The RPG Scrollbars: Language Of Uncommon Tongues

The sign of a truly hardcore world is that it has its own languages. Klingon. Dothraki. Elvish. The term for these is ‘Conlangs’ – aka ‘constructed languages’ – and whether you see them as a vital part of world-building or a joke-in-waiting on The Big Bang Theory (they’re due a third one one of these days), there’s more to them than just slapping together some uncommon syllables and hoping it sounds alien. Well, actually, that’s exactly how Klingon started, but never mind. Done right, paying attention to language offers more than just another DVD extra. Or at least, it can do…

My plan for this week was to talk about a few gaming conlangs and how they affected their world. The catch is that in practice, there aren’t that many, and those that exist tend to be simpler than they appear on the surface. The supposed Al Bhed language in Final Fantasy X for instance, while a little more complicated in Japanese than it is in English, is a simple substitution cypher. B means P. Q means X. In Japan, the text is written in katakana to both feel more foreign and allow for easier substitutions. However, the basic gimmick is the same. You collect ‘primers’ on the language, each of which translates one letter for you (shown in a different colour for clarity), and over time you ‘learn’ the language not by gathering words or learning grammar, but by collecting the assorted substitutions until the printed dialogue makes sense.

(This would be a lot more tolerable if you weren’t generally accompanied by a character called Rikku, who is Al-Bhed and speaks the bloody language fluently. No campfire lessons or offering to act as a translator? No? Okay then. Continue being mostly useless!)

This kind of substitution cypher is however generally a substitution in itself – we’re not meant to believe that Al Bhed or whatever is really just English or Japanese after a run through a tumble drier, but a complicated language with its own history and culture and meaning. The average player has no interest in actually learning a new language, and so short-cuts are typically made. World of Warcraft, for instance, enforces a language barrier between Horde and Alliance, with cross-talk being forbidden.

The rules don’t usually make any sense, from Undead and Death Knights somehow forgetting to speak previous languages, to the amnesia of switching sides… but never mind. The gimmick is that if you type anything other players will see you said something, but it’ll come across as complete gibberish. What’s actually going on is that the game takes the word, pulls from a lexicon of words that sound suitable and have the same letter count, and then spits it out on the other side as gibberish words.

Not to be beaten so quickly though, players immediately began creating their own pseudo-language around the translator to do basic conversation – the most infamous being the discovery that ‘LOL’, as in ‘laugh out loud’, became BUR or KEK. There’s not a vast amount that can be said, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t given it a go.

(Making this more interesting, the lexicons for the different languages – mostly used in game for individual battle cries, mottos and NPC greetings rather than extended conversations and the like – at least do try to keep each language sounding unique where relevant, or similar to others in its family. Variations of the Elvish tongues for instance sounding a little like the guttural languages of the common Horde member. After all, one would hate to mix a good “Lok’tar!” with a civilised “Anu belore dela’na…”)

There are games that dive deeper, of course. Myst for example has the D’ni (dunny) tongue, which is quite spectacularly thought out considering that that it was accidentally named after a toilet. You can get a primer here, starting with rules like words typically being made up with a definitive article, so that ‘the master’ is ‘rehnahvah’. What’s interesting about D’ni from a non-linguistical point of view though is that much of it had to be learned by players rather than simply read up on – decoding their base-25 number system, for instance, being one of the puzzles in Riven, done in the suitable context of exploring a schoolhouse. Further exploration reveals that they even have two different forms of writing, one for everyday use, and one for creating or otherwise accessing a magical island full of incredibly boring logic puzzles.

Now, love or hate the terribleness that is Myst, you can’t say its birth wasn’t a labour of love. RPGs don’t typically have the development time or resources to devote to that kind of thing though, unless based on an existing property. Bioware’s Jade Empire is one of the few that attempted it with the creation of ‘Tho Fan’, the ‘Old Tongue’, which was intended to sound similar to both Chinese and Japanese while being its own unique thing. Despite canonically being the second language of the setting though, pretty much the entire game is in English, the language was only around 2,500 words, and even its creator admitted “I don’t know if anyone can tell the difference between this and gibberish.” As far as I can tell, there’s no information about it anywhere online, save for a few forum comments saying that it wasn’t the greatest attempt at a fake language on a technical or cultural level, or added anything much to the fake alien chatter previously used in Knights of the Old Republic.

