Beyond Common: fantasy language worldbuilding

Your fantasy or sci-fi world probably has its fair share of situations where groups with different languages have had to learn how to live together. Something like D&D’s Common is the most…common…solution that I’ve seen. All the groups involved learn to speak a new, universal language. Nobody seems to have any hard feelings that they coincidentally chose the human language. World peace.

“But Esperanto–” When was the last time the U.N. held a summit in Esperanto? Do you speak Esperanto? (Dammit, this blog’s demo definitely speaks Esperanto.)

Why is “Common” iffy? This scenario never seems to play out IRL the way D&D would have you believe.  The good news is, instead of that single one, there are many ways that groups in the real world settle on what language to use when they collide. So when this happens in your novel, you have lots of interesting techniques to choose between. And because language is political, the technique you choose for your language worldbuilding can also tell your readers about the history of your world.

In this post, we go over just a few options that are miles more interesting than “Common.”


Adopt a lingua franca.

This is closest to the “Common”-related strategies. In some cases both groups will indeed adopt a lingua franca that neither group speaks natively. But big caveats: The lingua franca has to come from someone, and the group it comes from are usually the past or present owners of economic and social power. Native speakers of a lingua franca have a big advantage. This pattern isn’t just about English–Nahuatl/Aztec was the lingua franca of Mesoamerica, and they were pretty strong dudes; the lingua franca of the Philippines is a standardized version of Tagalog, and Tagalog was the language of Manila.

Plus, remember that new speakers are constantly repurposing and altering language for their own use in reference to their mother tongue. Even if you designate one language as “Common” because that group took over the whole continent and made it Common, if it’s been a few hundred years, there’s probably still a Mountain Common and a Plains Common and a Marsh Common, just like we have Singlish, Hong Kong English, and Indian English.

Another option is to adopt an ancient or literary language both groups know. Hebrew was not spoken as anybody’s mother tongue–or, as modern language revitalizationists sometimes say, it was sleeping–for hundreds of years. But when Israel was formed, Jewish people who moved there from all over the world could understand one another with the liturgical language.

I know of one circumstance where a sign language has been adopted as a trade language–Plains Sign Talk was used by 30 or more nations in the Americas to communicate.


Assimilate to one language.

If group A has much more power, they might try to get group B to assimilate to their language. Settler-colonial practice was to uproot children, interrupting language transmission in communities by literally forcing children to speak English.

Assimilation can also come “from below” under economic and educational pressure. Even if group A takes over group B’s area and mostly leaves group B alone, or if group B chose to move into A-land, group B could still decide to use group A’s language because it’s the only way to become a lawyer or whatever. Then, especially if they’re immigrants to an A-dominated area, their children may end up not learning language B.

In other cases, the situation stabilizes with one “high” language and one “low” language. Such a situation is known as diglossia. Group B will speak language A at work and school while continuing to speak language B with close friends at the pub.


Make a new, blended language.

When two groups meet that have no shared language, they can also create a new language from bits and bobs of their old ones.

The usual process is the development of a pidgin -> creole. I use the arrow because these terms are two stages of the same process. To create a pidgin, two language communities with different mother tongues hash out common vocabulary from what they’ve got on hand. When children start to learn it as their first language, it’s a sign that it’s developed to the point of what we call a creole.

Maybe you’ve heard “pidgin English” as a derogatory term, but this is misguided. It’s true that pidgins, the first stage of language blending, tend to be “simpler” because they’re created ad hoc. They have to be easy to pick up by their nature. But by the time they’re creoles, they have all the hallmarks of a full-on language–consistent internal logic, expressive lexicons, and linguistic innovation. Jamaican Patois might sound to some people like “bad English”, but it’s not any kind of “imitation” or “failure” of English. It’s a different language with its own consistent grammar and a lot of words that kind of sound like English. Remixing a song isn’t a failure to play the original song!

Now, there is another niche option. Unfortunately, I can’t really communicate how bizarre this phenomenon is until you have about two years’ worth of linguistic intuition.  But let’s give it a shot; you can come back to have your mind blown again in a few years. We call them mixed languages. (I know the nomenclature is vague, but nobody asked me.)  These are languages where one part of the grammar is lifted completely, without simplification, from one language, and another part of the grammar is lifted completely from another language.

The most well-established example of this is Michif, which is spoken by Metis people in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Michif has pretty-close-to-French grammar, but then, for unknowable reasons, all its verbs are Cree. Some linguists think this is what happens when, rather than having no shared language, everyone in a community speaks two languages equally. If this happens, and the community members are always switching between them, the process could become fossilized around certain aspects of the grammar.


And there we have it–broad strokes of possibilities for language contact.

But don’t forget that real-world language systems are chaotic, with lots of factors and lots of moving parts. The number of people involved, the parts of society they participate in, how well-respected each group is, the grammar of each language, whether the mother or the father is the member of the minority group…all these things might influence a language contact situation. So if you’re interested in using something like this, dig in to some research! (And say, don’t be afraid to reach out to the humble blog owner for possible sources.)