three-foot long face and a forked tongue combined with recycle breathing and sub-harmonic vocalizations to replicate the sounds. Your embouchure is off just a bit.
Or maybe they’re all psychic and communicate via telepathy. Maybe that’s why wolves hunt in packs the way they do, striking as one unit. Or maybe the owls and the ravens tell them where to strike, obeying ancient pacts and fulfilling promises your ears cannot hear. Maybe they can talk back, maybe they can’t.
How do elves, which live five-hundred-plus years deal with a language that changes as time goes on? With slang? My grandparents still call things “Neato!” instead of “cool” and people in the Ninties used the word “groovy” unironically for a while. I had to explain to someone what “Yeet” was the other day. Now extrapolate that by one-hundred times. It’s right poppycock I tell you! See how that last sentence sounded?
So secondly, racial languages are out, unless there’s a decent reason, physically, culturally, magically, or otherwise. And if culture is a good reason to keep languages, then that means ones like Thieves’ Cant and Druidic are still in, as the language is part of the culture and thus likely evolves with it. I’m sure there are regional dialects in each (to say the least of parent languages for each of those), but I’m not stressing those right now. It could even just be something that a particular character notices. “He tries to mimic southern dockhand in his Cant, but he just can’t shake those Capital city terms for coded honorifics.” Something like that.
So what now? How do languages work? Well, you make up a bunch (I’m working on a few), and your players get to choose one for free (to replace “Common”) and then handle them in accordance with your version of the game, meaning let them choose more or have them make a check for it, or base it off of their Intelligence stat, or however.
Does this mean you could get a party where nobody speaks the same languages? Absolutely. Or even one party member that’s a little in the dark. Then again, that same player could feel completely left in the cold. I think that, unless the player wants that challenge, that it’s something to avoid. A best case scenario like that is a Rocket and Groot, where a player's character is translated for by a friend (with ample opportunity for bluff checks on either side). Or a “13th Warrior” scenario where they learn one language frequently spoken. The GM could also just “assign” a language to the party in place of Common, but keep it from being a ubiquitous language across the globe. That may help replicate the feel of travel in foreign cities, and gives a good excuse to pay a translator hireling. In any case, I think it’s important to have this discussed at the zero session among the players and the referee, as that will prevent any wild hiccups.