Dragon Magazine rants 2 – Language

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The second article of Dragon’s first issue, Languages, deals with in-game linguistics, with a slight emphasis on percentage statistics (mainly concerning the possibility of a random monster/being knowing a given language – I imagine that back in the day randomness was a big thing for DMs), and raises some pretty interesting issues and questions, both rule-wise and from in-game points of view.

Let’s take a look at language’s hard association with Intelligence. In the first edition of D&D (as well as in all other onwards, up to 3.5 – as for the fourth, I cannot comment, since I have no familiarity with it), the language ability is depended on the Intelligence attribute. In the article it is said that a human with an Intelligence score of 3 will only be able to speak one language (Common in this instance, since this is considered the default human language), and with a pretty limited vocabulary at this. This view perceives language as a purely mental activity, which could be conquered and enhanced via intellectual bravado alone – if one can memorize all the dictionary’s pages, one will be a master of that language.

The thing is, language is never detached from in-life experience and interaction with other users (persons) and carriers (texts and other written language forms or symbols) of it – something that they finally got right on the fifth edition, in which language at character creation is solely based on race and background (socio-cultural factors), and then on training, namely learning it via a tutor, spending time in order to interact with speakers and/or texts, etc – Intelligence is not central to it. Thus, instead of setting language upon a pedestal, as a prize protected by a riddle-ridden gauntlet, which is to be gained after a purely mental quest, it is best seen as a matter of entering into a network of interaction with entities that use it or carry it. A quote from Tim Ingold’s “The Perception of the Environment” is quite close to what I describe:

Language cannot properly be said to be handed down – it endures, but it endures as a continuous process of becoming. Individuals do not receive a ready-made language at all, rather, they enter upon the stream of verbal communication.”

To wrap this up, if languages had to be depended on an attribute, I propose that due to language learning’s deeply social nature Charisma (or even Wisdom, due to its more intuitive nature) would be a slightly more fitting candidate than Intelligence. Still, I think that fifth edition’s attribute-less, socio-cultural take on language is much more representative of language’s nature.

Onwards now to spells as speak with animals, plants, etc, with a quote from the article that I found somewhat hilarious: “I have encountered one character who took “Wall” as a language and attempted to interrogate dungeon walls as to what lay behind them. In my dungeon, the walls drunkenly replied, “I don’t know; I’m plastered.”” Apparently, there wasn’t a Stone Tell spell at the time, so the player’s choice to take “Wall” as bonus language was both amusing and innovative.

Now, casting a spell which bestows the “gift” of (our) speech on a creature not normally being able to speak it, seems straightforward enough: we seem to suppose that all beings are memory and experience containers, and thus, by bestowing upon them the gift of speech, we are able to tap into their informational reservoir; it would not be so amiss if I said that we see them as a multi-sensational sensors, which wait for an interface to appear, through which to communicate to us their experience – especially considering the spell description that the animal or the plant WILL provide the information (if existent), no ifs and buts. This approach however, takes for granted certain things, two of which are: the organisms’ willingness to cooperate with the caster (implying a charm of sorts) – all in all, a pretty anthropocentric view; the organisms’ ability to store their past (namely, their before-the-spell’s-casting) experience.

Α look is on the order, at how deep is the effect of this humble first-level divination spell called Speak With Animals (same goes for Speak With Plants, and Stone Tell): The spell seems to attribute a symbolic mode of thought and communication to non-human entities, for that is exactly what language is. We are talking heavy magic here, changing the whole mode of thought, perception, and experience of a being, even for only its duration. It implements within their thought process:

a. the idea (and the acceptance of this idea) that particulars sounds correspond to particular meaning,

b. an understanding of time as perceived by us – so as to be able to communicate even basic concepts as “now,” “before,” and “after”

c. the sensoral ability to receive, process and emit linguistic information to and from another creature (be it telepathically, through vocal and auditory systems, etc).

I realize that now I am entering under the spell’s hood, something that I try to avoid as far as magic is concerned, but the ramifications and the scale of what a simple first level spell can do were far too inviting.

(Let’s also note here that with Speak To Plants or Animals, we imposes our mode of thought upon the entities affected by the spell, an action that could be even scrutinized from an ethical point of view.)

In the article there is also a mention of animal languages, focusing on the existence of common languages for wide taxonomic categories: is there an Equine language spoken by all Horses, Mules, Donkeys, Unicorns, etc? Once again we have a projection of our way of thinking to non-human entities. We tend to see species (another human invention) as “neighboring” by virtue of similarities that We find among them, as well as theorizing that since all humanoids in a fantasy world have a way of inter-species communication (the Common tongue), so it will probably be with all other similar species – never mind that this is a pure anthropocentric view of other beings. We obviously talk about an imaginary world, and since it is humans that play it, there is bound to be anthropocentrism, but it is interesting, I think, to see how this view is embedded inside the game world, for it could bring light to real-world human view of non-human entities.

Finally, the article also touches upon the subject of the language in which persons think, mainly in order to examine if it is possible to read the thoughts of a person whose language you do not speak – ending up in situations where one could take advantage of the obscurity of his native language in order to guard his thought from magic intrusions. Still, I think that reducing the thought process in pure language is something of a radical simplification. For it is not too usual to think without images, sensations, mental nudges, thought noise, and other things thrown around some words. It is unusual to think in pure language, even in cases where we need to put our thought into writing or speech.

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