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In many fantasy worlds, there is a "common" language spoken by the majority of all races. While there can be some dwarfs who reject to speak common and speak only dwarf, in many worlds these are a minority.

Setup: I have generic medieval world, where there are elves, dwarfs, hobbits, trolls and humans. Humans and hobbits speak common language, while all other races speak their own language.

There is a city operated by humans which is used by all races for trade purposes. What language do people speak in this city?

Looking in Earth history, if the ancient cultures did meet and did trade, they did still use their languages. For instance ancient Thera is believed to be a place where people could understand up to 9 languages.

Is it plausible for a fantasy world to use one language as majority? And if no, what would make using just one language (as major one) plausible?

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    $\begingroup$ Possible duplicate: Would it be possible for a Earth-sized world... $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Nov 11 '15 at 12:58
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    $\begingroup$ lingua francas are almost systematic among any group of different mother tongues. Be it greek, latin, arabic, french, english, depending on the ages and places. That because people always trade and exchange, and they need to communicate to do that. $\endgroup$ – njzk2 Nov 11 '15 at 21:11
  • $\begingroup$ If only humans and halfings speak it, it's not really "the common language". They just happen to speak the same language. $\endgroup$ – Erik Nov 19 '15 at 6:38

12 Answers 12

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I'd argue that any realistic world has to have different languages - its simply the way civilisation develops. Take the UK for example. Geordie and Scots are very nearly different languages to English - very strong dialects eventually become different languages.

It's perfectly reasonable to have a Lingua Franca, that a lot of the races speak. In the setting you describe, assuming the city you're speaking of is a major (or the major) trading partner, its not unreasonable to expect that the majority of visitors to the city will have a degree of fluency. Equally, its not beyond the realm of possibility to have elvish or dwarven speakers speaking a mix or a strongly accented version of the common language, similar to Spanglish or Wenglish.

In fact, Welsh is an interesting one because its very different to English, and is a good example to look at in terms of minority languages - should you have a similar issue in the world you're creating.

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    $\begingroup$ Or compare something like Swedish and Norwegian; they are actually close enough to each other to practically be dialects, but they are considered different languages. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Nov 11 '15 at 13:21
  • $\begingroup$ Indeed - this might be good if you have a division in your "races" - like Wood Elves vs River Elves, or Deep Dwarves vs Mountain Dwarves. $\endgroup$ – Miller86 Nov 11 '15 at 13:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Miller86 Being the type of person I am, I just want to point out that Spanglish is not a language. It is a person talking in two different languages. $\endgroup$ – Xandar The Zenon Jan 17 '16 at 2:03
  • $\begingroup$ Spanglish is someone speaking in two different languages, just as wenglish is, (wenglish being the one I have more experience with). I agree, its not a language, but I'm not sure of the correct nomenclature! $\endgroup$ – Miller86 Jan 18 '16 at 9:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Miller86 The word you're looking for is "pidgin." $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Jan 24 at 19:54
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To have a worldwide "common tongue" is unlikely, given the difficulty of transport and communications in a medieval world. The people on one side of the planet don't even know what manner of creatures live on the other side of the world, let alone what language is spoken there. However to have a regional common tongue is very likely, in fact almost inevitable.

However the implausibility of a worldwide lingua franca might evaporate if your world has magical means of instantaneous communication or transport. The effects of a telepathy spell on your world would be similar to the effects of telegraph, radio and the internet on our world. The world would be much more culturally unified, and one language would probably become a global lingua franca, as English is becoming on our world. Instantaneous transport by teleportation spell would take this unifying process even further than in our world.

There are previous questions on Worldbuilding Stack Exchange similar to yours here and here.

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  • $\begingroup$ The question was about a common language in one city. $\endgroup$ – Burki Nov 11 '15 at 10:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Burki , the latter part of the question refers to one specific city, but I understood the first two paragraphs to refer to the common if implausible fictional scenario of a whole D&D or LotR -style medieval world where everybody speaks "the common tongue" in addition to their species or alignment language. $\endgroup$ – Lostinfrance Nov 11 '15 at 10:40
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There are thousands of languages, which can be grouped into few dozens of families, on Earth with just one sapient species and it used to be even more when there were much fewer people living on this planet. That means, you just need a couple of tens or hundreds of thousands of speakers to establish a language and keep it alive, as long as they are living close enough together and don’t get (re-)assimilated by a larger culture. A fantasy world where all members of one species speak the same native language is unrealistic, especially if they are spread across several large habitats and when there is no means of instantaneous communication and travel.

