Sunday, March 19, 2017

Dungeons and Dragons: "Language"

            I have played Dungeons and Dragons for more than 15 years.  Lately, I have not had access to any other players and so I have just been kicking around ideas that normally would be in a game and instead I am just going to post them on my blog.  This is going to be a reoccurring thing as I just keep hammering out things and not all of them can be turned into elements in my “random fantasy novel ideas” folder.

What Have I Got: A Failure to Communicate
            For the last few months I have been listening to audio renditions of numerous classic science fiction novels via Audible (they are not sponsoring me because few if any read this blog).  My almost anthropological goal was to understand what people of decades’ past would view as a probable or fantastical future.  Often, they use science fiction to comment on society rather than making any sort of realistic prediction (hello, Kurt Vonnegut) but many of the stories have a particular quirk that I am coming to dislike.  Lots and lots of Jargon.

            You have a fictional piece of technology you want to give it a name that makes it sound exotic, powerful, curious, mysterious, or if you have a lick of sense it describes the function of the item so that the audience knows what the hell you are on about.  Or maybe you as a writer just want to make some funny slang to periodically remind the reader/listener that they are in a different world, set apart from contemporary society.  Imagine a science fiction world in which everyone is so strapped for time that they start reducing phrases or sentences into abbreviations for no reason.  That would be silly.  RotFL!

            Let’s me point to some quick examples.  Simple funny words are used to fill in for cursing in family programs like ‘slag’ in “Transformers: Beast Wars”, ‘shell’ in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”, or ‘whomp’ from “Disney’s Recess”.  ‘Whomp’ gets an entire episode explaining its origin and they actually have a very mature discussion about free speech and expression for children.  Which is one of many things that elevated “Recess” into a classic cartoon rather than the dregs of its era.
I don't think I am rubbing anyone the wrong way by saying, "This looks like a typical gaming group".
            Beyond cursing there are certain phrases that tie into religious or philosophical concepts in the worlds presented.  Not long ago I finished "Stranger in a Strange Land", which features the word 'Grok' which because of the book's popularity became an actual word in our world and I first heard it while watching the live action “Tick” series from the early 2000’s.

            They explain some of the entomological origin of ‘grok’ in "Stranger in a Strange Land" and it becomes the thesis statement of the book.  ‘Grok’ literally means 'drink' in the Martian language, but has taken on deeper context as a form of super empathy, understanding something so completely that it becomes part of you.  It is an alien word in a fictional universe, but it became a real word in the real world.

Nice going Brainiac, You’re a Real Einstein
            Another good example of something coming into the real world, but ironically.  'Brainiac' is the name of a Superman villain, a super smart alien menace which steals whole cities of people to study.  In the 90’s cartoon (which is one of my favorite things) Brainiac was the name of a powerful AI that was used on Krypton to monitor their society, a combination of the internet and Big Brother, you know like what the internet will be in just a few years (I have Google Analytics on this blog, that is how I know that I have a vanishingly small audience).
            If you think it sounds silly to name a Superman villain off a childish insult for nerds… you might be right.  What writer in their write mind (pun) would use a sarcastic term for a smart person as the name of a major villain in a science fiction action comic?  Except the word comes from the villain's name.  He is the origin of the insult.
            Imagine if, in decades and centuries hence, Albert Einstein stopped being a cultural figure and instead the only time you would hear his name was when it was being used as an insult.  That for so long the name Einstein was used to call someone stupid ironically it became synonymous with calling someone stupid emphatically, "Thanks, Einstein!"  That is the origin of the term Brainiac as an insult.  Sadly, that is probably what will eventually happen to Einstein as well.
I know I've made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I've still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. And I want to help you.
            If you were to set a book in the near future you could actually have part of the opening chapter be by a historian character lamenting the death of certain words in the minds of people, as they have been literally used so often as to divorce themselves from the previous meaning. You know, like how “literally” has come to mean “emphatically” to people less pedantic than myself.