Still, the creator was brought back to work on Dragon Age. BioWare typically keeps their use of fictional languages to short bursts and phrases that are tonally consistent within a tongue, versus presenting something like Qunari as something that you can actually learn and speak.

(By the way, if you just went “It’s called Qunlat!”, you are a hyper-geek.)

While that might sound a little unimpressive, it’s often enough to do the trick. The Qunari of Dragon Age – which is to say, followers of the Qun, rather than the Kossith/Tal-Vashoth giants synonymous with it – make their linguistics count, most notably with the cultural idea that a person’s job is their identity. The party member known as “Sten” for instance is essentially called Warrior, while “Tallis” translates as “she who is geek-bait”.

Whether making up words or not, Dragon Age also treats each race and culture as linguistically distinct, from the obvious fantasy tropes of elves vs dwarves, to city elves vs Dalish elves, the different human countries, with the possible exception of the terrible ‘Orlesian’ accents early on, and slang and bursts of native speech that fit accordingly, even though again, everyone speaks English as their primary tongue. We’re not necessary talkin’ Tolkein here, but there’s just enough to feel foreign while still controlling a character who lives and breathes this world.

It’s also interestingly inconsistent much of the time, in the way of real language. “Ser” for instance is a gender-neutral title for knight, as is “Bann” for a low level governor, while at the higher echelons we see feminised forms of titles like Arlessa and Teyrna. This might not seem like that big a deal, but like a lot of language it does actually speak to some deeper elements of the Dragon Age setting – the rough equality of the sexes within it, and certainly there being no surprise that a woman can be a mighty knight or authority figure, even though in Ferelden it does in practice seem something of a boy’s club in the middle echelons. This isn’t the kind of thing that’s ever likely to be brought up by a character in the way of, say, The Iron Bull’s discussion of Crem in Inquisition, but it does act as a lingering tell about the setting and its politics, just as simply knowing a few things about the Qunari tells us something about them.

Eevn if RPGs don’t create their own languages outright much of the time, it does tend to be something they’re good at. Skyrim, for instance, rarely has characters speak in its dragon language, Dovahzul, but that doesn’t mean it’s not carefully thought out. The structure of it features individual runes representing concepts that can be combined into complex sentences – not a million miles from the long-departed Tabula Rasa. The memetic ‘Fus Ro Dah!’ for instance is actually FORCE, BALANCE, PUSH. You get this from what initially looks like a wall of glowing gibberish. However, even on that basic level, it has a few key tells that make it feel ‘right’, not least that every sigil is something that would be carved by claw and talon rather than drawn or painted. Likewise, the dragon characters will regularly use individual words to reinforce that no, it’s not just random guff. If you want to, you can even translate the rest – I’m trusting the wiki here, which I realise may be a rookie mistake. Still – in theory – that first one goes:



Here lies the guardian
Keeper of dragonstone
And a force of unending
Rage and darkness

Even when the language is considerably simpler, though, developers can do interesting things with it. Probably the most famous example of a game forcing players to get to grips with another language is the Ultima series, which loved to put runes on everything from maps to town signposts to magic spells. A little like Al Bhed, these are a substitution cypher. The series didn’t even invent its own runes – they’re called ‘Futhark’, from the ancient Viking term ‘fuck this for a lark, let’s use proper letters instead’. (In tribute to that, there were generally translator cheats available.)

Runes though were only one of several alphabets used throughout the series, including the Gargoyle script Gargish, and the Ophidian alphabet, which even the game admitted was a pain in the arse to read, with all of its snake-like lettering. One of the most interesting things about the runes though wasn’t where they were used, but where they weren’t. Specifically, I’m thinking of Ultima VII – take a shot. One of the big plot points of the game is that times are changing, represented mostly by the evil organisation known as the Fellowship, and one of the subtle details that separates them from the rest of the world is that they don’t use the runes.

Their leader Batlin openly calls them out as antiquated, leaving their assorted branches standing out as a shining, modern establishment in an increasingly clunky and old-fashioned world. Provided you a) aren’t using the ‘translate’ cheat, which 99.9% of players do, in tribute to those proud Vikings, and b) don’t mind it being a front for an interdimensional demon-god who acts very smug for a big Muppet.

