Thursday, December 22, 2016

Psi-Wars Linguistics

Whoa, lady, I only speak two languages, English and bad English.-Korben Dallas, the Fifth Element
In a campaign, language diversity has two main functions. It provides an obstacle; when explorers encounter a new race, they may not be able to communicate. It also is a source of color; a nonhuman, or a human from a different culture, may have an accent, or a strange way of phrasing things.
-Bill Stoddard, GURPS Fantasy, page 66 
Nobody gives a damn that the alien is speaking twi'lek, except for description. The times where language mattered in Star Wars can be limited to one time in the entire series. C3PO wasted his points on buying 6 million forms of communication.
-Raoul Roulaux, Gentleman Gamer

Raoul is largely right about Star Wars and language.  Where Star Trek or Game of Thrones have internally consistent and largely speakable languages, Star Wars has a series of funny sounds that only sounds like an alien language.  The point of language in Star Wars is like all the other distancing mechanisms in Star Wars: to provide the window dressing of space opera. We expect aliens to speak alien (it would be "unrealistic" for them to speak English), so they jabber on in alien-sounding gibberish.

That doesn't mean we have to do the same in Psi-Wars, of course.  Language serves a purpose, as Bill Stoddard points out.  Moreover, Psi-Wars is based on Action, and Action definitely features language (though often in largely the same way that Star Wars does: It's important that the Middle Eastern terrorist shout things that sound Arabic, to be "realistic" but it's not that important that he's speaking comprehensible Arabic).  Finally, the reasons Star Wars has funny languages remain important.  We still need aliens to sound alien, we still need exotic things to sound exotic, and we still need to give the impression of a sweeping galaxy.

The Point(s) of Language in Psi-Wars

Raoul does us a favor by playing the role of the Brent, demanding that we justify the existence of languages.  He rightly points out (in a larger discussion) that in the Old Republic, aliens just speak whatever aliens speak and everyone just understands them.  It provides color and flavor, but is otherwise meaningless.  Why does he argue so vociferously against it?  Because it costs points.

If we're going to include languages as languages and charge players points for them, then we need to justify the expense beyond "It's realistic."  After all, 4 points in a language is 4 points you could have spent on Force Swordsmanship or another skill level in TK-Grab!  If it's just for color, what's the point?

Raoul challenges us to re-examine our assumptions.  If he's right, they should cost nothing (no more than a perk).  If we can find a purpose or a point to them, though, they can can justify a point cost for them.  We need to understand what language brings to a game.

Language as Challenge

As Bill Stoddard points out, people who don't speak your language present a challenge.  It becomes imperative to bridge that difference and understand what is going on.  This sort of linguistic puzzle has been the focus on several Star Trek episodes... which highlights how bad a fit that is for Psi-Wars.  In Psi-Wars, we want to blow stuff up not hassle over linguistics, so this is largely not the reason to have language in the game.  Quite the opposite, Star Wars includes protocol droids precisely to get around this sort of problem, so we can have alien-sounding aliens, know what they're talking about, then get back to blowing stuff up.

Even so, both Action and Psi-Wars take an approach to language-as-challenge that might be worth exploring.  A typical Action scenario doesn't present static scenarios to overcome, like a straight-up linguistic puzzle, but a broader challenge that the PCs use their unique skills to navigate.  For example, the heroes might need to find and capture a terrorist in a Iraqi village.  If the players don't speak the language, they can resort to other means to find him, but if they do, then new options open up to them.  They can talk to the villagers, connect with them, and then ask where the terrorist is.  It's a more peaceful solution.

If we approach language as a puzzle, then we're doomed to fail, because that violates the themes and templates of Psi-Wars.  If we view it as a tool with which to solve a problem, then it becomes more interesting.  The point of a Diplomat is not to solve linguistic puzzles, but to connect peacefully with natives who don't speak galactic common.  The ideal here would be what you see in the Gumshoe system: You never need a language to continue the plot, but if you have a language, you can get more information or resources that might help you later down the line (such as overhear some alien gossip, or interact more directly and productively with aliens).

Language as Color

Language tells us that we're somewhere new, but it does so in a specific way.  If we're in places named Buenos Aires or Santiago or Santa Cruz, we know where we are: South America, or at least someplace Spanish speaking.  We also know, if we apply foreigner-simplifying Action-movie logic, that people around here are poor, Catholic and there's a lot of drug cartels.  On the other hand, if we're hanging out with people named things like Al-Ghazali or Ibn Battuta, that we're (again, simplifying) talking to Muslims, probably in a land of sand and camels, to whom hospitality is sacred and modesty (especially in women) is important.

Language is a core element of culture.  It's how a culture speaks and thinks and how they relate to the things around them.  You can definitely overstate the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, but language does shape how we think, and the languages of others comes to shape how we think of them.

