I'm making a homebrew D&D world where, among other things, there is no "common" tongue. I've always found that concept frustratingly unrealistic. Yes, it prevents a lot of problems for adventurers, but they're interesting problems, and isn't that the whole point of adventuring?

But I digress. In the case that a native X-speaker and a native Y-speaker need to communicate, what factors would make X and Y more/less difficult to form a temporary pidgin? So far I've got:

  • X and Y share a common ancestor
  • X derives from Y

The conditions you've given are valid for making languages more compatible

The historical example here might be comparing say, Latin, to any given Latin-derived language, such as Spanish, for instance. Now, the grammatical structure of the languages aren't the same at all and many of the words have been swapped around or changed, but if a Latin speaker attempted to make a point to a Spanish speaker, there'd be a fair chance that even without any knowledge of the other language, rudimentary communication would be possible. And, since they're fundamentally the same, a pidgin would be very easy to form, assuming that they didn't feel the need to just pick up the other person's language.

What would make things more difficult? Things like:

  • Time gap - the longer the time the languages were separated, the more pronounced the difference will be. Dial back around 1500 years, and the predecessor to the current English is nearly incomprehensible to modern day speaker.
  • Languages with no shared ancestors - Take for instance Spanish and German, which are derived from different ancestral languages. It's a lot easier for someone with the knowledge of French, a Latin derivative, to learn Spanish, another Latin derivative
  • Languages with odd vowels - Certain languages (Navajo, for instance) have very specific sounds in their language that is almost impossible for someone who did not grow up speaking the language to sense the nuance of, much less pronounce
  • Grammar structure - Here's another Latin example. Because of the way Latin works, you can technically put a Latin sentence in any order and it'll mean the same thing. The fact that words means different things based solely on their place in a sentence is a novel concept to certain languages.
  • $\begingroup$ Spanish and German are both Indo-European languages, so they do have a common ancestor. Proto-Indo-European is just far further in the past than Latin. $\endgroup$ – Patricia Shanahan Dec 23 '19 at 3:25
  • $\begingroup$ @PatriciaShanahan As in, like 4,000 years further back, but yeah, they share more in common than say, Spanish and Mandarin. But Spanish and Mandarin speaker, historically speaking, never really interacted that much, so I chose the more prevalent example. $\endgroup$ – Halfthawed Dec 23 '19 at 4:11
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    $\begingroup$ The ancestor of English spoken 1500 years ago is completely incomprehensible to a speaker of Modern English. Would you guess that "ūre ġedæġhwāmlīcan hlāf syle ūs tō dæġ" means "give us this day our daily bread"? (Hint: "our" ge-"day-whom-ly" "loaf" "sell" "[to] us" "to-day".) (Not to mention that just like the Latin mentioned in the answer, Old English is a typical Indo-European laguage, that is, word order is immaterial and syntactic relationships are expressed by inflections...) $\endgroup$ – AlexP Dec 23 '19 at 4:21

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