Exalted: Language Families and Dialects

Some quick thoughts on languages in Exalted:

First and Second Editions both used the terms “language” and “language family” more or less interchangeably. Both define Riverspeak and High, Low, and Old Realm as specific languages, while leaving the directional languages as broad language families in which each specific nation or culture has its own dialect. 2e exaggerates this by noting that “each nation of the Threshold speaks a slightly different dialect of its local language.”

What does “slightly different dialect” mean? It implies that the linguistic differences between citizens of, say, Kirighast and An-Teng are comparable to those of people in New England and the American South—distinct in trivial ways, but otherwise completely mutually intelligible. This is implausible, given the vast geographical and cultural divides of the Threshold. It also begs the question of why one would call Flametongue a language family rather than a language if its dialects can’t be seen as distinct sub-languages.

Breughel's Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1563.

On the other hand, we could stick with the idea that each Directional language is a true language family comprised of distinct languages. The problem here is the lack of mutual intelligibility. If we look at the Indo-European language family, we get languages as divergent as English, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Urdu. Even if we say that Flametongue is akin to the Romance languages (themselves just a branch of the Italic subfamily of the Indo-European language family), we’re looking a language cluster including Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, and Romanian. Presuming that every character who knows “Flametongue” can speak such a broad slate of languages is implausible.

On the third hand, one might confine the national dialects of a Directional language to those only as distinct as Norwegian from Swedish, or Spanish from Portuguese. Derived from similar roots, such languages are genuinely mutually intelligible. On the other hand, it’s implausible to suggest that every dialect in an entire Direction is mutually intelligible with every other dialect. China alone contains hundreds of mutually incomprehensible dialects that are lumped together as “Chinese,” and Creation’s Directions are far more geographically dispersed and culturally diverse. We’re far more likely to see dialect continua in which only neighboring dialects are mutually intelligible.

My preferred solution is to reject the presumption that knowing a language family means you can speak every language in that family up front. A character from Kirighast who travels to the City of the Steel Lotus can’t automatically speak the Tengese dialect of Flametongue. Instead, she gets to roll Linguistics for her first efforts to communicate, and after a few scenes she—like Conan and other sword and sorcery characters—picks up the language well enough to be intelligible, requiring neither training time nor additional experience point expenditure. (NPCs are not necessarily assumed to be so adept; they don’t need to be, because they don’t have a play experience to be concerned with.)


One other quick note on languages: In my experience, players and Storytellers tend to write off the “Tribal Tongues” language option, not so much because it’s less broadly useful than the other options (and no examples are provided), but because they assume that “barbarian tribes” implies “way at the edge of the world, outside the scope of our game’s location.” Mutually incomprehensible tongues and language isolates can exist in close proximity to important play locales, like the real-life Ainu language in a Japan-based game, or the Basque tongue in a game set in Spain. Folk such as the Serpents Who Walk Like Men, who would reasonably be expected to appear in An-Teng stories, are a good example of a folk likely to have their own unique tongue.

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6 comments

  1. I wonder how Old Realm fits there, a magical language that spirits in general seem to know as soon as they start existing and ultimately the source of the Directional Languages (or language families) if I’m not mistaken.

    The magical origin of language in Exalted could be used to justify a lot of otherwise implausible situations in the name of ease of gameplay, but at the risk of breaking some verisimilitude and immersion. Should the game do that? And if so, how far should it go in that direction.

    Personally, I think the suggestion of quickly picking up new dialects is a good one. If it happens because of in-setting reasons such as the magical roots of language in Old Realm, or pure genre convention is something that rarely would come up in a game, but it working that way for whatever reason would be a good balance, I feel, between providing language-related story-seeds/problems and ease of gameplay.

  2. I don’t think Old Realm is intrinsically magical; it’s just the native tongue of gods, demons, and other strange things and probably the first language. There’s nothing especially magical about the language itself, and it isn’t like Joe Mortal gains some level of untold cosmic comprehension when Jane Twilight tutors him in Old Realm—he just learns a new language.

    1. Where’s the essence generated by those prayers been going to for the last 1500 years, anyway? Is it just becoming a part of the generic prayer-stuff that powers Yu-Shan’s economy? Was it going to the ghost of the Solar? Would the reincarnation of that Solar be getting it instead after the Jade Prison is broken and the Solars begin reincarnating?

    2. I suspect that was tossed in just to reinforce a sort of middle-Eastern vibe (so you’ve got a ready excuse to have Delzahns using the Flametongue equivalent of Allahu Akbar, for example).

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