Commercially speaking, of course, there’s one game I’ve not mentioned yet – Captain Blood from way back in the space year 1988. This is one of the few to really embrace the concept of language as a core mechanic, with its conversation system using over a hundred conceptual icons and a big challenge being to try and communicate with aliens in a form they can understand despite not sharing an actual language at all. On top of that, the game was originally written in French, allowing for even more cross-over fun. Much of the game involves not just learning to use these glyphs and their shaky translations, but exploring ways that they can be used, such as the repetition of an emotion translating as an escalation of it versus a simple statement of fact.

The system wasn’t easy to use and it’s not entirely surprising that its baton remains on the floor. Still, like many games from the 80s and early 90s, it’s a great example of mechanics that are still ready to be snatched up and tried again.

Even if it is more likely that the industry will continue of just waiting for Nolan North or Troy Baker to catch a cold and pretending its Orcish.


  1. dualestl says:

    This is probably the only mention of Tabula Rasa I’ve seen in almost a decade.

    I remember the servers shutting down shockingly fast after it got released and that it pretty much was the final nail in Richard Garriott’s career,but its like the game never existed to begin with.

    • RedViv says:

      It’s like the slates have been wiped clean. If only one could express that with a mere two words.

    • ChiefOfBeef says:

      I liked Tabula Rasa. The problem was the visuals looked dated even on release and if it had lasted it would have looked terrible as just a year, it also lacked focus. The most fun was in collaborative base defending against the AI invasions, something which I wouldn’t experience again until Rift.

      But like Rift, the problem was a saturated market of WoW-clones. The only MMO that was actually growing was the one not trying to be WoW: EVE Online. No one seemed to want to be an EVE-clone, because a lot of people were looking for EVE but didn’t like the space setting. Such a shame.

    • Williz says:

      I miss Tabula Rasa, it got even better when they allowed proper click to shoot and proper aim combat rather than the hotbar that it launched with. I never got very far into it but I really wanted to as it seemed quite unique both story and gameplay wise at the time.

  2. aircool says:

    Just give them 20 Carbon and they’ll teach you a word of their language.

  3. MiniMatt says:

    Captain Blood! I remember that! It was very….. French

    So, question: Is every other RPG inventing their own “elvish” or are they nicking or licencing eachothers work? There are tonal similarities in every game’s idea of it – light and airy, lots of apostrophes.

    Is there language middleware in the same way as for face gen / foliage generation etc?

    • Wulfram says:

      I’m pretty sure they’re all new, but they’re mostly designed to
      evoke Tolkien’s languages

      Though of course Tolkien knew what he was doing and didn’t sprinkle apostrophes about. He did have names like “Eärendil”, but there the dots are used to tell the reader to pronounce the A separately from the E.

      Apostrophes in fantasy names seem to have been popularised by Anne Mccaffrey’s dragon riders, though even there they served a purpose – they showed where a rider’s name had been abbreviated

      • MiniMatt says:

        Oooh thanks, never read any Anne Mccaffrey – will have to add to the pile.

        It is curious: faced with any unintelligible texts I bet we’d all successfully identify which is “elvish” and which “dwarvish” in much the same way we can identify between romance/germanic european languages.

      • Excors says:

        It seems Tolkien basically created the entire mythology of Middle-earth (and beyond) as an excuse to play with constructed languages, and wrote The Lord of the Rings to flesh out a small fragment of that mythology, so the languages are a fundamental part of it.

        The history of the Elves is the main example. There are two major Elvish languages based on a common ancestor. If I remember correctly, the Elves originated on Middle-earth but were summoned by the gods to the Undying Lands across the sea. Some of them went, some started but turned back for various reasons, and some couldn’t be bothered to go at all.

        Those that went and saw the holy light of the Two Trees developed the language Quenya, which was close to their original language but made even more beautiful, and is transliterated with lots of fancy diacritics. (“Ai! laurië lantar lassi súrinen, yéni únótimë ve rámar aldaron!”). Those that turned back developed the language Sindarin with more radical changes, including simpler vowels. (“A Elbereth Gilthoniel, silivren penna míriel o menel aglar elenath!”)