In a trade city or in any other agglomeration with strong ethnic diversity, there will certainly be a dominant auxiliary language (“lingua franca”) which is spoken and understood to some degree by almost everyone. Usually it will be the one of the majority of inhabitants or the one of the (maybe former) local or regional power. Most pidgins that develop in such scenarios tend to be relatively short-lived due to their adhoc nature, but some become proper creole languages. Note that there are often also special-purpose languages, e.g. sacral and sign languages, that are used in parallel by some people.

Since different fantasy species may have very different physical properties from one another, their vocal and auditory systems may favor certain phonemes and phonetic patterns that are hard or even impossible to pronounce or hear for members of some other species. On the one hand, this will result in characteristic dialects when speaking the same language, and on the other, it should favor separate languages for separate species. That is even more so if species evolved and lived in separate regions until quite recently. After they have lived together for a couple of hundred years (or more than a handful of generations) they will probably share common languages.

In a book, the major in-world language will usually surprisingly equal the native tongue of the author. There are some authors who actually pretend to have just translated the book from its original fantasy language. Either is okay, but it may be more disturbing in film and other visual art: seeing English written in the roman script on signs in Middle Earth (in the LotR movies), for instance, can be off-putting, especially if you watch the film dubbed in another language.

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  • $\begingroup$ That's a really good point about how the different vocal and auditory systems of different fantasy species might cause dialect divergence. For instance you sometimes see orcs depicted as having tusks. This would certainly affect their ability to make certain sounds. $\endgroup$ – Lostinfrance Nov 11 '15 at 17:22
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A common language would be based on the language of either the historically dominant people or the most expansive and trade-oriented people. Depending on the extent of the contact between all peoples involved it might grow into a simple trade language only used for traveling and trading, or a complete one usable in every facet of daily life.

With slow travel and no mass media, the odds of a common language being spoken by every random villager is very low in a medieval type world, as there just isn't that much contact outside one's village. Along trade routes and especially in cities with mixed populations, the common language would be more well-known.

For people to know a second language, the following need to be true:

  1. There is a pressing need to learn it or formal education is mandatory
  2. There is education / training available (whether at home, in a guild, etc)
  3. There is enough exposure to the language to practice and keep it current

Let's take two small villages along the border between elf and troll lands.

In the elf village, there is a school where all children learn the human and troll languages. The parents force them to practice the human language by only conversing with them in human for a month of their lives. They find troll too harsh/distasteful to speak it much. The local leader often meets with his troll counterpart, as do the traders.

In this village, everyone will understand and speak a decent amount of human but despite the proximity will only be able to barely make themselves understood in troll, with only the leader and traders having a need to keep up their troll.

On the other side, the troll children learn from their parents as they accompany them to work every day. The farmers, bakers, millers etc. speak only troll, since they have neither a need nor an opportunity for learning any other language. There are some exceptions:

  • The village elder speaks a little human but no elf, since the elf leader and messengers all speak troll.
  • The innkeeper on the other hand speaks decent human, elf and some dwarf, since he gets travelers from all those groups. He is also called on by the village merchant and blacksmith to speak with customers.
  • The village healer is fluent in elf, since she's had much interest from the elf healer, who has taken it upon himself to teach her and her daughter.

Without universal education, the troll villagers only learn other language on an individual basis, preventing any common language from spreading.

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I think that this is very plausible. Think of how it happens today in the real world (in fact right here and now):

People all over the wold speak different languages, like me, I am a German, others are British, Chinese, etc. and we all have different languages. But as we need to interact witch each other and work together, we need a way to communicate. This is done by agreeing on a common language - here on SE and many other places it is English.

In your fantasy world, this is very much the same. You have different species, just like we have nationalities, that need to cooperate:

There is city operated humans which is used by all races for trade purposes.

You ask:

What language do people speak in this city?

I would say probably human, as it is the main local presence - but it could be anything, that the community agrees on really.

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  • $\begingroup$ I accept different species speaking the same language, but why different nationalities since they rarely cross paths? e.g. Middle-Earth's humans may speak the same as Middle-Earth's dwarves, but why would they speak the same as North-Earth's dwarves? $\endgroup$ – colmde Nov 12 '15 at 13:31
  • $\begingroup$ Not all of them, but the ones that need to. Traders, travelling between the lands need to communicate with locals. As mentioned, think of the real world. China and the US are to very different, but most inhabitants of both speak english. Why? Because they need to. There is a lot of business between them, and this would never work without a common base of communication (or lingua franca, the official term mentioned in another answer) $\endgroup$ – T3 H40 supports Monica Nov 12 '15 at 13:48
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For the people in your city it seems most plausible that the common language will be that of humans.