Say it Again, but This time say it in Gibberish
            A cousin to the idea of fictional slang is the fictional language.  Something to harken back to ages before the internet gave us all translation programs to be used with ease and immediacy.
            Yes, I know that translation products are not perfect, obviously, but the idea of anyone getting a workable gist to what someone from an entirely different culture is saying so quickly and as accurately as they can manage is perhaps the most important thing human civilization could be working on in the modern era.  Know why?  Because immediate translations of studies related to cancer, rocketry, artificial intelligence, those things need to be translated fast so that many different countries can work on them so we can save the world.
            I digress.
            To create a bigger and more mysterious world, writers can create fictional slang or technical terms, but they can go further and make a whole new language or languages to give depth to their fictional world.  Some of the most famous fictional languages would include Dothraki on the “Game of Thrones” HBO series, all the Elven in “Lord of the Rings”, and that nerd language popularized by icon, William Shatner: Esperanto.

Speak, "Amiko" and enter.
             I am kind of confused how to feel about this practice.  While it is an interesting creative exercise and there is a linguist who makes a living inventing languages for movies and television shows so that they can be internally consistent… It is also a huge waste of time.
            I have a terrible difficulty learning new languages and I often wonder why video games or TV shows that have a fictional language in them don’t just use a real language and consider it an opportunity to teach people that new language (or just serve as a brief introduction).  There is zero value in knowing ‘Do Vah’ means ‘Dragon’, but I would say there is some value in knowing ‘Long’ means dragon in Mandarin Chinese.  Why not just use Mandarin in place of the Dragon language in “Skyrim” then?
            “Because, Rocket, it wouldn’t be comprehensive and would be disrespectful to otherize Mandarin Chinese by making it a language of giant monsters,” said Strawman.  “You can’t just co-opt people’s languages and cultures to put in some game, that is disrespectful.”
            To which I reply, “No, it isn’t.”  I picked Mandarin Chinese because more people need to be familiar with it.  Western cultures need a gateway to understanding foreign languages and learning it via a game makes sense.  You could just as easily use Latin, Swedish, or some other real language in an effort to increase usable skills while playing a video game.  There is no value to learning a fictional language.

What Does This Have to Do with Dungeons and Dragons
            Dungeons and Dragons uses foreign languages that are too simple and offer nothing to setting.  For one thing, magic that translates things is far too easy to access.  There are only 22 languages in the base setting and that includes languages from other dimensions.  Guys there are 50 languages in Europe (what even is Galician!? That’s a thing!).  And that doesn’t count all the immigrants from other countries who brought their own stuff into neighborhoods that could be Petit Bangkok or Little Bombay (I actually have no idea how prevalent such neighborhoods are, but colonialism did exist so I am guessing it is more than zero).

            The basic books give no advice for building a world that uses language to divide people or how to incorporate such things into a setting that really needs that kind of national identity instead of relying on race as such a cultural divide.  It is odd to have your campaign take place in a city that has a party with a dwarf, elf, halfling, gnome, and human, and it not be the world’s equivalent of Istanbul or Babylon in terms of cosmopolitan interaction.  I also get a strange mental aversion to using ‘race’ as a catch all for why different groups have different countries or conflicts.
            The closest thing I have to a clever moment when it comes to language in a game had to do with subverting the lack of thought that goes into it.  (I mean, aside from the brilliant thing I did with the Common Language as a country which was actually a metaphor for the game of Dungeons and Dragons itself, I will never stop tooting my own horn about that.  It is the first blog in this series which is linked here.)

My Clever Subversion
            During the single most successful DnD campaign I ever ran I made one of the primary ongoing quests the acquisition of 8 stele.  An Archeologist/Linguist named Gabriel had been trying to decipher a lost language, this language appeared in ruins all over the place, but could not be magically translated, always coming out as gibberish.  Gabriel had found a stele that had a few sentences of the dead language and several lines from other languages displaying conversion tables and some images to illustrate word meanings (a tiny image of a camel or fish next to words for camel or fish).  Gabe knew where each stele was and needed the players to help him get them.