        Eärendil is a Quenya name for a man from the hidden city of Gondolin (a Sindarin name; its original Quenya name was Ondolindë) in Middle-earth. The city was founded by elves who had fled the Undying Lands back to Middle-earth and brought Quenya with them, but they eventually adopted Sindarin (partly for practical reasons, partly for political reasons), and Quenya in Middle-earth was a dying language and a reminder of the lost glory across the sea. Eärendil’s son had the Sindarin name Elrond.

        Little of that mythology is explicitly part of LOTR – you just get a few names and occasional poems that give glimpses of a coherent backstory, but I think that’s enough to make you sense there’s something substantial there, and the hidden depth is part of what makes LOTR such an influential work.

        But dedicating decades of a scholar’s life to world-building is really quite impractical for a videogame, compared to spending a few weeks making up nice-sounding syllables and sticking them together arbitrarily into words (that are sometimes suspiciously similar to their English equivalents) until you’ve got something that’s superficially like a new language, so I guess we’re mostly stuck with that kind of zort.

      • goodpoints says:

        I’m pretty sure the random apostrophes in fantasy languages thing just comes from Klingon and dummies who don’t know that it’s a glottal stop, not just cool ornamentation. (try saying every apostrophe fantasy name with a glottal stop, it’s funny)

        Not a Tolkien fan (only read The Habbet and the trilogy) but it always seemed like he spent way too long doing the Elvish languages that are barely used in the majority of his work rather than spending more time developing unique languages/dialects for the hobbits, dwarfs, and men so as not to rely on the whole “Common Speech” trope. Which is just the fantasy version of the sci-fi Universal Translator mcguffin…why don’t

        My favorites are the instances where he clearly couldn’t be bothered to change the names at least a little bit from their real world counterparts. Theoden is OE for “lord”, yet is treated like his given name when referred to as “Theoden King”. Doubly silly since “þeodcyning” is itself an OE word (“lord king”, “high king”, that sort of thing) and is in the very second line of Beowulf fercryinoutloud. Oh and his dad’s name was Thengel, which is another OE term for monarchs. (also used later in Beowulf) I know he translated Beowulf (not very well though), but really?

        Though it’s at least an improvement over the The Hobbit where all the dwarf names, as well as Gandalf, are taken nigh verbatim from the list of dwarfs in the Voluspa. (verses 9-16) Not he sure he actually knew any Old Norse since “Gandalfr” is just another dwarf, the name meaning “wand elf” or “magic elf”. (Norse dwarfs are also referred to as “dark elves” or “black elves”) Even “Thorin Oakenshield” is a combination of 2 different dwarfs named in the list: þorinn and Eikinskjaldi.

        When will people just realize that Tolkien is essentially saga fanfic? Though with none of the humor of the sagas; he couldn’t be bothered to include some people with epithets like: Halfdan inn mildi ok inn matarilli (“The Generous but Meat-Stingy”, he paid well but the rations…), Eyestein Fart (lit. Eyestein Fretr in a king list without comment), Yngvildar Allrasystir (“Everyone’s Sister”,a lot of men sure say she’s their sister), Gongu-Hrolf (“Walking-Hrolf”, too fat to ride a horse) or Thorbjorg Knarrarbringa (“freighter-chest”) daughter of Gils Skeiðarnef. (“longship-nose”) Even someone only familiar with Wagner should realize the whole plot of a trickster hero with a magic sword slaying a dragon guarding stolen dwarf gold and a god-cursed ring with the treasures cursing the hero and sparking infighting among former allies is ripped straight from Volsunga Saga. (which Tolkien did a similar soulless adaptation of) Hell, The Banner Saga is more original than Tolkien, despite being way deeper routed in Norse mythology.

        anyway…I’m gonna go try and find Captain Blood, sounds really interesting. Heaven’s Vault (upcoming, previously covered on RPS) also seems to be interested in doing interesting things with aliens and language barriers. As far as psuedo-conlangs, I think Pillars of Eternity’s Glanfathan is probably the best I’ve seen in a fantasy game since it starts with the actual Celtic languages (including Irish for once) as its basis rather than starting with the inherited Welsh from Tolkien elvish. The way the game made parallels with settlement age Britain with its interplay of Celtic-Glanfathan and Old English-Aedyran was also pretty cool. Also one of the few fantasy games to have cultures inspired by medieval southern Europe. (still no Catalan tho)

        • MiniMatt says:

          You know it tickles me greatly to realise that something I have a passing curiosity in, is something other RPS’ers *really know* and are willing & eager to eruditely share their passion.

