Language in Ulskandar

Language has the inordinate ability to both bring people from across all species together, but also to make them seem more separate than ever. It can be used to break down cultural barriers, or to vehemently defend cultures and ways of life that have existed for millennia. One is a fool if they believe that spoken words are harmless, for the cruel or careless can ostracise people, strip them of all they own, drive them into desolation, kill them and destroy entire civilisations with but a few uttered phrases. Do not ignore the myriad languages of this world and rely totally on the common tongue, for that is like entering the Underdark with a single stub of candle. It will only get you so far, before you are lost forever.
Extract from Maximilian Hoherberg von Zottehal’s History of the Known World.   Across Ulskandar a wide range of different languages are spoken by all manner of sapient species, many of which are unique to certain species or societies, whilst some are almost universal in their application and usage. Bilingualism or even Trilingualism is not an uncommon trait, especially amongst the more educated members of society. Depending on who they deal with, most of the people in Ulskandar will know a smattering of useful phrases or pleasantries in other languages along with their first tongue, though the general go-to language is Common Speech, as the vast majority of people will be able to speak it to some degree of fluency. Some peoples, communities and even nations have actively chosen to shun use of Common Speech in favour of their native tongue, whilst there are still some isolated communities that have little or no knowledge of Common Speech, though both of these groups are in a minority.   It is theorised that languages linked to specific species emerged far back in the depths of the nomadic era, when there were few if any mixed-species tribes, which allowed for these individual languages to grow and flourish in an incubator like environment. As tribal populations grew and species specific tribes began to split into smaller, more self-sufficient groups they took their language with them, and when tribes of different species began to mix, form bonds and eventually form into mixed-species tribes, these individual languages were retained and actively promoted by members of their specific species, so that they remembered that they were originally unique peoples.   The eminent scholar, Maximilian Hoherberg Von Zottehal has carried out extensive research into the languages that are used throughout Ulskandar, though with a particular focus on the continent of Turoza. His studies have led to his separation of Ulskandar’s languages into four separate categories; Utilitarian Languages, Noble Languages, Base Languages and Lost Languages. What follows below is a brief description of the four categories, along with a short analysis of the languages placed allocated therein. It is not an exhaustive list, as there a numerous dialects and slang languages, such as Corsair Cant that Maximillian Hoherberg Von Zottehal does not consider to be ‘true’ languages and has not included in his study. All quotations are taken from the seminal work Maximilian Hoherberg von Zottehal’s History of the Known World….  

The Utilitarian Languages

Languages in this group are characterised as being more simplistic than Maximilian’s category of ‘Noble Languages’, and use a variety of phrases borrowed from other languages, though with their own unique elements thrown in.  

Common Speech

The jack of all trades, but master of none. Common Speech is a bastardised language cobbled together from the scraps of older, nobler tongues.
  Common Speech is thought to have arisen during the time when inter-species tribes began to emerge in Ulskandar, and it is believed to have emerged as a compromise language so that members of different species could communicate with one another without having to give up the integrity of their own language. This theory is supported by the fact that Common Speech contains words and phrases from a variety of other languages including Elvish, Dwarvish and even Orcish. Common Speech remains the most widely spoken language in Ulskandar, with the vast majority of people in the world being able to speak enough to be understood by other people and get by. Its ubiquity means that it is the language in which the majority of Ulskandar’s nations, in particular those on the continent of Turoza conduct their official business and keep their governmental records. Common Speech uses its own alphabet that was specifically created to enable the language’s use for bureaucratic tasks that required written documentation. Despite the fact that it is a hybrid language, Common Speech is most closely associated with Humans, who are the only species to have adopted the language wholeheartedly in favour of their original tongue, Primordial (see below).  


A charming sounding language with almost musical influences in its delivery and inflection. The light and nimble flow of its speech is very evocative of the Gnomish people to whom it is their mother tongue.
  Unlike Common Speech, Gnomish appears to originate from Sylvan, but in a much more simplified form. It is not certain whether Gnomes or Gnomish speakers would be able to fully converse with Sylvan speakers, but they would certainly recognise a smattering of words and phrases. The simplified nature of Gnomish is also demonstrated by its use of the Dwarven script rather than the more complex Elven script that is normally used to transliterate Sylvan into writing. The innately musical feel of Gnomish speech means that there is a strong oral song tradition that goes along with the language, a tradition that is still kept very much alive by the Gnomes of Ulskandar to this day. Interestingly, although Gnomish can be written using the Dwarven Script, few Gnomes will actually write in their native tongue, and instead view it as a free and flowing language, rather than one that can be silenced and stifled by being captured on a page, a trait that is thought to descend from its link to Sylvan. Instead, writers of Gnomish tend to be scholars wishing to capture Gnomish oral history in a permanent form.  


