- On Neverwinter Nights
- Next Generation
Languages of Layonara
The languages spoken across the lands of Layonara are as varied and unique as the people and creatures who speak them. The most prominent of these languages (and those, with the exception of a few, that can be spoken by player characters) are:
- Sign Language
- Dark Elven
- Thieves' Cant
- Animal Language
Like the race who created it, this language is quick and remarkably energetic. With many phrases composed of sharp, staccato syllables that sound excited no matter what the tone, it's small wonder that most who hear it think that halflings are perpetually happy. While the language itself is similar to Common in many structural respects (though there are some anomalies and peculiarities in terms of word order that take many who study the language by surprise), most creatures who have a different mother tongue have difficulty at first with the dexterity required of the tongue and mouth.
To a halfling's ear, most who are learning to speak the language seem to be doing so painfully slowly and loudly, as many of the small features peculiar to the halfling tongue are delivered under the breath, one of the hardest vocal techniques to master for non-native speakers.
The written form of Halfling bears a certain resemblance to Common, since the Deliarites contributed much to the written form of the trade language. As with the rest of the tongue, however, the variations that crop up tend to surprise new speakers.
It has been joked (usually out of earshot of the nearest dwarf) that in order to speak dwarvish properly, one needs to have gargled with gravel for twenty or thirty years, and then hit one's head repeatedly against a stone wall. While it's true that the dwarven tongue is usually spoken gruffly, this does the language a disservice. As one might expect, this famously resilient race's mother tongue is more rough-cut than most, with heavy burrs, rolled consonants, and many glottal stops made deep in the throat. However, just as its speakers' forges created works of mastery in intricate yet useful decorations as well as weaponry, there is a certain musicality to the dwarven language. Dwarven bards have composed epics in their mother tongue that can transfix listeners for hours at a time.
The written form of Dwarven is comprised of heavy, intricate runes, as easily engraved into stone as penned on paper. One gets a sense when examining Dwarven writing that here is a record that will stand the test of ages, whether carved into granite or embossed on tissue.
Gnomes are born inquisitive, and while not every member of the race has an inventive streak, so many do that it has colored their very language. There are few languages in all of Layonara which have such a massive collection of nouns as Gnomish'even Elven fails to compare. This peculiarity stems from the desire of experimenters to give precise names to both their tools and the results of their work, as well as the techniques involved, the conditions under which work can take place ... and so forth. All this makes Gnomish an amazingly precise language, particularly when it comes to crafting'but with a staggering vocabulary that can be daunting to learn.
It is said that gnomes are overly verbose when describing technical things to non-Gnomish speakers. However, the truth is not as simple. Gnomish is a very precise language. It has several words for any particular item so things can be described exactly without any ambiguity. Engineers from other races learn Gnomish so they can describe their work better and read the Gnomish texts and diagrams. Of course, Common is a terrible language for this type of work. Its origins are a hobbled together pidgin intended to make trade possible. Translating a single Gnomish word with its detailed specificity into Common results in five times as many words. A ruugatryssan becomes "a weapon composed of a wooden shaft which joins a medium sized hammer head on one end with a hooked shaped blade on the other." That's a lot of words, but to the gnome, it's just ruugatryssan. So what's a gnome to do? Say the whole thing and be accurate (hoping nongnomes have the attention span to follow it) or just say weapon and give up all the lovely detail? Depending on the situation, a gnome will do either as appropriate.
The written form of Gnomish is intricate, but comprised of straight lines and angles, or smooth curves'the sort that a draftsman might use on a design. Precision of writing is every bit as important as precision of speech, so gnomish children are taught the forms of the characters very carefully indeed.
While some might argue that sign is not an actual language, many use this silent system of hand motions and gestures to communicate and to make themselves understood. Words and concepts are represented by the motions of one or both hands, sometimes augmented by their position relative to the body of the speaker or by the speaker's expressions. Complicated proper nouns or words that lack a corresponding gesture can sometimes be spelled out using an alphabet of gestures that corresponds to the alphabet of the Common tongue, if those communicating are literate and the word is known to both parties in that language. Additional systems of letter gestures corresponding to the alphabets of other tongues also exist, but are not as frequently used.