Since your setup suggests that since the city is run by humans, one can assume that at least in the beginning, humans formed the vast majority of the population. Those humans spoke the same language.
Over time, members of the other races migrated to your city. While it is possible that they kept their own language, it seems fair to assume that they also learned the language of the city people.

So, it seems likely that you will end up with one language that is common to the vast majority of the inhabitants, regardless of their race. But the members of the different races will still speak their native languages, especially with other members of their race, particularly when they would prefer "outsiders" not to understand (so easily).

Take a look at any of the large cities today: you have a common language (almost) everybody speaks to some degree, and the different ethnic groups often still speak their native language (to some degree) within their group.

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It is very unlikely for a "common spoken language"---which is also within general every-day use---to develop in any continent, or world.

Far more likely is that a non-verbal "trade language" would develop, which would see use mainly when different peoples came together to trade goods, on the pattern of the Native American "world." This "trade language" had been developed to be non-verbal, to get past how nuances of pronunciation, one language to another, would render many spoken words very difficult if not impossible to understand, when pronounced by persons of different tribes.

The "Native American sign language" had evidently come about as a trade language, originally, and very early narratives by Caucasian explorers had often remarked how persons from tribes whose "ranges" were separated not only by hundreds of miles, but also in many cases by physical barriers such as the Mississippi river, or areas under control of hostile tribes, had been able to communicate with one another by "signs."

The Caucasian observers had often viewed the use of a sign language as amazing; virtually bordering on "magic," in some cases. Their initial amazement and even misgiving hadn't interfered with their eagerness to adopt the new sign-language, however!

"Indian signs" had no nuances of pronunciation, such as are seen when comparing many, many modern examples---there are vast differences in word-pronunciation when comparing Northern vs. Southern states; those Eastern vs. Western regions; the Left-Atlantic vs. Right-Atlantic countries; and even those Northern-Hemisphere vs. Southern-Hemisphere countries.

Most of these differences in English pronunciations also exist at a time of major trade and human inter-action; when it's common for people to hear, see, and often even befriend, speakers from other areas. With so much inter-regional communication going on, one might assume people would work actively to minimize pronunciation differences. Instead, the opposite seems the case, with people celebrating the "roots," and the "heritage," of their different areas-of-birth.

The same great differences in pronunciation are evident in other languages that have now grown to span oceans. At times, it's extremely difficult for an "Old World" speaker to understand what's being said by a "New World" speaker, and there are no signs that any steps are being taken to make the "dialects" easier to understand.

Modern onlookers must not imagine that "Indian sign language" was in any way inferior to a spoken tongue: Complex thoughts could be communicated; not merely information relating to the various quantities and relative values of goods.

It also showed the ability to very rapidly evolve, as seen by the speed by which signs had been created, and had evolved, to include new-comers, (such as Caucasians) and Christian clergy; and to include new Caucasian technologies, such as firearms and ammunition.

The same general "evolution" of a sign-language to take the place of a spoken dialect to allow foreigners and traders to communicate with far-flung peoples has been seen in South America, along the Amazon.

The development of similar sign-languages had been seen in other places where traders or explorers had sought to communicate with widely-separated tribes of groups of people---Africa is the most obvious example, but similar use of sign-languages had been seen along the various island-chains in the Pacific-- space does not allow detailed investigation.

In the end, vagaries of pronunciation effectively rule out there being the evolution of any SPOKEN "trade-language" on such a world.

It would be extremely unlikely for distantly-related "races" or "species" such as "Humans" and "Dwarves" to share very much of a language-base, as well! At one time, there had been well over a hundred Native American "Tribes" on the Continent, and there had been dozens of "Tongues" that were shared by many (BUT NOT ALL!) tribes, within an "alliance," or "Confederation." This was the case, world-wide.

We have no blueprint for any single wide-spread language existing. Historically, it was the case that community leaders---shamans or chiefs---would be fluent in two to four regional languages: Those languages of their own tribe, plus brother-tribes or sister-tribes, of applicable; plus the languages of the neighboring tribes . . . who were often counted as their foes, unfortunately.