Nothing can fill the heart with dread quite so much as the harsh chattering sound of Goblinoid echoing down the dark corridors of whatever forgotten place you are exploring.
  Perhaps the most sophisticated of the ‘Utilitarian’ languages, Goblinoid has its own script and is grammatically much more refined and complex than the other languages that Maximilian Hoherberg Von Zottehal classes in this category. The main reason that Goblinoid is classed as a ‘Utilitarian’ language, as opposed to a ‘Noble’ language is because it was once thought that there was little, or no cultural material written in Goblinoid. Whilst it is true that the Goblinoids native to the surface of the continent of Turoza, Dratokarttin Goblins and Bugbears are very rarely fully literate, and have little or no desire to undertake literary tasks, the Hobgoblins of Tafran are highly literate beings, and have produced a great deal of literature in Goblinoid, including a large number of detailed military treatises and tactical manuals. This body of Goblinoid literature from the surface of the Material Plane has only become widely known in Turoza since the invasion of the Isthmus of Xana in 491S.E., followed shortly afterwards by the founding of the Hobgoblin nation, Korinthos. In addition, it has come to light that the true Goblins, who reside in the Underdark and from whom all surface Goblinoids are descended are highly literate and lawful creatures, who use Goblinoid to write all manner of literary material from legalistic theses to poetry. Despite this discovery of a wealth of literature in Goblinoid, Maximilian Hoherberg Von Zottehal appears reluctant to move Goblinoid from his category of ‘Utilitarian’ languages, primarily because Goblinoid and its speakers are more concerned with ensuring their battalions carry out flawless manoeuvres, rather than producing great literary and cultural works.  


The pastoral language of Halflings is more concerned with details of the crops and the harvest than the deeper topics of philosophy and science plumbed by other languages. In order to discuss complex theoretically ideas in any great detail, Halfling speakers must resort to other tongues to best formulate and transfer their ideas.
  Just as Gnomish appears to be a simplification of Sylvan, the Halfling tongue is thought to be a simplification of Dwarvish. The main difference between the two is that Halfling does not have a set word order, as Dwarvish does, which is part of the reason that Halflings are often viewed by Dwarves as being rambling, unfocused people who do not engage in serious business. This is evidentially not true, as Halflings fill a variety of roles in the societies of Ulskandar, where they often do as good a job, if not better than their Dwarven counterparts. The lack of word order in Halfling does mean that Dwarves cannot understand Halfling, whilst the anal attention to grammatical detail in Dwarvish renders it fairly incomprehensible to Halflings. Another interesting difference to mention is that Halfling does not really have a way to express abstract concepts. It is instead a very literal language that deals in facts and actions, which means that when Halflings want to discuss a more abstract concept such as philosophy, they will tend to use Common Speech to do so, especially if they are conversing with a non-Halfling. However, Halfling possesses an incredibly detailed lexicon when it comes to agricultural matters, with a staggering variety of words and phrases used to describe specific parts of plants, growing and germinating patterns and livestock care and ailments. It is for this reason that Common Speech borrows many of its horticultural word and terms from Halfling. Halfling is written in the Dwarvish script, and there is a significant body of literature written in Halfling, often on the subject of agriculture.  

The Noble Languages

  Maximilian Hoherberg Von Zottehal’s ‘Noble’ languages comprise languages that have a complex grammatical structure, a detailed and varied lexicon and have their own alphabets that were specifically designed to suit the spoken version of the language, rather than having been adapted to for use in a derivative language. Another factor in a language’s classification as ‘Noble’ surrounds the amount of cultural material that has been produced using it, be that prose, poetry, academic theses, music or history. All of the languages that are classed as ‘Noble’ have a rich written and oral cultural tradition behind them.  