The oversimplifications offered above might be offensive in the real world, but they're useful in a space opera setting where players need to get a handle on how the world works.  The real world doesn't feature "warrior races" but it's handy if you can simplify a sci-fi race down to one, at least for an initial grasp of the species.  One of the things we can use to build, and signal this cultural color is language.

First, language can name things in a consistent way.  We want odd, alien-sounding names for worlds and aliens and the things associated with them.  Just as the Japanese don't have knights with swords but samuai with katanas, we expect our aliens to have the same (Klingons with Bat'leth).  Alien languages can provide both a resource for interesting sounding names, and a way to consistently align them with a single cultural group.  Consider the two Star Wars locations of Nar Hutta and Nar Shaddaa.  If you guessed both were found in the same rough stretch of space, you'd be right!  By using a Nar X-a construction, they imply similarity that leads to the realization that they might come from a similar culture.

Second, language can act as a marker of a culture.  If you see someone speaking Huttese, you know he's probably from Hutt space, and thus associated with the same sort of culture as Nar Hutta or Nar Shaddaa.  If you come across an alien ruins with Ancient Alexian on them, you know it probably has something to do with the Alexian dynasty and its associated tropes. In this sense, language serves as color both for the setting and for your character.  Purchasing languages signals our interest in that sub-culture and group.  If you purchase Old Alexian as a language, then you want Alexia to matter, and when Alexian elements come up,  your character is especially well equipped to deal with them.  Language, in this case,  unlocks a piece of the world.  Just like knowing Spanish means going to South America is a better experience for you, or knowing Japanese means you have greater appreciation for Japanese culture, so too would your character knowing a Psi-Wars language tie him more deeply into a culture and region of space.

The Languages of Psi-Wars

We're not in a place to really settle down and pick and choose some specific languages, but we can discuss what we want them to do and how we'll use them.

Galactic Basic

Also known as "Common" in most Fantasy games, this language is the lingua franca of the campaign.  There's always someone somewhere who speaks it.  It's also our measure of familiarity.  When you're in "home space" everyone speaks common (just like when you're in the US, everyone speaks English), but when you go to strange hinterlands in the rim, less and less people speak Common (but someone always does).

In Psi-Wars, Galactic Basic will use English... or German, if you're in Germany, or Icelandic if you're in Iceland, Portugese if you're in Brazil, etc.  The words here should be familiar to us, and easily parsable.

That's not to say that they have to be perfectly familiar.  Sci-fi has along tradition of using unusual names for a particular concept ("Communion" for an interstellar subconscious psychic gestalt), or mashing words together to explain a new concept, sometimes as two separate words ("Force blade"  or " lightsaber") or sometimes just pieces of words jammed together ("plasteel"  or "duratanium"  or "nutri-pack")

If we choose to include multiple languages, Galactic Basic should be assumed as the standard "free" native language, unless a player chooses something else (like the deliberately want to be unable to speak the language.

Alien Accents

Even if a culture speaks Galactic Basic (ie English), they might still speak it in an unusual or distinctive way, in the same way that a fellow from Brooklyn or south of the Dixie line is, stereotypically betrayed by his accent which carries with it a set of stereotypes (which is precisely the sort of thing we want to exploit for our cultures). Accents are a feature, unless you can fake one well enough to fool a local, in which case its a perk.

If you wish to describe the accent in such a way that players will instantly recognize it, consider some of the following ideas:

Alternate Words: Many accents use different words for common items, though usually mutually recognizable, like the difference between "Apartment" or "Flat," or "Elevator" or "Lift."  A culture might refer to starships as "Hypercraft" and grav vehicles as "Contras" and call all forms of medicine "Stims,"  etc.

Alternate Word-Order: English is a "Subject-Verb-Object" language, that is, we say "She loves him."  You can get a lot of mileage by messing with that order (Much mileage from this Yoda does get).  The most common in the world is actually Subject-Object-Verb," "She him loves"!

Odd Phrasing: Without changing anything in the grammar or vocabulary of the language, you can include some unusual-but-correct choices.  For example, sci-fi authors love to play with contractions, where a race (or robots) will refuse to say "Can't" when they could say "Cannot."  This is particularly noticeable when someone says "Let us" rather than "Let's,"  as in "Let us suppose..."  Another idea, more common in foreign languages (particularly in DUtch), is the common use of diminuitives, which in English by adding an -y sound or an "-ikins" suffix, such as "Hand me the wrenchikins."  Finally, some languages lack "articles" like "the" or "a," especially Slavic languages (resulting in the stereotypical Russian accent where characters say things like "You give me money, I give you gun."). Dropping articles, or sprinkling too many in ("The self went to the park to walk the path and hang out with the friend.") can make an accent sound unusual.

