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Magic in a certain world works as follows:

  • Elvish is the "language of magic", meaning all magic is chanted/invoked using Elvish
  • To invoke the fire spell, the user must:
    1. Chant "fire" in Elvish either out loud or in their head
    2. Understand the meaning of "fire" in Elvish (you can't use it without knowing what "fire" means)
    3. The user must also consciously want to invoke the spell
  • Magic cannot be used without chanting either out loud or in one's head (so-called chantless) explicitly in Elvish. (any other language won't work)

The elves continue to use that language as their common to the modern day. However, humans and other species, are also capable of using Elvish (like any human can speak English, German, Russian, Chinese, etc) but still use their own common languages.

With the requirements to use spells, accidental casting (mainly by small children) should be a relatively small problem. The elves also use it as the common language without much problem.

In this world, magic is a must. One would find it very hard to survive without using magic.

Considering all that, in seems like Elvish should be the common language for everyone since:

  • It would be easier to learn magic if Elvish is also the common language
  • People in every country learn how to use magic regardless of social status
  • Magic is an absolute must-know
  • Anyone can learn Elvish (no biological differences significant enough to make one species unable to speak it)

However, since people first learnt to use magic, new languages have been created by different countries and species. Everyone used Elvish at first, but after thousands of years, they've diverged from it.

What reasons may people in such a world have to decide to use languages other than Elvish as their common language?

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    $\begingroup$ English is the language of I.T. and business in general, meaning that (almost) all I.T. and business support are done in English. I.T. cannot be done if one doesn't understand English. People in every country work in I.T. or business support functions. All multi-national corporations use English as their working language. Anyone can learn English. And yet, for some strange reasons, Romanians and Bulgarians and Hungarians and French people and so on continue to use their native languages in everyday life, although very many of us use English at work. Unexpected, isn't it? $\endgroup$ – AlexP Dec 23 '19 at 5:49
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    $\begingroup$ I think kids would actually be pretty good at these kinds of spells: "Mommy I want a cookie the size of the whole house! Cookie! Cookie! Cookie!" WHUMP. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Dec 23 '19 at 6:18
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    $\begingroup$ You mean like they do it with religions such as Catholicism (latin), Judaism (hebrew) or Islam (Arabic) where they use a dead language for ceremonies but their actual day to day language has evolved a lot over the years? It's often best when thinking about world building issues if it's not something that happened in reality which already offers you a perfect solution $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Dec 23 '19 at 9:55
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    $\begingroup$ @G0BLiN Everyone should be able to use magic as it'd be an essential tool. $\endgroup$ – John Zhau Dec 23 '19 at 14:41
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    $\begingroup$ to not have children setting fire to your town seems like a good reason. $\endgroup$ – John Dec 24 '19 at 0:00

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You may not need to. Languages are decidedly not fixed. In fact, it's well accepted that the borders between languages are, frankly, pretty darn arbitrary. They're placed along lines which make it convenient for linguists to talk about languages.

You may be an English speaker, but you know what a sombrero is, and you probably know what amore is. Some things have a certain je ne sais quoi about them. Words get inherited rather quickly.

One may not learn Elvish because its simply too difficult of a language to master. Elves typically have many more decades than us to master it. However, the magical phrases from Elvish will certainly be absorbed into the common tongue faster than baka or kawaii were abosrbed into the American anime lover's speach.

It's possible only a few people will grok Elvish. And in that, I chose to bring in a verb "to grok" which was invented by Robert Heinlein for his book Stranger in a Strange Land. Yet I expect many who read this answer will know what I am talking about.

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    $\begingroup$ I always hated the word "grok" because I didn't know where it came from and sounded made up to me. $\endgroup$ – Arturo Torres Sánchez Dec 23 '19 at 17:44
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    $\begingroup$ @ArturoTorresSánchez , in reality... all words are made up, right? ;) $\endgroup$ – aryn.galadar Dec 23 '19 at 17:54
  • $\begingroup$ @aryn.galadar, kinda, yes, but not all words are invented on the spot for a book. $\endgroup$ – Arturo Torres Sánchez Dec 23 '19 at 17:56
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    $\begingroup$ @ArturoTorresSánchez : I encourage you to read the book, Stranger in a Strange Land; after reading it, you will probably hate the word less, and be less inclined to think that Heinlein invented it "on the spot"; he invented it, but he did so to convey a very deep level of mutual understanding that, frankly, we just don't have a word for; it might take a few readings, however, before you fully grok its usage and meaning ;-) $\endgroup$ – landru27 Dec 23 '19 at 18:55
  • $\begingroup$ @ArturoTorresSánchez What is interesting is that by most counts Shakespeare either invented or changed the usage of over 1700 words in the English language. shakespeare-online.com/biography/wordsinvented.html Do you feel the same about these words been 'invented on the spot'? $\endgroup$ – EdHunter Dec 24 '19 at 10:48
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Linguistic inertia.

