This is RPG-ology #38: Polyglot, for January 2021.
I was going to call this article I Speak Jive, but it just happens that earlier this week I was chatting with someone about movies and he suggested that a movie could not get away with that joke today. Given the recent clime (I am writing this the summer before it publishes, because I like to stay ahead of schedule on my deadlines) I decided that maybe I could mention it, but I couldn’t use it for the title.
It is important to mention, though, because it illustrates the problem being addressed here. How do you communicate in a world in which many languages are spoken? Last month I wrote about inscriptions, and gave a link to a table of one hundred sixty-nine identifiable recognized languages in original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and I won’t swear I got them all. At any moment a character’s life might depend on his ability to talk to someone, or something, that doesn’t happen to speak the same language. What are the options? Complicating it further, even people who speak the same language can have trouble understanding each other. There are jokes about Scotsman, Irishmen, and Welshmen speaking English to Englishmen, and when you mix in Yorkshire, Liverpool, and the East End of London, you wind up with the beginnings of a new Tower of Babel. Indeed, Chinese may be the same written language, but those who speak the various dialects from different parts of the country are incomprehensible to each other.
The “common language” of the Dungeons & Dragons world is not so absurd as we might think. The Greeks conquered a substantial part of eastern Europe and the Middle East, and when the Romans took over that territory, the Greek language became established as the language of trade throughout what they called the civilized world. Still, although most even modestly educated people were at least trilingual (their native language, the commercial language Greek, and law language Latin), there were many who spoke only the local tongue, and as with Americans traveling in Europe you might suddenly find yourself faced with someone who doesn’t have a clue how to speak English, and doesn’t understand even when you speak it loudly and slowly. Not everyone speaks common.
Star Trek resolved the issue by giving everyone “universal translators,” implanted in the ears, which automatically converted anything anyone said to the language of the listener. Of course, from time to time the travelers encountered people whose language was too alien for the translator to render, and Spock had to do a computer analysis of the new language and reprogram the devices to handle it. Not everyone speaks a language the device can translate.
Historically the solution has been to find interpreters, persons who speak more than one language and can translate what each party says to the language of the other. This is tricky. My high school French teacher commented once that she could get around Paris quite comfortably, but if her car broke down she would be clueless concerning how to talk about the distributor.
There’s a joke about gangsters questioning a foreigner about the location of some loot they had stolen. They found a translator, who put the question to the prisoner. “I don’t want to die,” he said. “It’s not worth it. The million dollars is in a suitcase behind the basement furnace at 1212 Delancy Street.” The interpreter turned to the gangsters and said, “He says, you can kill me if you want, I’m never going to tell you what you want to know.” Interpreters are not always reliable.
My sister speaks three languages—English, French, and Chinese—well enough that she worked as a United Nations translator for a while, but she sometimes gets thrown by words that are apparently not uncommon. Still, multi-lingual interpreters are the go-to for communication between those who don’t speak a common language.
Even when they do, sometimes an interpreter or two is needed to avoid the kinds of misunderstandings that arise when neither party speaks the shared language well.