Many dialectic versions of sign languages exist, which sometimes makes it difficult for speakers from different regions to understand one another. However, an attempt at a standardized sign language was developed several centuries ago by an James Travalent, an Aragenite priest. The temple at which James worked had a number of acolytes who were struck deaf at birth by an endemic fever, and in order to allow them to communicate with others in the temple and the village, the priest codified a series of gestures and handsigns. His version was so effective that it rapidly spread throughout the world, and many signers use variations on his gestures to this day.
Although sight makes this mode of communication far easier, it is possible for two individuals who cannot see each other (through blindness, darkness, or some obstruction to sight) to sign to one another. This technique, known as tactile signing, requires that the individuals touch one another's hands to determine the position and shape in which the hands are being held.
Elven is a florid, melodic, and intricate language'essentially just what you'd expect from a race who can afford to spend a century getting every nuance just right. The elves' tongue is a complex language; dozens of words exist for each Common word, in an effort to capture in detail any subject being discussed. Verbs, too, have various degrees and forms of inflection that demonstrate the desire of this long-lived race to be able to perfectly describe any event. Even the tone with which the words are delivered imparts a subtle linguistic spin on their meaning. As with most elven-crafted items, the language is both elegant and functional; syllables roll off the tongue, turning prose into poetry.
Elves often swear that a minimum of fifty years of practice is required before one's pronunciation is acceptable. Nevertheless, a surprising number of members of other races have endeavored to learn the language, whether to trade with elves in their own tongue or to be privy to conversations they would otherwise be unable to comprehend. Given its beauty as a language and the degree of intelligence ascribed to its speakers, it should come as no surprise that elven has become a prestigious language associated with status and style. Its written form is comprised of simple-seeming yet elegant characters, each of which can have a dozen variations based on minute differences in quill-strokes.
Adventurers, merchants and travelers sometimes learn this language, as it comes in handy when dealing with elves, who often look upon Common with a certain amount of disdain. Whether elven sounds any more pleasant to those gently pointed ears when mangled by the clumsy tongue of an adventurer is a matter open to debate.
Imagine, if you will, a language which drew upon Elven for its syntax, developed and spoken by a race of beings for whom political machinations and deadly intrigues are everyday occurrences. The result is a language so complex that inadvertent insult is a virtual certainty for any not fully versed in its intricacies, peculiarities, exceptions and nuances. Courtly Dark Elven is a staggeringly complicated language, where the intonation and pitch in which a syllable is delivered is nearly as important as the syllable itself. Cutting insults and icy disdain can be conveyed with just the slightest variation of a single syllable of a phrase, and many phrases can have multiple meanings'exactly what one would expect from the language of a race of conspirators, deceivers, backstabbers and manipulators.
As a language, Dark Elven retains a great deal of the beauty of its origin tongue, but where Elven possesses the beauty of flowing rivers and the majesty of green, growing things, Dark Elven possesses the chilling beauty of crystal, luminescence in the dark, and ice in the freezing depths. The melodic phrasing is similar, but trailing hisses, abrupt silences and harsh, guttural syllables have woven their way into the language.
Very few surface dwellers can speak this tongue and fewer still will admit to knowing it, as the knowledge of the tongue implies a less than inimical relationship with one of the dark ones. The written form of the language is very similar to that of elven, but with the gentle curves of elven characters rendered angular and pointed.
The secret language of thieves and burglars, cutpurses and cutthroats, Thieves' Cant is a layer of communication of which most of the population is completely unaware. Calling it a language, in fact, is a bit of a misnomer, for unlike other languages, it is both highly specialized in its content and somewhat limited in its scope. It also varies in its details from city to city, though members of one city's criminal class will usually recognize the signs from another, even if they are not identical.
The Cant consists of small, incidental motions or choices of words'a cough here, a scratch there, holding a hand in a particular way when talking to someone'that can subtly and unobtrusively convey information to another individual. For example, a slight turn to the left and the movement of one's right hand to one's left elbow while talking to someone might indicate to a partner nearby that one's conversation partner is an easy mark. There are signs to indicate plainclothes guards, warn others off a mark, indicate when a mark is armed, and so on.
