What is “Common”?
Okay, for gameplay reasons I am totally down with a “Common” tongue, as is frequently presented in RPG campaigns, especially fantasy RPGs.
But what IS it?
Without changing any rules at all, you can help give a campaign world some interesting backstory by explaining why there is a “common language.”
Here are 20 examples, built on tropes common to d20 fantasy games.
“When the mighty empire of Te Essar collapsed, its official language was already known to most of the world, and became the common language of trade and diplomacy.”
“The deity Commonos wished all people to trade stories, and gave them a single language in which to do so.”
“The eldritch Power Words, Glyphs, and Sigils used in so many spells require significantly study to use to their full mystic potential, but their common forms are easy enough to learn, and taught to populations worldwide as a method for seeking those with a spark of spellcasting talent.”
“The Plane of Shadow is a reflection of all that occurs on the Material Plane, including all language. The Shadow Tongue is a simplified amalgam of all mortal tongues, and can be vaguely understood by any literate person.”
“The Logos Prima was invented by a travelling bard centuries ago, and carefully designed to be easily learned by anyone, from any culture. It has a single, unified spelling and sentence structure, and avoids elements that make some languages more difficult to learn, such as tonality and gendered nouns, and has a simplified structure to allow it to be picked up quickly.”
“It’s a virus. Exposure to the sound, or the sight of it, allows it to creep into your mind, and infect your thoughts with its syntax, and vocabulary.”
“They come once in each generation, to every library and school above a given size. The Solresolut, the Inevitables of Communication. Immortal teaching machines, they offer the language of the Law of the Spheres to any who will learn it, then leave the laws themselves behind. Ignorance of the law is no defense, but every mortal is given a fair chance to learn them.”
“When the world was young, the Cyclops discovered art, and architecture, and language. They built mighty fortresses and huge henge that could predict the seasons. No one knows why these cyclopean ruins were abandoned, but their uses to ancient cultures to know when to plant, when to migrate, when the moon would eat the sun ensured that the basics of what was written upon them would be learned worldwide.”
“The angels spoke Enochian, the tongue of the heavens. Devils taught it to man, to ensure they would be ready to bargain for even more knowledge.”
“It turns out if a demigod archmage genie gets annoyed enough with translation errors in her mail order service, she’ll wish ‘there was one Common language almost everyone knows’.”
“The self-replicating Printing Press Golems nearly destroyed the world. But from their ruined movable type, a single common alphabet was born… ”
“Look, humans can interbreed with almost anything. If it;’s a less common or less popular combination, we just call it a half-whatever. half-dragon. half-angle. half-orc. If it’s happened enough to develop its own culture, it gets a new name. Minotaur. Centaur. Harpy. As a result, the most popular human languages are taught to a LOT of wondering offspring…”
“The first Riddle of the Sphinx was a grand mystery for centuries. It was taught in every academy, studied by every sage. Given how crucial context is to understanding and solving riddles, it’s native tongue was taught alongside it, to ensure no nuance was lost in translation.”
“When madmen worldwide all babble and scream in the same language, it’s worth knowing what that language is, and what they are saying.”
“The Grand Trickster demanded that all understand his jests, and the skalds sought out to ensure this could be so, though it take carrying his words to every corner of the world.”
“When the gods made mortals, they gave them language. That which best spoke of rock was adopted by the dwarves. That which best spoke of wealth was adopted by the dragons. And that which best spoke of toil was adopted by the workers, crafters, and servants of the world.”
“They come to every port and trading post, in creaking ships and caravans of twisted beast. They are known by their brightly painted masks they never remove, and overly-sweet perfume scents masking a hint of rotting flesh beneath their faded robes. They buy, and sell, and trade, and make many wealthy, but they do it all in just one language. If you wish to do business with the Traders, you must learn this common trade tongue.”
“In the first seasons, the beasts all knew two languages, which gave them dominion over the material world and the spirit realm. The tool-makers stole the common words of material dominion from the beasts, and became ascendant. Now druids guard the spirit dominion language closely, and forbid that it be taught to any but those of their own order.”
“The wind whispers, the river mutters. Fires spit and curse, and the earth groans. Early people could rarely master all of any elemental tongue, but ususally learned a few key phrases from each, forming them into a set of common words and phrases that were almost universal.”
“Common? You mean Khelvish? Sure, it’s common where you are from, in the lands between the Basalt Mountains and Shallow Sea. A few folks ’round these parts know it, too. But if you want to be able to talk to everyone in these parts, you’d best learn Fworven, or at least Low Glett.”
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