Speaking Common

By Austin Conrad

Fantasy worlds often include a single “common” language spoken by a majority of the setting’s inhabitants. Often simply called Common, this shared language smooths over communication challenges in both fiction and games. Dungeons & Dragons is perhaps the most infamous example of a work utilizing Common in this way. This convenience is present in fantasies from the “Westron” of Tolkien through to George R.R. Martin’s “common tongue” of Westeros.

Common as a language often feels artificial. Is it realistic that during pre-industrial times, a person could walk thousands of miles and meet people speaking the same language? Even today, differences in accent and dialect can cause confusion. I have just as much trouble understanding an acquaintance’s Scottish accent as he does my rural Minnesotan. With the provincial cultural framing of most fantasy worlds, a broadly shared common tongue might be less plausible than that setting’s magic.

The answer is not to excise Common from our fantasies. Rather, we writers ought to strive toward using Common in more interesting ways. Just like magic, mythology, or species, language can shape and characterize the cultures and worlds we invent.

Is Common Plausible?

In 331 BCE, the armies of Persia were shattered at the Battle of Gaugamela, and a Macedonian prince etched his name into the stele of history: Alexander the Great. This day’s fighting signifies more than a change in leadership. Gaugamela is the foundation of the Hellenistic period, an age characterized by the spread of Greek culture from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indus River. The polities that emerged after Alexander’s death—like the Ptolemies of Egypt—synthesized the local and the foreign into a new way of life. Within this new culture emerged a cosmopolitan language: the koine dialect of Greek.

Koine, quite literally, means “common.” It’s the language that, for nearly a thousand years, was used by people of varying ethnicities and social statuses to communicate across geographical distances and to posterity. “Greek would take you anywhere,” writes Lionel Casson in Travel in the Ancient World, and koine “replaced, or was spoken alongside, the traditional welter of dialects.” The permeation of koine led to its use in everything from arguing with a fishmonger to writing the New Testament. It was truly a common language.

There are many examples of historical common tongues, although few draw so tidy a parallel to fantasy Common. Often a shared language is used by a particular section of society (like church Latin) or becomes broadly written more than spoken (like Akkadian). What makes Common feel “odd” is not derived from such a language’s existence. Rather, it’s from a lack of worldbuilding weaving Common into a setting.

Influence of Common on the World

Just as characters don’t exist in a vacuum, neither do cultures. The spread of koine doesn’t make sense if you don’t know about Alexander’s conquests. Likewise, fantasy Common appeals to readers when presented in the world’s terms—not just for the sake of narrative convenience. Creating a believable Common doesn’t require inventing vocabulary and constructing grammar. Rather, explore how Common is influenced by the setting’s demographics, history, and society.

How a fictional culture conceives of ethnicity offers rich inventive ground for writers of speculative fiction. It’s important to remember that ethnicity is often perceived and expressed through social actions. Speaking or not speaking Common might express an individual’s identity. If a Common is spoken only by members of a particular species, that likely impacts the social status of individuals of that species. In a world where the only Common is an elvish language, a community’s elves are the persons most likely to engage with outsiders. They might be shunned and ostracized for this social role. Or, they could be perceived as valuable, with knowledge of a vital skill.

Expressing group identity is just one way Common can be made more engaging. Another useful perspective is history. The origin of a fantasy’s Common, why it spread, if the spread was intentional, and how that spread intersects with cultural change all provides imaginative fodder. In our historical example, koine was spread by imperial conquest. It was part of the vehicle of institutional power carrying Greek concepts of governance. Over generations, colonial rulers and local populations developed new cultures. A similar example is the Norman conquest of the Anglo-Saxons in the 11th century CE, in which the two cultures eventually became the modern English.

How else might a Common spread? What other historical events could lead to such a language emerging? While many of our history’s common languages developed as a consequence of violent expansion, that doesn’t mean our fantasies must do the same.

Common in Use

To my mind, the most compelling Commons are languages for which the world can answer the following:

  1.     Where did the language come from?
  2.     Why is it useful?
  3.     Who continues to use it?

One language where I find answers to these questions is Tradetalk. Tradetalk is a magical language spoken in Glorantha, the setting for the fantasy tabletop game RuneQuest. It was invented by the God of Merchants, and is spoken primarily by his worshipers. The less devout often learn a smattering of Tradetalk because of the language’s utility. As a magical language, Tradetalk does not change the way a human language might. A merchant can use Tradetalk anywhere in the world and be understood by fellow merchants. This usefulness has spread the language beyond just one religion. However, Tradetalk’s vocabulary is mostly mercantile—it’s not very good at those other beautiful ways in which we use language. Thus, Tradetalk complements local speech rather than usurping its use in daily life.

Tradetalk is a useful example of Common because it demonstrates how far you can go with just a smidgen of worldbuilding. An engaging Common can be as complex or as simple as the writer sees fit for their story. Inventing your Common’s history makes your setting—and thus, your characters—feel more plausible and compelling.

Austin ConradAustin Conrad is a full-time writer and game designer. He is best known for his indie publications for RuneQuest. His work for other systems has been published by EN Publishing and Menagerie Press. Austin’s most recent release is “To Hunt a God” an adventure in which the players quest into a magical forest to perform an act of divine euthanasia. You can learn more about Austin’s work on his website, akhelas.com.