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.