A Shaman or Chief might be fluent in half a dozen languages, but this would probably not "get him very far" so to speak, on the ground.

That is why many, if not most, members of almost every tribe in North America were fluent in "Sign Language."

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  • $\begingroup$ The OP asks for a common language in one city, not throughout the world. $\endgroup$ – Burki Nov 19 '15 at 8:45
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As highly unlikely as a common language would be, it would be possible in theory for there to be a language that makes learning it and other languages much easier.

In our real world, we have Esperanto, which was developed specifically so that it would be a common tongue of the world, and make learning other languages easier to do.

Although it didn't succeed, with only an estimated two million speakers worldwide, you are the ultimate arbiter of what goes and doesn't go in your universe, and therefore can declare that there's a successful example in your world. You could say that there's an international auxiliary language that's easy to learn and makes the learning and comprehension of other languages easier. Then, you could declare that to be the closest it gets to a common language.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding Dead Knight! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Sec SE - clear Monica's name Mar 15 '18 at 15:10
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The only reason for a common language I could imagine would be some shared history. This could be a common religion, which forces everyone to read their holy scripture in the original language (e.g. like in Islam). Else there would be pidgin languages e.g. for trade, but it is hard to see how a "global" language could develop in this scenario.

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    $\begingroup$ Arabic is an interesting language because it is common only in written form. People in the Arab world who can write to each other, may not be able to converse on a telephone or face to face. The same is also true of Chinese. $\endgroup$ – nigel222 Nov 11 '15 at 14:25
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It is possible, but depends upon your world history. If you assume Earth as an analogue, then you had common languages among different cultural groups only after a conquest. So you get Latin in Europe, Arabic through the middle east, Chinese Asia. Absent such a conquest, you have much less commonality, for example, North America pre-European conquest (but post conquest, you have Native Americans speaking French and English, so there you go.

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  • $\begingroup$ I wouldn't say that a common language or lingua franca only results from conquest. I don't think that's true of Swahili in East Africa, for instance. Sanskrit spread through religion. Although the spread of English obviously started with the settlement/conquest of North America and the British Empire, nowadays it is spreading without conquest. $\endgroup$ – Lostinfrance Nov 11 '15 at 17:28
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I will disagree with consensus here for one main reason. Fantasy worlds tend to be tiny. A mid-sized real world country will have millions of inhabitants, hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of land, hundreds if not thousands of cities, all (usually) speaking mostly the same language.

If your entire world consists of a few hundred cities or less, it is entirely plausible that all races have homogenized into a single "common" tongue (though they may keep using their hometown amongst each other language as a point of racial pride).

If your world is more comparable to Earth in size, then their certainly will be many different languages, but it is entirely possible (I would even say likely) that a de facto language of trade would eventually develop, similar to the status that English enjoys on Earth.

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Learning a new language is governed by need. If you don't have to learn any language other than your own in order to exist, most people won't bother, barring the occasional eccentric. I think that unless one faction conquered the known world at some point, it's unlikely that a global language would develop other than a possible 'de-facto trading language'. My reasoning below.

One of the most common needs that pop up is trade. If you want to trade with someone, you can manage with gestures and pointing for a while, but you'll quickly start trying to pick up a few words to ease the process. If you want to move on to more complex trade such as agreements or orders, you'll really have to have a common language. Typically, this would be the language of the party that has the most power, either trading power or military power. Unless this trade is important enough that the majority of the people are involved in it, most people still won't have a need to learn this new language: they can trade with the trader, who will then trade with the foreign party.

Another good reason would be conquest. If you're conquered by another nation, they will probably insist that at least part of the populace learn their language, since otherwise governing matters are complicated.

As for a common language spanning an entire world, this would require either one power being so dominant that its reach spans the larger part of that world, or some sort of unobtainium that can only come from one place but is used globally.

For a real-world parallel to the first, look at English. English is spoken throughout the world because for a long time their reach spanned a large part of the globe and they were a dominant force in global trade at the time.

In the second case, it's still unlikely that the entire population of the world will speak the common language, but it is likely that this language will become the dominant language since only the traders really need to speak it. Since trade with the party that has the unobtainium is so important though, one can expect every trader to know the language, which can lead to all trade being conducted in that language as a matter of convenience: learning that one language allows you to trade with any people without having to learn their specific language.

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  • $\begingroup$ The OP was asking for a common language in one city $\endgroup$ – Burki Nov 19 '15 at 8:46

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