A language given by the divine, quite literally….
  Celestial is that language that is used by major and minor gods and goddesses, along with the inhabitants of the upper planes of existence to communicate with one another. As the language did not develop on the material plane of Ulskandar, it is not associated with a particular species, but was instead introduced to those on the material plane through direct access with the deities of the upper planes themselves. It is believed that the first inhabitant of the material plane to speak Celestial were the first Priests and Clerics, who were granted comprehension of the language by their Celestial patrons so that they could communicate with them and receive guidance and instruction. Since that time, Celestial has been regularly taught to those involved in religious houses, temples or who work as priests, regardless of whether or not they have actually communicated directly themselves with a resident of the upper planes of existence. This means that a large body of literature, mostly focusing on hymns, psalms, holy texts, temple inscriptions and prophecies has been produced on Ulskandar’s material plane, and is thought to exist in the upper planes as well. Celestial does not use an alphabet, per se, but instead used a complex symbolic system that represents words as pictograms. In addition, Celestial is unique as a language because it does not have a present tense, only forms of the past and future tense. The reason for this is thought to be that the deities and species that live in the upper planes of existence live for so long (if they are not immortal) that they have no sense of the present, as it is such a fleeting moment in their minds Celestial beings would rather speak in past or future tenses, rather than say something in the present tense for it to immediately become irrelevant for them. Some communities outside of the upper planes of existence do use Celestial as their primary tongue, but they are almost exclusively religious houses, monasteries or nunneries.  


A hardy, solid language, the language of industry and craftsmanship.
  Perhaps the most ubiquitous language after Common Speech, Dwarvish is a regular feature in the lives of not  just Dwarves, but anyone that is linked to industry and manufacturing. Dwarvish is very well suited for use in complex, mechanical processes, primarily because it is designed to be written and spoken in a very exact way. Its grammatical structure means that positioning words in specific parts of a sentence automatically gives it a distinctive meaning or inflection, which gives the language the feeling when written especially, that it has been constructed using blocks or bricks. This means that Dwarven can be incredibly simple and succinct, or deeply complex in terms of its written and oral communication. This has enabled the Dwarvish alphabet to become the go-to system for transliterating languages that do not have their own writing system. The majority of the literature that is generated in Dwarvish will tend to focus on more technical areas, be that instructional material for building or crafting, or academic theses on industry, though there is as well a strong tradition of writing ballads and sagas in Dwarvish. Dwarvish has a strongly linked dialect language, known as Deep Dwarvish, that is spoken by Deep Dwarves. Speakers of Dwarvish and Deep Dwarvish will be able to understand each other for the most part.  


I would recommend hiring a good translated, rather than attempting to learn Draconic yourself. At best it will take years to properly learn and pronounce enough to get by with native speakers, at worst you risk offending the most powerful and prolific magic users known in Turoza.
  Although Draconic is not the only language that can be used to write, inscribe and cast spells, the dominance of its native speakers, Dragonborns and Dragons in the field of arcanology means that it is the most common language that is used for the casting of magic, and the creation of magic items. Mastery of Draconic is an incredibly difficult thing to master, not because the language is particularly hard in a grammatical sense, but because it is tonal. Non-native speakers of Draconic can find it takes them decades to be able to hold a short conversation about the weather in Draconic, let alone engage in a vigorous and complex debate. All those who pass through the Academy of Arcanology in Harbotha are taught some Draconic as standard, so that they can follow the curriculum for their magical education, but the vast majority of the Academy’s non-Dragonborn students only learn the phrases in Draconic that they need to cast spells, as opposed to conversational Draconic. Draconic uses its own alphabet and is generally written in lines flowing from the top of a page to the bottom, rather than the more standard left to right flow of most other languages.  


The lilting flow of the Elvish tongue is a truly beautiful sound to behold, it is easy to get lost in the ebb and flow of its almost melancholic, reflective sound.
  Perhaps the most prolific of languages in terms of the literature, with Elves having been used as the main medium for the writing of works of philosophy, science, history and sociology amongst other academic subjects, poetry, songs and even novels. Elvish is a deeply expressive language that drills down into detailed specifics, not just with regards to descriptions and objects, but also down to capturing the emotional essence of what the words are spoken or written about. There are, for example at least ten different ways to describe still bodies of inland water that range from capturing the sense of mystery, or portent of seeing a lake with moonlight reflected in it, to the sense of melancholy that a perfectly flat lake or pond has the potential to induce. Elvish has its own alphabet that is itself the focus of some incredibly intricate and detailed calligraphy. It is also the language that makes use of the most accents in its written form, to ensure that its readers are given as much information as possible to accurately pronounce the most subtle of sounds in Elvish words. Elvish has a strongly linked dialect language, known as Deep Elvish, that is spoken by Shadow Elves. Speakers of Elvish and Deep Elvish will be able to understand each other for the most part.  