Each region and culture developed their own languages, and people tend to pass on to their children the language that they are most comfortable speaking in, so the primary language in a region is going to persist unless there's a large influx of people who have a different native language.

Beyond that, there are three broad categories of reasons for your described scenario: Cultural, Linguistic, and Magical. Some examples:

Cultural

Elves are horribly elitist, and refuse to let the other races converse in Elvish for everyday conversation. The Elvish Empire is big enough that none of the other races want to bother. They allow magic use because trying to ban that would be more effort than it's worth.

Humans are horribly elitist, and refuse to use the language of those stupid elves. Except for magic. Just because we're better than them, doesn't mean we won't take advantage of the tools they provide.

Human nobility is horribly elitist, and enforces non-elvish languages in an effort to keep the peasants from learning magic.

Linguistic

Elvish can be used for normal speech, but the grammar is weird, and it takes three times as long to say anything as it would in human languages. Those languages are more convenient.

(If speaking a thing can make it true, then you're going to need a language that is very specific and exact in order to make the effects come out the way you want. There needs to be an unambiguous description of anything, and that's a pretty hard ask for most languages)

Human vocal cords aren't built well for Elvish. They can speak it without mangling the pronunciation, but speaking for long periods is hard on human throats.

The language of magic has no word for 'Love'.

Magical

Speaking elvish as a first language means that small kids will have access to magic. This is bad. Elves don't have this problem because elvish children don't become verbal until much later in their development - they use sign language up until that point*, and are mature enough to not abuse their power by the time they have it.

It's entirely possible to speak casual in Elvish - but you can't lie in it, and humanity loves lying.

Unlike Elves, humans sleepwalk, sleeptalk, and on rare occasions (but often enough to be considered a serious problem) sleep-spellcast.

Humans keep parrots, and nobody wants the parrots figuring out how to cast spells.

*This is a real thing, by the way - you can often teach kids sign language before they're old enough to form words.


These are just examples. Feel free to come up with your own!

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  • $\begingroup$ About the "Elvish are elitists" point, most of the stories I read/watch (anime/manga) depict elves as being very much isolated. The often live in their own forests with their own tribes and most of them rarely, if ever, leave their forests. I think being elite enough to ban other races from using a language only works if they rule the country/world. It may be different in other stories but I wouldn't expect that to be a reason at all TBH. "Humans are elitists" is often a very valid point though. (nothing wrong with your answer, just my own experience with elves) $\endgroup$ – John Zhau Dec 23 '19 at 7:44
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnZhau, it would be a bit atypical, yes, but I've seen that type of worldbuilding before. Off the top of my head both Elder Scrolls and Lorwyn (from Magic: the Gathering) featured elvish empires that sought to oppress their neighbors. $\endgroup$ – Arcanist Lupus Dec 23 '19 at 13:53
  • $\begingroup$ Dungeons and Dragons (at least 5e) features several varieties of Elves. Some are quite insular and/or antisocial (e.g. Drow), others are quite open to participating in the broader society (e.g. Moon Elves). $\endgroup$ – Robert Columbia Dec 23 '19 at 15:17
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    $\begingroup$ The idea that "High Elvish" is such a formalized and cumbersome language that even the Elves themselves only use it for magic and formal occasions (like marriages and legal matters, each of which might itself involve some kind of magical power of the words binding people to do as they promise) but in day-to-day speech stick with a less-formal version, makes perfect sense. Consider that Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, and several other languages began as "Vulgar Latin", and it's not hard to imagine different dialects of Low (Vulgar?) Elvish diverging into separate languages altogether. $\endgroup$ – Monty Harder Dec 23 '19 at 16:52
  • $\begingroup$ @MontyHarder sounds like an answer :) $\endgroup$ – dissemin8or Dec 23 '19 at 21:37
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Emotions

Have you ever had one of those in the office where your boss asked you to do something ridiculous and demeaning and in your mind you formed a series of words that explained to them exactly which object you'd like to stuff up which of their orifices? And you really, really wanted it to happen?

