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Why written language?
PostPosted: Thu Dec 28, 2006 11:59 am Reply with quote
Joined: 28 Dec 2006
Posts: 2
Location: S. Fl.

This is probably overly geeky, but I just hope it spurs a good discussion.

I was planning out a D&D game (Dungeons and Dragons, for those not so inclined) trying to think of a world that would be different enough from the standard Western European/pseudo-English fantasy fair. And because I'm a minor word nerd myself, I was thinking about how language effects D&D. No matter what race the character is the almost always speak this nebulous "common" language. I didn't want to eliminate that because for a small gaming group it would more likely cause more problems than it is worth. Another thing that has prevalence is written language. Wizards pouring over musty tomes, finding books, great libraries. So, I thought for a game, it wouldn't be too hard to eliminate the written language.
So, I thought what would happen for a people to not develop a written language. Of course, to figure that out, the question is, why does a written language?

And to be honest, I could not think of an answer. Obviously written language aids in memory and keeping track of things, but some native american cultures never developed a written language, why is that. I figure written language would mainly develop as a note style economy develops, as opposed to a barter economy, but that's just speculation.

I was wondering if anyone knew of a resource on why written language develops or could possibly do some speculating of your own, since the majority of you probably know much more than I do.
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PostPosted: Sat Dec 30, 2006 2:57 am Reply with quote
Joined: 28 Jun 2006
Posts: 163
Location: Israel

Before even beginning to think of an answer, I want to express my excitement of finding another D&D nerd who is also a Word Nerd -- like myself. If only you could read Dutch you'd be able to read the adventures of which I am the DM on my website -- see signature.

This is the real spirit man. If you are a DM, think up the environment and prepare yourself on details such as this.

There are probably historians on this site who will be able to give you a more scholarly answer, but my two cents is, that a society will develop writing when it has become sufficiently complex, large and homogeneous. Then for complexity it needs some bureaucracy, for its size more formalized communication and for its effort to become totally homogeneous a standard of the language.
So what you need in order to keep a state of non-writing is a lot of small, diverse and tribal communities with a strong oral tradition. The thing that becomes rather inconceivable in such a state however is that every one even those who culturally are totally different (elves, orcs, halflings et al) yet speak the same common language.
Not that you REALLY have to worry about this kind of stuff -- no player ever challenges the coherence of the DM's world. And more: you always have magic to explain abnormal stuff.
I myself have actually reversed the approach to this problem in my current world. Presenting myself with the basics that everybody needs to have the same language (in roleplay by e-mail also a necessity), one must postulate a dominant, homogeneous and pervasive culture. Hence I came up with this unchallenged empire that dominates an entire continent and has a very strong and consciously advocated literary tradition.
Oh and of course, the read and write skill is free. Or in your case, it must be non-existent

l'hypocrisie c'est l'hommage du vice la vertu
Anne is a man; the blog:
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PostPosted: Wed Jun 13, 2007 11:39 am Reply with quote
Joined: 13 Jun 2007
Posts: 1
Location: Southern Minnesota U.S.A.

I've given the matter some thought, for what it's worth. Mostly I was pondering the Common tongue - and most other fictional worlds as they gloss over the problems of communications - as they must - essentially having everybody speaking the same language, lest storylines become mostly about the problems of communications. This is fine when authors wish to explore this topic, but otherwise, it's not worth the effort.

For example, Star Trek's Universal Translator, despite the frequency they lose their COM badges or their computers are down, they still always manage to speak English to aliens and alien cultures - sometimes even covertly passing for natives, despite having a device that would have to overtly translate everything where it would need to be said twice - once in one language, then in the other. Or The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy's Bable Fish - reading brainwaves is very well and good, but it wouldn't work for the written word (no brainwaves) or FTL communication - no brainwaves on a view screen, either, so only in person communications would work, and even then only if both parties have Bable fish.

So numerous are the problems of communication between cultures that any fiction that doesn't essentially ignore it will be tedious beyond description, so even when they make mention of the fact there is something going on to facilitate communications, they subsequently ignore it or gloss over it.

At least in D&D there may be a plausible explanation for why most species on a world have familiarity with a Common Tongue - the Gods above. Unlike the real world, in our fantasy worlds the Gods are not a matter of faith, but a matter of demonstrable fact, and one would almost be remiss not to capitalize on this fact. While they doubtlessly have their own divine languages, the Gods probably have greatly influenced and standardized a language to communicate with mortals. Sure, specialists use other languages, like Abyssal, Archaic, Celestial, Infernal, or what have you, particularly for magic or other special applications, and racial languages abound, but nigh everyone has some familiarity with Common. Without it, the game encounters would be all about the difficulties just trying to communicate, and where GMs are often hard pressed to have their players even try diplomacy and talking before drawing steel, making communications even harder isn't the way to go.

As for the written word, without it, hard won information is too easily lost, particularly for shot lived races like humans - while long lived ones like elves may have centuries to use oral traditions to disseminate any vital information. Without writing, there's just too much stuff to remember, too much to learn, and no easy way for the right kind of teacher to find the proper student by chance. The written word helps members of society navigate its vast complexities. Without it, a race would be doomed to speak its own dialect of whatever their parents had and wouldn't be able to achieve much more than staying in small bands of hunter-gatherers.

Does this answer your question? I'm not sure, but it seems to me the utility of the written word is what leads to its invention and widespread use.

General James Robert Tiberius Starlight
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Why written language?
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