On being addressed in Infernal for the first time, one would be forgiven for thinking that your life was in dire danger, even if you were just being asked whether or not it was raining outside.
  Native speakers of Infernal include many of the denizens of the lower planes of existence, and is most strongly associated with Devils and their ilk, but it is also spoken by Tieflings who reside on the material plane. It is thought that the process of cursing the original tribal people who became Tieflings also passed on to them comprehension and knowledge of the Infernal language as well, along with their innate magical abilities and their distinctive appearance. Infernal is regularly referred to as the most aggressive sounding language to listen to, as its strong consonant sounds and staccato speaking rhythms can make even the most banal statements sound quite threatening. Despite this, there is a reasonable amount of literature that has been produced in Infernal, the vast majority of which has been produced in the Emirate of Taqwal with its majority Tiefling population. It is further thought that there is a significant body of Infernal literature that exists in the lower planes of existence, though it is hard to actually quantify the scope of this body of work, as only a handful of items written in Infernal have made their way onto the material plane. Infernal uses its own alphabet, characterised stylistically by its very jagged letters, that reflect the harshness of the letter sounds in their shapes.  

The Base Languages

  So-called ‘Base’ languages are ones that characterised as being the most simplistic in Maximilian Hoherberg Von Zottehal’s mind, and that have the smallest amount of literature attached to them, if they can even be written at all.  


To the untrained ear it is little more than grunts and snarls, to the trained ear conversations in this tongue rarely warrant the time taken to learn it.
  Bestial is viewed by many scholars as being a language that is still evolving. This is because it is as close to being a string of animalistic grunts and  basic noises as it is possible to be, and yet still be a coherent language. Species that converse in Bestial tend to be more inclined towards savage, primitive lifestyles, such as Lupines and Gnolls, who have no need to engage in particularly complex conversations. The unique sounds and word forms of Bestial mean that all attempts to write it down have been rather futile, and given the rather uninspired quality of the conversations, rather pointless.  


Caresses the ear like the rolling of gravel down a mountainside, or the grinding of stones into powder.
  Just as slow and lumbering in its delivery as the species that tend to use it, Giantish is spoken in various forms by Trolls, Ogres, Goliaths and Giants after whom it is named. Giantish can often be very hard for smaller humanoid to speak, as many of its words are so long that they require the larger lung capacity of a larger creature to be able to speak a full sentence of Giantish. In addition, separate words in Giantish are frequently combined to make one much longer word and has crept into the language as a result of Giantish’s simpler speakers attempting to try and describe things they have never seen before. For instance, the Giantish word for ‘Knight’, ‘glansandihardurcentaurothsemgeturhafteinnefatvofæturogeittefatvöhofud’ directly translates into common as ‘shiny hard centaur that can have two or four legs and one or two heads’. Even though Giantish is spoken by some quite intelligent beings, in particular the elemental giants who are renowned for their intellect and cunning, the languages idiosyncratic, simplistic qualities are maintained, presumably so that more intelligent speakers of the language can communicate effectively with their less intelligent fellows. It is possible to write Giantish in the Dwarvish script, but the long length of the words means that it requires much more paper and ink to do so than other languages.  


A language of action, and simple actions at that.
  If one were to look at a dictionary of Orcish words (which people have taken the time to compile at great personal risk), one would be struck by the sheer lack of words that the language uses. The limited lexicography of Orcish has led many to surmise that Orcs and Half-Orcs are intrinsically unintelligent beings, but in reality the language is much more complex than it appears at first glance. This is because Orcish, like Draconic, is tonal and dependent upon the way that the word is said it can mean a variety of different, often unconnected things. For instance, the Orcish word ‘Uzgut’ depending on how it is said can mean a variety of things from ‘arrow’ to ‘comet’ to ‘river’. This means that it can be very hard to write Orcish down, and it will tend to be written in either Dwarvish script or the script of Common Speech. However, accompanying the language is a sophisticated system of pictograms that are used to leave simple messages in the landscape, often revolving around the location of supply dumps.  


A foul corruption of Common Speech, brought about by the foolish attempts of surface dwellers to live in the Underdark where they and the tongue were warped and twisted.
  Despite the fact that Undercommon is a derivative language of Common Speech, it is barely recognisable in terms of speech and writing. It is not entirely clear whether the difference between the two languages was formed naturally, or deliberately, to clearly mark the difference between the people of the surface world, and those who reside in the Underdark. Regardless of how it was formed, Undercommon serves the same purpose as Common Speech for the nations and species that reside in the Underdark. However, as these species tend to be much more single-species focused in their communities and organisations, Undercommon has lost a lot of the complexity of Common Speech, and can instead only be used to engage in simple conversations, mostly revolving around trade.  

The Lost Languages

  Maximilian Hoherberg Von Zottehal’s final category of Ulskandar’s languages encompasses those languages that have either dropped out of regular use, or are so seldom spoken on the Material Plane of Ulskandar that they will be virtually unknown to the majority of its inhabitants. Knowledge of these languages is extremely limited amongst non-native speakers, with only a handful of Ulskandar’s scholars having enough knowledge or reference material to read, let alone properly converse with native speakers of a ‘Lost’ language.  


