This article is not about how to invent languages. Rather, it is about how to incorporate rules for language aquisition into your roleplay, taking account of the fact that some languages will be more closely related to each other than others. For example, a Spanish person could learn Portugeuse a lot more easily than Japanese. To implement these principles, you need not have created any languages (though if you have, that is all the better): all that is necessary is to classify each language in to a group and family.
I will classify each person’s ability in a language as either “No knowledge”, “Rudimentary”, “Basic”, “Intermediate”, “Fluent” or “Native”. Depending on your system, you may wish to translate them into skill points; if so I would suggest that it costs the same number of skill points to go from one level to the next, with the exception that a character can never become “Native” through study, only through living in a country. For the purposes of this article, we will consider this number of skill points to be “1 skill point”. However, this cost may be modified by the fact that languages are related to each other (see below).
I imagine the categories as being:
A trader who had made a couple of (reasonably lengthy; i.e. a couple of weeks) trips to a country, but staying mainly amongst his own countrymen except when doing business would probably have a rudimentary grasp of the language.
A person who stayed or travelled through a country for 3 weeks to a month would have a basic grasp of the language (this of course assumes that he is not studying it at the same time: if he was studying it reasonably intensively at the same time he could get to intermediate level in this length of time).
It takes about two years of living in a country to become fluent.
To become as good as a native speaker you would have to spend at least 5 years in the country, speaking the new language nearly all the time.
Relationships Between Languages
Languages do not exist as unconnected entities; rather, every language will be related in some way to every other language. Closely related languages often have similar grammar, sentence structure and vocabulary. If the language you are learning is closely related to a language you already know then it will usually be easier to learn. Furthermore, it may sometimes be possible to understand (though not speak) a language to a limited extent based on your knowledge of other, closely related languages.
We will adopt the following terminology:
Family: A language family will contain a number of closely related languages. Real world examples include the Romance language family and the Germanic language family.
Group: A language group will contain a number of somewhat similar language families. Real world examples include Indo-European and Sino-Tibetic.
Using this terminology, Russian would be in the Slavic family in the Indo-European group. It should be noted that this terminology may differ somewhat from that standardly used in linguistics.
We will also define the following terms:
Ancient: An ancient language is a language that evolved at least a millenium ago. It will have existed a long time and other languages will have evolved from it. Whether or not it is still spoken today is irrelevant. A real world example is Latin.
Modern: A modern language is a language that evolved relatively recently; i.e. less than a millenium ago. There will probably be few if any languages that are directly descended from it; instead, it and other modern languages in its family will usually trace descent back to a common ancient language. Whether or not it is still spoken today is irrelevant. A real world example is French.
Distinct dialects: Almost all languages have many dialects. Sometimes these do not pose a major bar to communication but sometimes they do. If we say a langage has distinct dialects we mean that it has two or more dialects that are different enough from each other that a speaker of one would have difficulty understanding a speaker of the other (particularly a foreigner who had learned only one of the dialects). A real world example would be High German, Low German and Swiss German. When learning a language with distinct dialects you must specify which dialect you are learning.
Modifiers to Learning
- The cost is doubled when learning a language which belongs to a different language group to all the languages that you already know (to intermediate or higher standard).
- The cost is halved when learning a language of a given family if you know an archaic language from the same family to intermediate or better or two modern languages from the same family at intermediate or higher.
- When learning your first foreign language (ancient or modern) you must pay double the cost to advance it from rudimentary to basic.
- If you know a language from a given language family at intermediate level then you may understand (but not speak) all other languages in that family at rudimentary level.
- If you know a language from a given language family at fluent or native level then you may understand (but not speak) all other languages in that family at basic level. This only applies if you know at least two languages (of any family and group) to basic or higher level (this includes your native language(s)).
- If you also know another language (i.e. two languages total) from the same family (ancient or modern) to intermediate or higher level then you can understand (but not speak) all other languages within the family to intermediate level.
- If you speak a language with distinct dialects then you may understand and speak any other distinct dialects of that language at one level lower than your ability in the dialect you know. It takes 1 skill point to boost another distinct dialect to the level that you know the first. Note that native and fluent are counted as two separate levels.
- A hybrid language is classified as one created from the fusion of two languages in different groups or families. When learning such a language, one gains none of the advantages of “learning a language in the same family/group”; however, you also do not take the disadvantages which you would if it was from a totally different language group (assuming you speak a language in one of the two groups it comes from).
Different languages have different writing systems. Just because someone is literate in one language, does not mean that they will be literate in new languages. For example, an English speaker will be literate in French, if he can speak French. However, it will take him a little bit more effort to become literate in Russian (with its Cyrillic alphabet) and quite a lot of effort to become literate in Mandarin Chinese. Becoming literate can only be done through study; you cannot just pick it up in conversation, the way you could a language.
Writing systems can be classified in to six different categories:
Alphabet: Each character stands for a consonant or vowel (e.g. Latin, Cyrillic).
Abjad: Each character stands for a consonant (e.g. Hebrew, Arabic).
Abugida: Each character stands for a consonant accompanied by a particular vowel and other vowels are indicated by consistent additions to the consonant system (e.g. Sanskrit).
Syllabary: Each character stands for a syllable (e.g. Japanese, Cuneiform).
Logosyllabary: Each character represents a morpheme (e.g. Chinese).
Featural Script: The shapes of characters correlate with phonetic features of the segments they designate (e.g. Korean Hangul).
Assuming that you are already literate in one writing system then the following cost could apply to learn new writing systems. Remember that these “rules”, expressed in arbitrary skill points, can be adapted back to whatever system you are using.
- To learn an alphabet or abjad that you are unfamiliar with costs one skill point. You can then read and write it as well as you can speak it.
- To learn an abugida or syllabic writing system that you are unfamiliar with costs one skill point to learn it to basic and another skill point to learn it to a maximum of fluent. Note that this assumes you already know the language itself to this level.
- To learn a logosyllabic or featural script writing system costs one skill point to advance it each degree (i.e. learning to write this language is as hard as learning to speak it). Note that this assumes you already know the language itself to this level.
- I would suggest that if your native language has a logosyllabic or featural script writing system then it should cost at least twice as many skill points to become literate in it as normal.
Here is an example, taken from my role-play world, of a set of languages and the relationship between them.
Language/Ancient or modern/Group/Family/Writing System/Writing System Type
Alanyae/Modern/Laurentio-Baltic/Hybrid: Evvenyae and Avallan/Venyaemic/Abugida
Two distinct dialects of Dwarden: High Dwarden and Low Dwarden
Two distinct dialects of Rotliegendan: Mainland and Island.
Gralbakha/Modern/Dwalmic/Xkatxklaxka/No written form/No written form
Three distinct dialects of Xkatxklax: Gralbakhic, Grabendric and Avalonian
Draconic/Ancient/Draconic/Draconic/No written form/No written form