Beyond the Lingua Franca

I’ve always been interested in languages and it’s one of the aspects I enjoy researching for the Ars Magica projects I’ve worked on – with Mark Shirley I worked on the languages appendix in The Cradle and the Crescent (essentially a revision of the original section in Blood & Sand), I spent some time on the Iberian dialects for Marko’s Light of Andorra web-based saga, and I’ve been responsible for the language sections in the two yet-to-be-announced ArM5 projects I’m still working on. The “fluff” of languages can provide strong thematic flavour, but the “crunch” inherent to the current system can be counterproductive.

The main problem with languages for me in ArM5 is that reflecting the complexity of medieval dialects within the main language groups of an area (particularly the “Spanish” group) is difficult with the standard Ability (specialisation) format and rules listed in the corebook and expanded upon by example initially in Guardians of the Forest and in later supplements. It might be interesting to note that speakers of Catalan and Occitan can mutually understand each other well enough but that Castilian speakers or Aragonese speakers have more trouble and so on but in-game subtleties in differences of communication do not necessarily create more interesting stories. It comes down to a balance between simulation accuracy and playability – there comes a point where extra granularity in languages results only in Language Abilities acting as an XP sink without enhancing play. The once real historical role of a polyglot medieval interpreter as intermediary is difficult to realise mechanically, although the Linguist Virtue compensates somewhat for the otherwise enormous XP expenditure required. The role seems difficult to justify given that simple Hermetic magic, a Minor Virtue such as Faerie Speech or Gift of Tongues and/or a minor enchanted item can achieve the Mythic Europe equivalent of Star Trek’s “universal translator” or the Babel fish of Hich Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame.

Exceptions to this lack of incentive to invest XP in languages include the concept of lost magical languages such as the Pictish used for the magic of the Gruagach (and perhaps other similar hedge traditions), the role of non-Latin classical languages such as Greek or Arabic to cast Hermetic magic as proposed in The Sundered Eagle or Ancient Magic and/or the use of the Exotic Casting Minor Virtue by Ex Miscellanea wizards using their vernacular tongue for elements of their Hermetic casting to confuse their opponents counter-spell defenses.

In spite of (or perhaps because of) this opinion, I’ve added language sections to the Mythic Genoa and Mythic Levant sections respectively here and here. The first includes some of the rare local dialects and trade tongues in use on or around the Tyrrhenian Sea, the latter covers both the tongues of the Crusader factions and the Levantine locals.

As the Iberian Tribunal Book is unlikely to be revised anytime soon, I’ll post my reconstructed concepts of Iberian languages another time, once I find where I’ve stored them over on the Light of Andorra Saga sub-forum on the Atlas Games website.

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2 thoughts on “Beyond the Lingua Franca”

  1. I agree with you: for a mundane character there is little fun in investing XP in languages. In my last saga I used a more simple mechanism…

    I distinguished only three levels in a living language :
    – you do not understand it nor speak it (no ability)
    – you understand and spoke it enough to interact with locals (ability between 1 and 5)
    – you can speak it with local accent and thus can be recognized as a native speaker (score of 6+, maybe including the speciality +1)

    I only used abilities to represent the main languages (French, Spanish, English and so on, but you could even use Roman or Germanic languages families), and specialities to represent the different dialects (Gallo, Norman or Picard for French).

    1. That could work I agree. Essentially in real life you can either make yourself understood with pointing, miming and occasional specific common words, hold a reasonable conversation or have fluency. Higher grades of language mastery are generally reserved for scholars.

      Perhaps if the descriptions for languages were less granular and went more like:

      0 – unable to understand or speak language (effectively (Living) Language remains an * Ability)
      1 – basic conversation
      2 – fluency but with a clearly foreign accent
      3 – fluency with local accent / sufficient to write a book in the language
      4+ – exceptional, poetic or otherwise complex fluency

      I think the mechanic of dialects as specialties remains a reasonable detail. Differences between related languages gets complex and I’ll leave that discussion off for another time, perhaps a separate blog post.

      By changing the “target” Ability score for a native speaker to 3, this approach would allow a 15XP expenditure (which takes a few seasons for most characters) to learn a language to a useful fluency for conversation or adventuring and perhaps provide development of an interpreter character as a viable option. A further 15XP (30 XP in total) would upgrade to a score of 3 and allow a grog or companion character to speak like a native without accent and would probably be the maximum level a non-specialist character other than a Hermetic magus would achieve. The remaining 45 XP from the (Native) Language 5 score built in to the various starting backgrounds could either be dropped or otherwise reassigned – in many cases equal fluency (score of 3) in another nearby (Living) Language would be appropriate in many areas of Mythic Europe.

      It seems to me that a lot of the need for a higher Ability level in a language is keyed to mechanical aspects within the non-adventuring aspects of ArM5 like the threshold level needed to translate, copy or write books without errors or in the case of magical languages, directly influencing the total generated for spellcasting or laboratory enchantment eg Gruagachan. By further example, in The Cradle and the Crescent I linked an exceptional score in Arabic mechanically to a bonus for reciting verses from the Qu’ran as a defense against Jinn. Although perhaps therefore relevant for scholars and magi, the extra 20+ XP required to learn a Language to an Ability score of 4 or above would be unnecessary – it would be far more likely (both in paradigm and from a metagame approach) a character would instead learn another language.

      For scholars and magi, learning past an Ability score of 3 would become more useful if higher scores were linked more into the basic mechanics such as say improving final book Quality or providing a small bonus to spellcasting using that language (not directly as for Gruagachan magic, but perhaps an additional +1 for every point above native fluency).

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