          You, Excors, Wulf – thank you :)

          (oh and do try to dig out an Captain Blood Atari ST emulation – it’s one of those gaming ideas – like Black & White – that’s really unique, didn’t quite work out at first iteration, but you sense there’s mileage in having another go)

        • Wulfram says:

          Klingon only showed up in 1979 (with the movie), so I don’t think it can be credited with the initial spread.

          Star Trek did have Vulcan names like T’Pau before McCaffrey, though.

        • Rainshine says:

          See, that’s a good chunk of the reason why I like them. I’ve read the Eddas (admittedly after I read Tolkien), but the straightforward ripping of the names felt like an… homage? Callback?
          The names/titles thing I both see in English normally as time goes on (particularly with acronyms, but with root words too); society tends to lose track of where words come from, and that seems to me a plausible reason as to what occurred with the races of men as well, particularly as they drifted from the elven tongues.

    • Premium User Badge

      phuzz says:

      In the Witcher series, the elven language is taken from the books, and Sapkowski mainly based it on Welsh, and Scots and Irish Gaelic, along with a smattering of words from other European languages.
      For example, many castles are named Caer (or Kaer) Suchandsuch, where caer is Welsh for ‘castle’.
      Or of course there’s Gwent, which is named after a shithole. (Ok, Gwent as a whole is nice, but Newport is really a shithole)

  4. Jac says:

    I found interactions with the Elcor from mass effect (giant gorilla slug things) were quite an interesting way of portraying a different language that couldn’t directly be translated into the queens English.

    • wombat191 says:

      *disproving annoyance* we are not slug like in any way

      • Rorschach617 says:

        *Resigned sigh* We can speak your language and our rendition of Hamlet got 5 star reviews. It is only subtle nuance and intonation that we cannot do.

  5. Someoldguy says:

    I haven’t paid much attention to language creation in RPGs, but having read a small mountain of fantasy and science fiction novels. I would definitely recommend that if you want to have your characters speaking in invented languages as more than window dressing, you get a genuine linguist to create them. The books where the author has that level of talent are so much better than the ones where they’ve been thrown together with enthusiasm but little skill.

  6. Sly-Lupin says:

    No mention of the Hylian script in Zelda? It represents my favorite approach to a fictional language: everything is in English, even the individual letters, but they’re stylized to the point that they *appear* alien. This creates the illusion of an exotic foreign language that, ultimately, is very easy to learn.

    • Merus says:

      Final Fantasy XIV does something very similar, and it’s a bit more extensive because it’ll turn up in UI elements styled like something your character would look at.

  7. Premium User Badge

    Big Dunc says:

    I liked that the aliens in Outcast had their own language, even if it was a limited vocabulary and they spoke to you in English most of the time.

    • phlebas says:

      And it made an actual mechanic of learning the language – that always sounded cool, though I never managed to get the game to run. I should give it another try sometime now it’s on GOG.

    • Premium User Badge

      Ninja Dodo says:

      I was just going to mention. Can’t believe Richard left out the 57th best game of all time! It might not have been very deep or complex but the language of the Talan added a lot of atmosphere to that game.

      link to

  8. Veles says:

    Good read. Always been interested in fictional languages.

    I had the impression that TES’s dragon language was a bit more developed. It looks like it’s just a word substitution which is pretty much the same as the Al Bhed substitution cypher.

    It’s a shame that more thought doesn’t go in fictional languages beyond these simplistic substitution methods. I can understand why it doesn’t though.

    I do like the way Dragon Age deals with it. Not played DAI but I thought the sequences talking to the Qunari were great. It brings across the alien way of life and, one thing I think is really important in fake linguistics, words or phrases that don’t translate well.

    It also does that “I speak English so it doesn’t really matter if I don’t know any other languages” vibe.