This language oozes darkness from every pore of its being. The utterance of every letter and syllable can make the listener feel as if they are being enveloped by eternal night, whilst those who read it can easily feel overwhelmed by dread and hopelessness.
  Unlike Infernal, which has achieved some form of widespread acceptance and usage on the material plane of Ulskandar through its association with Tiefling, Abyssal, the other most commonly spoken language in the lower planes of existence, is all but unknown. Abyssal is almost exclusively spoken by Demons, which explains why it is seldom heard on Ulskandar’s material plane. The only creatures that count Abyssal as their mother tongue on the Material Plane are Minotaurs, who rarely speak it other than to their own kin. Those who do hear are predominantly the poor unfortunates that have drawn themselves to the  attention of a Demonic denizen of the lower planes, those that speak it and can write it, are foolish souls who think that they can somehow strike a deal with a Demon or even bind it to their will. Whereas Infernal is characterised as being a spiky language to both listen to and look at, Abyssal is very round and open in its sounds, and the script that is used to write it is equally very rounded and flowing. Little written material in Abyssal has been found on the material plane, with the material that has been discovered almost exclusively being made up of contracts that have been entered into by inhabitants of the material plane with Demons. These contracts are incredibly detailed, and often reference legal texts that presumably exist in the lower planes of existence. As none of the individuals who entered these demonic contracts have been found, it is hard to ascertain whether they were shown these legal tomes at any point during the creation of the contract, or whether they were so blinded by greed that they did not get clarification on the references.  

Deep Speech

The only language that is never physically uttered by its native speakers, the sensation of having another entity communicating from directly within your own brain is truly terrifying.
  Those that communicate using Deep Speech inhabit the lowest and most remote parts of the Underdark, and they seem truly alien to those that live on the surface of the material plane. Knowledge of Deep Speech is almost non-existent outside of the communities that converse using it, and often those outsiders that do ‘experience’ Deep Speech will only hear snippets, whilst the entity that is using it works out the best alternative language they have knowledge of to use to best communicate. ‘Experience’ is the best way to describe being communicated with through Deep Speech, as you cannot hear the language in a traditional sense, as it is not physically articulated. As Deep Speech is used by creatures with strong telepathic powers it has transcended the need to be physically articulated, and is instead directly planted into the mind of the intended recipient, provided that they are not using any means of mentally defending themselves. All other knowledge of Deep Speech is minimal at best, and much work has to be done to work out how to even begin understanding it, let alone speaking a language that is not physically articulated.  


So ancient it is has all but been lost in the mists of time.
  Thought to be one of the oldest languages in existence in Ulskandar, Primordial is now spoken by a small number of creatures, many of which are incredibly old. Amongst the wider population, it only tends to be scholars that can read Primordial, and there is no agreed way of pronouncing Primordial amongst non-native speakers of the language. This is because Primordial has been so seldom heard, and that the primary source of knowledge for the language are the small amount of ancient texts that have been painstakingly translated into Common Speech. The Primordial alphabet uses a cuneiform like alphabet, with a group of triangular wedges making up each letter. Thanks to the existence of a bi-lingual document, written in Primordial and Draconic, it has been possible to translate the majority of Primordial scripts that exist, though there are still many words whose meaning is not known or is debated. However, it has not always been the case that Primordial was a forgotten language. It is well known that Humans once spoke it as their mother tongue, but they abandoned it in favour of other languages during the latter part of the Nomadic Era, for reasons that still remain unclear.  


A language of tricks and the type of verbal acrobatics that leaves one struggling for breath.
  Sylvan is a deeply complex language that is almost exclusively spoken by Fey creatures. Sylvan is a language that very much reflects the characters of the creatures that speak it, and often sounds mischievous or playful. Sylvan speakers often take great delight in crafting the most complex sentence or phrase that they can think of, and huge swathes of speech are often made to rhyme in quite complex and intricate patterns. There is no known material culture associated with Sylvan, nor does it have a specific alphabet. When Sylvan is written down it is written in the Elvish script, which is used by non-native speakers to transcribe the numerous and complex riddles and poems that Fey revel in coming up with. The main reason that few people know of the Sylvan language is that few people are often aware when they are in the presence of Fey with whom they could communicate. Many people will have heard Sylvan being spoken by Fey that are near to them, but the language, like the Fey themselves will have been magically hidden so that it sounds like nothing but the rustling of leaves, or the blowing of the wind.

Cover image: by Chris Pyrah


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