Fantasy Languages | Watcha Talkin’ About? | Wandering DMs S04 E34
Dan & Paul chat about the state of languages in D&D and other fantasy RPGs.
Tolkien was of the opinion that the invention of an artistic language in order to be convincing and pleasing must include not only the language’s historical development, but also the history of its speakers, and especially the mythology associated with both the language and the speakers. It was this idea that an “Elvish language” must be associated with a complex history and mythology of the Elves that was at the core of the development of Tolkien’s legendarium.
Tolkien wrote in one of his letters — “what I think is a primary ‘fact’ about my work, that it is all of a piece, and fundamentally linguistic in inspiration. … It is not a ‘hobby’, in the sense of something quite different from one’s work, taken up as a relief-outlet. The invention of languages is the foundation. The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows. I should have preferred to write in ‘Elvish’. But, of course, such a work as The Lord of the Rings has been edited and only as much ‘language’ has been left in as I thought would be stomached by readers. (I now find that many would have liked more.) … It is to me, anyway, largely an essay in ‘linguistic aesthetic’, as I sometimes say to people who ask me ‘what is it all about’.”
While the Elvish languages remained at the center of Tolkien’s attention, the requirements of the narratives associated with Middle-earth also necessitated the development at least superficially of the languages of other races, especially of Dwarves and Men, but also the Black Speech designed by Sauron, the main antagonist in The Lord of the Rings. This latter language was designed to be the ostensible antithesis of the ideal of an artistic language pursued with the development of Quenya, the Black Speech representing a dystopian parody of an international auxiliary language just as Sauron’s rule over the Orcs is a dystopian parody of a totalitarian state.
Flowing from Tolkien’s primary interest, the need to handle various languages has long been a key part of D&D and other fantasy games. Does D&D do a good job at it? How can it be improved?
Wandering DMs Paul Siegel and Dan “Delta” Collins host thoughtful discussions on D&D and other TTRPGs every week. Comparing the pros and cons of every edition from the 1974 Original D&D little brown books to cutting-edge releases for 5E D&D today, we broadcast live on YouTube and Twitch so we can take viewer questions and comments on the topic of the day. Live every Sunday at 1 PM Eastern time.
This description uses material from the Wikipedia article “Languages constructed by J. R. R. Tolkien”, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.