    …which is what I do because I’m really bad at languages…

  9. bee says:

    Warframe has multiple languages. Orokin, Corpus, and Grineer. They’re mostly substitution based though like you mentioned many conlangs are.

  10. Sardonic says:

    I remember Fez had some pretty interesting language stuff, complete with a literal quick fox jumping over a lazy dog.

  11. Rainshine says:

    Isn’t there a game RPS has talked about once or twice that is fairly recent/in development where you’re exploring alien worlds and such, and part of the game is taking notes/trying to translate their inscriptions?

    • Nauallis says:

      Only thing I can think of is No Man’s Sky. That is one of the reasons to keep exploring, if such a reason is needed.

      Maybe the Solus Project though, I dunno.

    • goodpoints says:

      Heaven’s Vault :]

      I remember it as “that game with the Banner Saga art style and the Darmok & Jalad at Tanagra plot”

      • Rainshine says:

        Well, there’s part of my problem. I was combining elements of Sethian and Heaven’s Vault in my head. But yes, Heaven’s Vault was the one in development that was attracting me. Thanks!

    • montfalcon says:

      I suspect you are thinking of Sethian, the black and white game about deciphering a symbol-based alien language interface. The RPS coverage also likened its themes to the film Arrival.

  12. April March says:

    I haven’t read the article (I like to save Cobbett’s article to Pocket and read it later, leisurely) but I wanted to add something before comments are closed: conlangs are dumb.

    Nah, that’s not what I mean. Conlangs aren’t dumb. What’s dumb is paying someone to create a brand new conlang for you, that’ll be used on like one story, when there are some many out there for the taking. You could probably even pick a few ones to be different languages in the world, and it’s easier to find fluent speakers for them than for the made-up language you paid a guy to create.

    I’d always thought that if I ever made a story with a fantastic language on it, I’d just use Esperanto. Then I tried a few lessons of Esperanto on Duoling, and a few words looked familiar… then I realized my idea had already been used: the “moonspeak” from Saga is actually Esperanto. And that’s awesome. It just made me love the comic even more.

    • goodpoints says:

      except Esperanto is lame and the same idea but better (more practical for people to learn by nature of being a dynamic pidgin) spontaneously emerged centuries prior in the form of medieval Lingua Franca. Like, this late 15c. song should still be at least 50% comprehensible to anyone who knows any modern Iberian, Occitan, French, or Italian languages.

      • batraz says:

        The first recorded “french” text, “les serments de Strasbourg” has the same creole flavour… Popular language flavour that is : european languages and especially french were then artificially improved using latin structures. Esperanto on the other hand is artificial too but its political premises are not very sound, hence it’s a rather silly attempt to rebuild the Babel tower ; people use to know how that kind of venture ends.
        Moreover, it seems to me esperanto has too much latin roots to be a good fantasy language : fantasy needs complex consonantic structures so it’s more a germanic things. Plus arabic (gutturals) and turkish (overall weirdness for the average indo-european reader) for the bad guys.

        • batraz says:

          My poorly made point was that modern european languages are “conlangs” too.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Had a character in Sunless Sea show off to their kapitano by using the occasional word of Esperanto. Wanted to capture that feel of someone who wants to sound cool but probably knows about six basic words.

      • Rorschach617 says:

        Bonvoro alsendi la pordiston, lausajne estas rano en mia bideo!

        On a more serious note, I cannot think of a game that has used hieroglyphs or pictograms as a written language, or a pidgin language for speech.

  13. shoptroll says:

    Sav’aaq Richard!

    Prior to Al-bhed there was a similar language puzzle in Squaresoft’s Legend of Mana with the Dudbear race in the town of Lumina. I think that’s a bit more complicated than Al-bhed since it’s not a straight-up jumbling of characters.

    Here’s an FAQ that delves into the language: link to

  14. Shiloh says:

    I love constructed languages (indeed, it was Tolkien’s use of them and the appendices on the various language systems of Middle Earth that properly got me into the Lord of the Rings) but I’m often disappointed by the lack of imagination shown in their construction. There are a couple of interesting examples from fiction which rise above the usual Tolkien-esque knock-offs – I’m thinking particularly of Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia, with its densely constructed, complicated languages, and Gene Wolfe’s Urth series.