Odd Pronunciation: English has a few unusual sounds, or a few points of contention.  One is whether or not the accent is rhotic, or whether or not they pronounce the "r" on the end of words.  American English is rhotic ("Otherrrr"), while stereotypical English English is not ("Othah"), while some accents will put rs were none belong ("Idear" instead of "Idea").  English also uses a "th" sound, which is actually very rare linguistically.  Some accents might instead replace it with a "d", "z" or "t" sound, or all of the above ("Give me de ting dat's ova deya").

As usual, less is more when it comes to accents.  Whatever you define, you have to do.  If you like doing accents, knock yourself out.  Star Wars gets considerably mileage out of the "elegant, Imperial" British accent and the rough, rebellious American accent, and the crazy accent of types like Yoda.

Alien Dialects

We need the incoherent jibberings of our alien groups.  They should name exotic places and things, and they should be internally consistent, though we don't need to know actual details beyond a naming scheme and perhaps a few phrases.

For the actual sounds and characters of a new language, Star Wars just ripped off real-world languages, like Quechua and Tibetan, for some interesting sounds and that was it.  We could do something similar: Take psuedo-latin and psuedo-japanese and psuedo-chinese and use it to name worlds and things, though I find it problematic to use real-world languages. Setting aside the implications of saying "Japanese is alien but English isn't,"  what if Japanese people start playing the game in Japanese?

We could also make up our own language.  Numerous conlanging resources exist to help you build your own, internally consistent language, if you wish.
I've never done a conlang. Life's too short, and my players wouldn't enjoy it; they aren't linguistics hobbyists. -Bill Stoddard
Fine, but other people have.  If you're looking for a language to pillage, numerous languages exist, each with their own character and level of completeness. FrathWiki has one such set of lists of constructed languages.  If all you need is a consistent structure of sounds, here's 10 "naming languages" you can use.  Here's a few more to look at.
  • Navi, from the film Avatar
  • Viridian, an attempt at a Lovecraftian language
  • Clofabosin, a language inspired by generic drug names
  • Barsoomian, inspired by the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • Kelen, a language without verbs
  • Verdurian, an imperial language by the guy who gave us the Language Construction Kit
  • High Valerian, if we need a not-Latin language.
  • Tel Mithrim, an internet knock-off of Tolkien's elven language, if you want something elfish without going full Tolkien
  • Kiitra, a sci-fi alien language that caught my attention
The point of using these languages should be to collect coherent names, naming guides, and perhaps a few interesting phrases.  We're not playing Star Trek, so we don't want an emphasis on actually speaking the language.  If Psi-Wars were a swashbuckling game, it's enough that your musketeer has a french name and sometimes says "Mon ami" sometimes.

If we used Kelen for one of our races, we might use some of the following words:
  • Japerno (blade) might be what they call force blades, or their own special version of force blades.
  • They might come from the world of Jamara (Home)
  • They might call themselves the Makiri (the family) and worry about Antaxoni (the ways, or the traditions, that make them who they are), and they might call those who are not of their race, but very close friends, loved ones and allies, the Mapuskiri (chosen family), which gives someone a sense of belonging with them, but also means that there's always a conceptual divide between "us" and "them."
We don't need many words, but just a sprinkling of them gives us a sense of culture and identity.

Flavors of Alien Dialects

If we're going to have foreign languages, what purpose do they serve

Regional Common-Language: We're familiar with English being a "common language" the world over, but that wasn't always true, and individual regions of our world have their own trade languages, either historically or currently.  Spanish is a trade language for much of the Americas south of the US, Mandarin Chinese is the trade language of the Sinosphere, and Arabic is the trade language of the Middle East.  We could imagine regions of the galaxy where a non-Basic trade language dominates, like Huttese in Hutt-Space.  By giving different regions different trade languages, we emphasize their uniqueness and particular culture.

Dead Language: Few real-world languages have the mystique of famous dead languages, like ancient Egyptian, Sumerian, Latin, Aramaic, etc.  Star Wars has its own "dead" languages, like the language of the Sith.  Given the importance of history in Psi-Wars (and hunting ancient texts for lost relics), we should expect to have a few dead languages that characters can learn, to assist them in their search for a particular set of cool relics.

Minority dialects: Often when a people integrates into a larger polity, they retain their own culture.  Jews are particularly famous for this.  Star Wars is very cosmopolitan setting, where jawas regularly rub elbows with Wookies on worlds neither is native to.  Thus, we might expect to see certain alien races that cling to their own language while on another world.  Perhaps the Felinoids have their own dialect despite being scattered to the stars by the various problems that have befallen them.  Most speak Galactic Basic, but among one another, they speak Felinoid.  If you can also speak Felinoid... you're in!