Yeah, so don't do that in Elvish.

The Elves might have some semblance of control over their thoughts in difficult, but Humans keep doing terrible things to each other whenever they get angry (or horny, and in a bunch of other situations as well) because they have more trouble controlling their inner voice. So they don't want to use an inner voice with severe consequences. And once your inner voice is in a different language, your spoken language will change to match, unless you're serious about the things you say and think to magically become true.

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Grammar.

Oh, sure, casting a spell in Elvish is easy. You just have to chant a noun over and over again. Maybe sometimes it's a verb instead. But it's always just one word, or a short phrase, that you've learnt how to say properly. You don't have to do anything except repeat it.

But have you ever tried to actually put together a sentence in Elvish? It's a nightmare! They have inflections for everything. Nouns have five different categories ("gender" doesn't even begin to cover it). Every verb is irregular.

Anyone who can cast a fire spell knows the word general-concept-of-fire. But they don't have the first clue how to say this-fire-here or fire-that-was-just-lit or fire-that's-been-burning-for-a-while. Never mind a grammatical sentence like this is fire or look at that fire or my house is on fire.


Further thoughts

How did this situation come about? The answers will depend on your world, but exploring them could be interesting.

Did the elves discover the magic words? As in WillRoss1's answer, maybe the ancient elves found that certain words made certain effects; or else they learnt the magic words from the gods, or whatever. In any case, once they had these words, they built their language around them. Others who want to use magic don't need to retain the whole Elvish grammar—they only need its vocabulary, and only the bits that pertain to what they want to do.

(In fact, if this is the case, you wouldn't even need to have the complicated-grammar excuse—or any excuse—for people not learning Elvish. If the vocabulary is all that they need for magic, then that's all most people will bother to learn, no matter how simple or complicated their grammar is.)

Or, is it the language of magic because it's the language of the elves? Are they "closer" to magic somehow, or its source, or whatever? In that case, maybe knowing the Elvish language in full actually does unlock new magical possibilities. Chanting "fire" over and over is enough to make something catch fire, but if you can chant a whole song about fire, in good, grammatical Elvish, you can do things unheard of by most people.

This is probably a well-kept secret! Most people really do think that just knowing the Elvish word and chanting it is all that there is to magic. Those who know better (mostly elves) almost certainly use it as chantless magic, as you called it, doing all the chanting in their heads.

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    $\begingroup$ +1. As I'm guessing you know, these examples actually exist in real-world languages; Bantu languages (e.g. Swahili) typically have more than half a dozen noun classes (analogous to gender; an adjective takes a different form depending on the noun class of its subject), and Navajo doesn't have regular verbs (so, for example, you can't predict a verb's imperfective stem from its perfective stem). Of course, real-world humans do learn these languages, but these characteristics are huge challenges for non-native speakers. $\endgroup$ – ruakh Dec 24 '19 at 23:49
  • $\begingroup$ @ruakh: Noun classes! That's the word I wanted. I knew "categories" wasn't quite right... $\endgroup$ – Tim Pederick Dec 25 '19 at 4:19
  • $\begingroup$ "The elves discoverd the 'language of magic' " is part of the question I wanted to make, but I decided to leave it out to get more answers and ideas. $\endgroup$ – John Zhau Dec 25 '19 at 4:42
  • $\begingroup$ There's 40 words for fire in Elvish.... $\endgroup$ – Mazura Dec 26 '19 at 4:40
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It is dangerous.

There is a significant diglossia (much like Arabic today or Latin in the later Roman Empire, or perhaps not bigger than in the contemporary Czech) – the common, day to day language is significantly different from the high level (perhaps written only) register. Since magic is invoked by words in the “high” language, and the common language has significantly different pronunciation, it is safe to use. But when speaking the magical variant, you can never be sure when an unintended, random spell fires – you say “Can I have a glass of water, please?” and get drenched by sudden magical shower. Or even worse, the language has a lot of homonyms and one syllable words (see modern Mandarin or English), and you never know when a random syllable combination invokes a spell (especially if you do not get the stress or accent or tones right, because it is not your mother tongue).