    In the latter, the Ascian language is a real oddity, made up as it is solely of phrases from Ascian “approved texts”. In this way, the rulers of that benighted nation attempt to control the thoughts of their down-trodden subjects (much as Orwell envisaged the use of Newspeak in 1984). One such, Loyal to the Group of Seventeen, uses it in Citadel of the Autarch (albeit translated word for word into the tongue of the Commonwealth), and it’s a fascinating (if slightly imperfect) look at a genuinely strange way of speaking (and thinking – Wolfe seems to be dallying with Sapir-Whorf but seemingly can’t quite make up his mind whether he agrees with the hypothesis or not). His lead character Severian muses about language and its use, but like the author can’t quite believe that our manner of speaking dictates how we look at the world.

    In the end, it falls to another character to show that the Ascian can express any thought he wishes to, even within the constraints of the language his rulers have imposed on him.

    Exegesis over.

  15. Darth Gangrel says:

    The fake languages in KotOR were great and it also solved one problem common in modding heavily voice acted RPG’s – where do you find voice actors for your mod? Letting people be silent is quite dull when the main game has such brilliant voice acting, but finding replacements is really hard (though Bloodlines Clan Quest mods are great).

    With Kotor’s fake languages you could just have a Twi’lek or other alien as an NPC and the voice acting problem was solved, you could make whatever dialogue you liked.

    I made my mod The Weird World of the Witcher by editing dialogue files of the voice actors, because I found it so dull with mods that had silent characters.

  16. Jekhar says:

    Bioware’s marketing regarding the use of “Tho Fan” was massively overstated. They claimed it would be a natural language, you could translate it all back if you were so inclined, etc. The reality was anything but. Most NPCs using Tho Fan (which weren’t many to begin with) acted exactly like the aliens in the previous KotoR, spouting the same repeated gibberish, no matter the sentence.

  17. Prinzmegahertz says:

    The ORZ *frumple* at not being mentioned by the *silly cows*.

    • Archangel says:

      God bless you sir for mentioning this. Orz is truly the paragon of all of linguistics. *mellifluous farthings*!

  18. Sithinious says:

    Has anyone here read Richard Garriot’s book Explore/Create? Personally, it’s one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read lately. I grew up playing the Ultimas, and the inside look at the birth of the computer gaming industry was fascinating.

    He had at least one chapter devoted to the creation of languages in computer games.

  19. cpt_freakout says:

    I love the idea of fantasy languages, but I really haven’t ever encountered a game that does it right. By this I mean that it truly gives you a sense of how a culture thinks – like some posters above noted, it took Tolkien a million books and notes just to make it work when it comes to Elves. Another language isn’t just your language with different words: it’s an entirely different way to structure your head. Captain Blood might be the closest thing games have got to that, I think, but you really need a linguist and maybe a cultural historian if you want to do it right. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing bad about replacement languages and gimmicks, but they’ll always, always feel superficial.

  20. Premium User Badge

    Ninja Dodo says:

    I love the idea of conlangs and whether they are real languages with their own grammar and vocabulary or merely the illusion of a language just developed enough to survive casual observation it can add a lot to the sense of being a in strange new world.

    One of my favourite puzzles in The Longest Journey is that you learn the language of Marcuria by being quiet and just listening. Outcast’s language of the Talan (also mentioned above) is another good one (zort!). I’m also rather fond of the names and occasional phrases in Mass Effect (keelah, bosh’tet, Tali’Zorah vas Neema nar Rayya). Outside of games I quite like how Game of Thrones uses language (eg Dothraki and Valeerian). Also Avatar (the Cameron one) is pretty good. The Na’vi language has a nice ring to it.

    On the topic of using languages as part of gameplay I have to give a shout out to my brother’s game Tribal & Error: link to (it won a design award at IndieCade so you don’t have to take my word for it)

    If I ever have to build a language I am definitely using this website: link to

  21. Lord Byte says:

    No mention of Ultima underworld? Where you had to learn the language of the Lizardfolk to advance? Nothing really complex you just picked up words as you went, it was pretty cool!

  22. bill says:

    They actually bothered making up a real language for Jade Empire?
    Well that was a massive waste of time. I didn’t notice at all… i assumed it was using the KotOR system of putting meaningful subtitles over random gibberish.