The difficulty in learning this mode of communication lies not in learning the handsigns, subvocalizations, body movements, and so forth, nor in learning how to perform them unobtrusively, but in finding a teacher. While any city's underworld contains no end of individuals who know the Cant, most are understandably reticent to teach an outsider, both because that person could well be an authority figure looking to amass evidence and also because while there is little honor among thieves, there is intimidation and fear. Someone who develops a reputation for spilling secrets isn't likely to last long. As such, virtually the only way to learn this subtle communication is to run with those who use it, a method of education that often leads students to the wrong side of the law themselves.
A guttural, violent language that reflects its origin, Orc is a language suited neither to courtly debate nor flowing melodic songs. It is remarkably well-suited to bellowing challenges and obscenities at a foe, though'and coincidentally, these are often the only phrases in Orc ever heard by adventurers. Aragenite scholars have long wondered whether the orc culture has shaped its language, or if cause and effect run in the opposite direction; there are no words in orc for lover, tenderly, or delicate (the closest orc word to the last translates, approximately, to breakable). Conversely, there are several hundred astonishingly nuanced words for various means of killing.
Orc is comprised mostly of harsh monosyllables, glottal stops made deep in the throat, and vocalizations that sound more like animalistic growls than the language of sentient beings. Even in a normal tone of voice, two beings speaking in Orc sound as if they are having an argument. It can be a very tiring language to speak for the non-native speaker, as the required emphasis'particularly for imperatives'often involves volume as much as word choice, and the harsh consonants can wear an unpracticed throat ragged.
Orc can be a difficult language to learn, both because of its lack of congruency with the Common vocabulary (this is, in fact, why many orcs or half-orcs who learned to speak Common later in life sometimes have trouble with their vocabulary) and because it requires finding a teacher who isn't as likely to cut your head off and spit down your neck as to offer a word of greeting. Full-blooded orcs or half-orcs who were raised around their kin are also, by their nature, suspicious of anyone trying to learn their language; as far as they can tell, there's no good reason for a non-orc to learn their language, save to eavesdrop on what they are saying, which only goes to show that orcs are cannier than many think.
Orc has no real written form; the closest they come are a set of crude hieroglyphics which correspond more to concepts than to words in their tongue.
If a single word were used to sum up the Goblin tongue, it would be jabber. If a layperson were looking to insult some gnomes or halflings, they might compare their languages to that spoken by the vile Goblin races, for the speed at which the syllables leave the speaker's mouth is reminiscent of both. There, however, the similarities end. Just as goblins are, on the whole, unpleasant to look at, so too is their language on the ears. Harsh screeches, painful clicks, and rapid changes in pitch all work with the general jabbering quality of the tongue to make it an extremely unpleasant language to most other races. Like Orc, it is a language that lends itself to arguments. Unlike Orc, it is not a very intimidating language, regardless of the speaker.
Aside from a few tricks of vocalization that lend themselves more easily to goblinoid throats than to humanoid ones, the language is not terribly complex. In referring circuitously to matters of betrayal and power struggles, it is surprisingly adept, but it is otherwise without particular virtue in one respect or another, linguistically. It is not overtly technical, as goblins, while more sophisticated than many monsters, are still largely tribal. The difficulty in learning the language, as with Orc, is mostly finding a goblin who will teach it to you. While many goblins are great physical cowards who will readily do whatever their captor demands if it buys them more time, they are also extremely canny, and have, oddly enough, a certain racial pride. A goblin forced to teach a member of another race its language might swap words, or substitute nonsense for definitions, if it believes it can get away with it'and if it can accrue some manner of advantage over its captor by so doing, so much the better! Many an adventurer or diplomat has entered goblin territory and called out a bold challenge: "Cave lice! Arm yourselves at my arrival, for I am here to surrender utterly!"
Adding to this problem is the fact that the goblin race's insular tribal nature and fierce interclan fighting often results in slang or argot coming into use in one tribe and not another; the language used in one goblin cave might sound like nonsense in another, save the occasional recognizable word. For this reason, any negotiation between tribes is carried out in excessively formal language, to avoid confusion (and the possibly dire consequences of same).
The written form of the goblin tongue is comprised of henscratch runes that invariably look messy and scrawled, even when some care is taken in writing them. No one is entirely certain why this is, except perhaps the goblins, and they're not telling.