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    $\begingroup$ The question states that you need to speak with the intention, so the unintentional effects you allude to aren't a valid answer. $\endgroup$ – toolforger Dec 24 '19 at 22:05
  • $\begingroup$ @toolforger Depends on how good is the magic in telepathy and interpreting your wishes - after all, if you ask for a glass of water, you really have the intent to get some water and some glass. And getting hit in your face by a mixture of water and (in English) glass shards fills the expressed intent... And do not forget that little children (having learnt the language) can be very careless with their wishes... $\endgroup$ – Radovan Garabík Dec 25 '19 at 11:56
  • $\begingroup$ Commoners didn't speak Latin but that didn't keep it from being the "common language" in 'high level register'. +1 $\endgroup$ – Mazura Dec 26 '19 at 4:35
  • $\begingroup$ @toolforger Still, if every time I want to say "screw you guys" I first have to carefully consider whether that will be a mere figure of speech, or whether I am actually angry enough to accidentally summon a squad off screw-demons who would screw them guys, and then me, and then the entire village... I'd rather say that in Orcish. $\endgroup$ – Headcrab Dec 26 '19 at 5:25
  • $\begingroup$ Sure, there could be strings attached to the "intention" aspect, but the question does not give any hint in that direction. $\endgroup$ – toolforger Dec 26 '19 at 7:42
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Change is hard
Other languages likely originated before or around the same time as elvish. When it was discovered that the elvish language had special properties, other cultures were already entrenched in their traditions and saying "Ok, everybody use this other language now" isn't so easy. The United States still uses Fahrenheit instead of Celsius simply because it's what we're used to, even though the latter is way more intuitive. So people would still speak the language of their parents simply because it comes naturally.

Magical words/phrases are limited
Surely the elves cannot just speak whatever words they want and have it cast a spell, even if they really want it to. "I am now immortal", "Mountain, move", "Destroy that entire city". So somewhere along the line there are certain elvish words that can cast a spell, like "fire". Elves might have a slight advantage, but they still have to remember exactly which words do what, just like everybody else. A non elf would be far better off memorizing each of these words than learning the full language, with its grammar, writing system, pronunciations, transformations, non magical vocabulary, etc.

Magic came first, not language
There is nothing inherently special about their language. A certain word does not cast a spell simply because it is Elvish. Instead, the ancient elves discovered that a certain combination of sounds produced fire (sounds like a pretty Elven way to discover fire :D). Naturally, this became their word for fire. Over time they slowly discovered new sounds that were incorporated into their language with a meaning derived from their effect (explaining why you must understand the meaning of the word to cast it). However, with the exception of the earliest, most basic words (fire, water, food...), a non magical word with the same meaning (or close enough) was already in common usage, making the magical synonym unnecessary in every day speech (though some of the more commonly used spells eventually replaced their non magical counterpart). Because of this, putting in extensive amounts of time to learn how to speak Elvish would only provide you with the most basic magical abilities, that you probably could have learned in an afternoon.

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    $\begingroup$ "Magic came first, not language". That's actually a detail I wanted in the question, but was left out for more ideas. $\endgroup$ – John Zhau Dec 25 '19 at 4:44
  • $\begingroup$ The more I think about it, the more I like that idea. It naturally gives rise to the question "so where do those words actually come from?" Personally, I like the idea of an even older, primordial language. The language of the God's, in a sense; those that created and shaped the world using a perfect language of which the elements, nature and matter obey every word with exactness. This also opens up the possibility of research and discovery of new words by faith, relics, patterns, etc. instead of just random guessing. $\endgroup$ – WillRoss1 Dec 25 '19 at 22:04
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Intention.

If you speak the magic tongue without the intention to use its magical properties you are teaching yourself to specifically not cast spells. This can mean that people have more trouble using spells correctly when they do want to use the spells. So if you instead have a completely different language as your common and only speak "fire" when you mean to use the magic your intention is far more pronounced. Elves might be capable enough not to suffer from this distinction between intention and spoken words but other races would.

Additionally languages continously evolve and especially for children. Most answers thus far have used this as a justification for other languages to develop, but what about the backlash on magical power from this evolution? Someone who grew up with Elvish as his common would also have learned Elvish slang words that will eventually help evolve the language. But if he tries to cast a spell and he uses this slang instead of the proper elvish words the spell will fail or even backfire. So some species tried to avoid this pitfall by creating an entirely new language to make sure that no Elvish slang enters their children's magical vocabulary and their magical potential isnt hindered.