Isolates: Sometimes, we want a species that the rest of us can't talk to.  Ewoks represent this.  The real world has plenty of "linguistic isolates" that seem to have no connection to other languages around them.  Examples include Ancient Sumerian and the surprisingly rich and complex Korean.  These might reflect one or two sorts of themes.  Either the language is very isolated by high status enough that people want to learn it (say, you're planet is famous for very cool technology, so people are willing to learn your language to do business, so you don't feel the need to learn their language), or you're a barbaric species so far outside of the civilized sphere that you've never been educated in Galactic Basic.  In both cases, an isolate represents a conundrum and a problem; learning it unlocks access to a unique element of the setting.

The Black Tongue: Many fantasy settings feature monstrous languages, harsh languages that belong to monster species, like orcs or necromancers.  In the real world, action movies sometimes give this treatment to Russian or German, making them sound harsher and more guttural than they actually are.  Learning the language of a menace gives you the ability to decode their intentions.

High Prestige Language: While your common tongue is usually high prestige enough, some languages gain a reputation for being better than the best.  In our world, French often has this reputation as the epitome of elegance.  Before that, when France was the common tongue of European nobility, Latin was the better-than-you language.  Learning this language would certainly give you a +1 reaction from people who cared about such things, and may be required for a display of Status.  A high prestige way of pronouncing a language ("Received Pronunciation") might be a unique Accent perk.

Standard Prestige Language: Tradesmen and blue-collar types often have their own language, or at least their own accent and way of approaching a language.  It's not high status, sometimes even mocked as rustic, but it's homey and comfortable, the language that a people relaxes into when at home.  Most such speakers will know the common tongue at least at accented or broken, and feel much better if you're willing to speak to them in their language.  This often isn't worth learning as an outsider, but it's nice to have to show where you come from.  A standard, common way of speaking might be a unique Accent, though most characters will speak a common language in the standard accent for free.  Instead, a unique accent might represent a homey, folksy way of speaking.

Low Prestige Language: Some languages, fairly or otherwise, have a reputation of being spoken by reprobates, savages or the poverty stricken.  It might be the language of a conquered people, or disenfranchised minority with a reputation (fair or otherwise) for criminal activity, or a weird hodge-podge pidgin by the various minorities who have slowly fused into one vast cultural underbelly.  The language, or a similar Accent, won't grant you must prestige, but it might prove your "cred" when trying to convince the disenfranchised that you're not one of the oppressive elites.


Ultimately, whatever you choose as a language or accent for your culture, the thing that needs to come out of it, more than anything, is a naming scheme.  You don't want people to name their characters "Bob" or "Fred," but they don't know what they should be naming their characters.  Coming up with a list of names or a set of rules for naming characters will go a long way to helping players get a linguistic feel for the setting, even if they're not conscious of it (for example, some names "sound" more Star Wars than others, like Jen Vandarian sounds more "Star Wars" than "Jonathon Fitzgerald," "John Crowfoot" or "Diamond McZazzle"

Thus far, my psi-wars names are real-world names (ideally popular in the 70s) that have been simplified down to a few syllables, usually just one for men, or two (ending with a vowel sound) for women.  A last name usually complements the first name for a total of 3-4 syllables if spoken aloud (Thus "Sapho Day" and "Dun Walker" but not "Dun Day"  The last names often just straight up words or longer names simplified.

Male Names: Alder, Ander, Daver, Dun, Jace, Jen, Jenner, Kento, Ren, Sapho, Tam, Temmer, Timo, Van, Ven, Zander

Female Names: Ayella, Betha, Crysta, Eliya, Jenna, Jessa, Leyana, Nica, Sandraya, Shay, Shella, Thea, Therina. Verona. Zee.

Last Names: Caul, Day. Hunter, Jade. Kane, Lane. Lo. Moor. Quintino, Sin. Talipher, Taller, Walker


I'm all for languages, but I think languages are really fun.  For Psi-Wars, I want to include them as distancing mechanics, for when we get away from the Core.  Learning a language shouldn't be necessary to achieving success in an adventure (and a diplomacy-bot should be enough for most linguistic needs), but it should assist you in lots of small ways in unlocking certain culture groups or gaining access to bonus information or granting reaction modifiers among certain groups, or some element of all three.  We can also use them for consist naming schemes and for "alien sounding words," but for those purposes, I recommend ripping off existing languages (especially conlangs).

If we want to further explore ways to create a variety of interconnected languages that are easier to learn (which might be too complex for Psi-Wars, but noted nonetheless), we might use the suggestions in Pyramid #3-16, "Languages, Cultures and the Common Tongue"

Character Considerations

Linguistics will identify a language and the family to which it belongs. Accent covers specific ways of speaking. Language, obviously, covers what languages the character can speak (with Language Talent making it cheaper to buy a variety of languages)

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