If you can't hold your breath for fifteen minutes at a time, you will never speak Underwater fluently. All would-be omnilinguists should stick their head in a rainbarrel for the requisite time, then resign themselves to that fact. Put plainly, Underwater sounds wrong when spoken out of the water, and some of the effects are nearly impossible to reproduce.
Though it was derived from Elven when its speakers carried their ancestral language beneath the waves, Underwater is so far removed from its parent tongue that native Elven speakers would be unlikely to recognize this fact. The lyrical tones and open vowels of Elven do not lend themselves to a medium where one has limited lung capacity with which to convey one's point, and so Underwater first evolved as a sort of verbal shorthand. The tones were refined and amplified to carry well underwater, and clicks, trills, hisses and buzzes that transmit well through a liquid medium but do not tax the speaker's air supply overmuch were added. Underwater is very much a tonal and context-dependent language, as many words and distinctive sounds are meant to serve multiple purposes. It is also not a language well-suited for stealth; the nature of underwater sonics means that any sound travels a significant distance, and the sounds of the sea elven tongue are meant to travel.
Sea elves used to speaking in a liquid medium find other languages as strange as the surfacers do the Underwater tongue. The richness and carrying ability of phonemes in Common, Elven, or any other Breathless language seems a bit hollow to the sea elves. While they are often quite able to understand intellectually that they cannot call out to friends leagues distant, it can sometimes be hard to handle instinctively.
There is no written form of Underwater. All Sea Elf writing, which is usually engraved in stone, is in an antiquated form of Elven.
Most people are as ignorant of the origin of the brownie tongue as they are of the brownies themselves. Although some joke that brownie voices are so small that no Aragenite has ever been able to make a formal study of the language, the truth is that most members of this playful race simply wouldn't want to sit still long enough to begin to explain things as dull as syntax, vocabulary and grammar. What is known is that brownie speech can be ridiculous, pompous, excited, flustered, flamboyant, quizzical, teasing, frivolous or impish, but whatever it expresses, it is almost always great fun to listen to!
There are currently two popular theories on the nature and origin of Brownie. The first theory holds that the brownie language is not a proper language at all, but merely a dialect of Halfling that has become distorted over the years. Those who prefer the second theory argue that the only reason Brownie and Halfling are compared is because both races look small to a human's eyes and have been confused in certain stories over the years. These people will tell you that Brownie is a tongue unto itself, as distinct from the halfling language as the communications of any of the fey races.
Perhaps because people were so busy arguing about the origin of the language of the brownies, no one seems to have bothered to note whether the brownies have a unique form of written communication'though one smart-mouthed joker quipped that they were all simply waiting for the gnomes to invent a lens powerful enough to let them read it!
While there is no single animal language, there are certainly those who are somehow able to communicate with beasts and creatures of all kinds. These individuals are almost always druids, rangers, or those with a very special connection to nature and its creatures. Others may think them mad when they bark like a dog, hoot like an owl, make squirrel-like chitterings or paw at the ground and toss their heads, but these rare few are privy to conversations that most will never understand.
There is no written equivalent of animal, unless one counts a scent on the breeze, spoor on a trail, or the particular depth and size of a footprint left in the earth.
Many have been awed by the sibilant consonants and serpentine beauty of the language of the dragons. Far fewer have been foolhardy enough to try and learn this ancient and complex language, and most of those so brave, mad or single-minded are presumed to have become a dragon's meal.
There are at least a handful of humanoid scholars who speak the draconic tongue or can read the strange, ancient runes of that language, but most are as ignorant of the identities of these individuals as they are of the language itself. Even those that state they speak the language of dragons should consider that any non-dragon lacks the proper way to use their vocal chords to fluently speak the language. Those who try to converse with a dragon in their native tongue, needs to be aware that most dragons will find it insulting. They do not like hearing a lesser creature abuse their language.
Little is known of this language, save that it was the language of the t'oleflor and that while a few examples of writing have been found, there are none left on Layonara who can either decode these artifacts or speak the tongue. Any seeking to learn Florane should give up hope; the language is regrettably extinct.
There are rumors that there are a few individuals on Layonara who can both comprehend and speak the mysterious language of the Lumbral. Most sensible folk who hear such wild imaginings have been known to nod politely, then suggest their conversation fellow refrain from another pint.