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Possibly Elvish is indeed hard.

Now that creates another question: If Elvish is indeed hard, why did all races speak Elvish initially?
Well, maybe Elves invented speech, and were able to teach it to individuals of the other races, but those individuals couldn't pass the teaching on.
Which was a non-problem as long as all races lived together (each parenting group would have at least one elf in it), but over time, groups wandered off and lost their connection to the elves. Everybody expected them to lose language, but instead it turned out the languages would degenerate into something non-magical.

On a tangent, maybe elves believed that magic and speech are one and the same, before the other races demonstrated to them that there is such a thing as a non-magical language.
Maybe actually all of Elvish is magical. The easiest magic is to convey a thought to another mind. There isn't much of a difference between talking to a person to make something happen, and talking to a stone to make it float, transmute to gold, or whatever you want it to do.

Possibly magic got restricted.

Magic turned out to be dangerous if the common plebs has it. Heck, even if nobility has it it's dangerous. You can kill with it, you can mind control with it, no state is going to allow this to happen.

Each kingdom has some institution that controls unlicensed use of magic (or Elvish).
Only trustworthy/mind-controlled/properly educated individuals are allowed to learn Elvish anymore, hedge mages/witches/heretics/unlicences mages are brought down and neutralized according to whatever is the usual course of action.

The details will vary between cultures. Similar cultures will have similar institutions and rules. Kingdomes may even share institutions, whether it's a Church or a School of Magic: It may have gained power of its own, because it is (a) absolutely essential and (b) shouldn't be under the control of just one kingdom.

Possibly magic got banned.

Too dangerous in non-Elvish hands, if no elves are around - it must have been a non-problem in the old days, so I guess elves could prevent the danger, by education or maybe they have a way to neutralize magic or the danger.

There are many possible dangers here:

  • Accidents.
  • Addiction. Non-elves tend to lose control over time and become a danger to themselves and the public.
  • Atrocities. Magic was used for genocide (we even lost a sapient race that way, that's why we have lost cities in the jungle), or for large-scale mind control.
  • Side effects. Magic use by non-elves attracts demons (malevolent entities). Elves can deal with these, non-elves cannot (because they talk yet another language that only Elves can learn, or some other reason).

Disadvantages to non-elves.

  • You can't lie in Elvish.
  • Or maybe you can lie so well in Elvish that your lie becomes the truth. Non-elves want some stability in their environment, the land of the elves is pure chaos.
  • Magic turns out to be addictive. Elves can cure that condition and routinely do, but if no elves are around, mages become a danger to themselves. (If they also become a danger to the general public, we have a reason to control magic/Elvish.)
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TL/DR: As usual, we can link magic with such ability as mana.

Nothing comes for free, so to perform a magic act you have to spend some mana, which is a finite resource with slow-speed replenishment (hello, free-to-play games! you're so true!). This is why Elvish-all-the-time speaking may be devastating for non-Elvish races. Because unlike First-borns, they do not feel True Harmony Thrills and have to earn mana hard way, spending hours or even days to recover after each and every chanting.

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Where divergance of languages occurs, The most observed cause throughout history is physical isolation.

Historically, tribal continents IE: Africa and Australia typically had different languages for almost every tribe - The degree of divergence depended on geographical seperation. Tribes that had occasional contact often shared or at least knew some of their neghbouring tribes language, but the less frequently any group of peoples had contact with another, the less shared language there would be between the groups.

In your world, there could be numerous reasons in which races have limited interactions beyond merely the Geographical.

Political:

  • Communist / Capitalist
  • Tensions between nations over resources

Cultural:

  • Different ways of life / cultural values that result in races seeing themselves as being incompatable (Think East vs Western World)
  • Taboos (Inter-race marriages etc)

Religious:

  • Religios factions that believe they are the creators chosen people, Elitism surrounding such views
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  • To talk in secret/code for various reasons such as plotting anything illegal, anything against a neighbouring group/tribe/country.

  • To identify people of your alignment, when a society is so large that you don't know everyone by face it is helpful if they speak 'your' tongue and not someone elses to help identify who they are - You can see this happen to this day in cities where people will use phrases that make no sense in the context being spoken but does make sense to those who know the true meaning (this isn't another language but an adaptation of the meaning of a current one to divulge information)

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