Feel free to google the word "stele", they have lots of interesting images like this one.
            This by the by is one of the best ideas I have ever had for an ongoing campaign, it gave the players a reason to go to exotic locals and get stuck in local BS or raid a particular dungeon, gave some scaling rewards for finding each part of the puzzle and ultimately retrieving all of the pieces of this massive Rosetta Stone gave them an ultimate game changing reward, unlocking the mystery of the language no one could read.
            Their last adventure required them to call in favors from a university of necromancers, a shipwright’s guild, and venture to the bottom of the sea to raise from the depths the lost city of Kraken, an event that set into motion numerous other opportunities for adventure.  Gabe was finally able to read the lost language, discovering untold secrets historical, mystical, and theological.
            In universe, it was such a big event that it dwarfed all of the other accomplishments the players had pulled off till that point and made them celebrities to the entire continent.  Everyone either wanted their help, or just be next to them at big events to receive by implication a political endorsement.

Maybe I am the Wrong Guy to Talk about This
            I kind of hate jargon overall.  I was reading "Neuromancer" not too long ago and aside from quick mentions of things like “the net” and “the sprawl” to refer to cyberspace and the gigantic super-city the events take place in I just got tired of hearing so many gadgets and terms thrown into the mix, add to that the number of eclectic characters and I just gave up.

            Sensors, scanners, transporters, shuttles, scoops, tractor beams, grappler, these are all words that say what the thing they are describing does without making me mentally tired from listening.  But, they are also kind of boring when you think about it.
            There are dozens of objects in our day to day life whose function is their name, and we take that for granted, and while slang does exist for lots of stuff it comes too naturally for us to notice for the most part.
There are lots of lists of fictional languages.  Not a lot of articles calling them a waste of time.
So you can probably figure out why I feel alone and not sure what advice to offer beyond, "Think about it."

            I am unsure as to what advice to give on the topic.  To some people a fictional language adds so much to a world, to me it is a shrug, but I resent when it is half assed like it is in DnD more.
            In real life language is such a fundamental part of our existence we can’t perceive of a civilization without it and it has been a factor in countless cultural movements, and in DnD it is an afterthought that gives the barest of glaze to make the world just a modicum more real.
            Think about this stuff and make a decision.
            Will you embrace the idea that a lack of understanding exists and as a result disaster can happen, like the death of the Sacred Leader Dukhat in the prequel to “Babylon 5”?
            Do you instead acknowledge that separate languages exist as a cultural element for flavor but not gameplay like Klingon in “Star Trek” (though subtly of meaning in Dominion-ese was a plot point in one episode of “Deep Space 9” the only instance I know of in the franchise)?
            Or, are you just going to ignore it like they did on 99% of “Stargate SG-1”?
            If you are ambitious you could make it the key to a Lovecraftian understanding of reality like they did in “Arrival” (also, watch “Arrival” it is great).
            But give it some thought, it is only one of the fundamental building blocks of civilization it deserves a once over in the writing process.

Next Time & The Beg for Attention
            This was not originally the topic slotted for today.  But I got a bug up my butt about the topic and then started writing and here we are.  If you liked this, please share it with your own game group or whoever might get a kick out of this.  Feel free to use my ongoing archaeology mission idea in your own game too.
            If you have a suggestion for a future topic you want me to talk about put it in the comments.  I have a few running thru my head, but like suggestions.
This exists.  That is a waste of time.
            If you disagree with me, please tell me why in the comments.  Feel free to leave links to your own blog on the topic or articles that you have found helpful.  Or write your own counterpoint to all this (or parts of it) and come back and post a link.  Maybe you love knowing that Klingon exists and think that Esperanto is the future.
            This is not a topic as thorny as Alignment but in a way, it is more of a potential game mechanic and world element.  Language casts spells.  You could build entire games around learning a language.  Language is often a symbol of power and order in fiction.  You could use language as a substantial part of the background of the world.  It is a big deal.
            Have Fun!

            For more on fictional languages, fiction, and fiction translated into fictional language I must refer you to this pair of videos about Klingon translations of Shakespeare.  It is done by Kyle Kallgren and he is both funny and informing.

            If you like or hate this please take the time to comment, +1, share on Twitter, Tumblr, or Facebook, and otherwise distribute my opinion to the world.  I would appreciate it.

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