11 May Are you talkin’ to me? Your Guide to D&D Languages
One of the most valuable assets your D&D character can have in their back pocket is the ability to communicate across languages.
Being able to get information, talk yourself out of a tough spot, or ingratiate yourself with someone are all handy skills to have. Your base language will depend on your race and class, but you can make a case for having varying degrees of fluency in other languages.
Can you learn languages in D&D?
Yes! Character creation is a time to pick which languages your character speaks, but as you grow and evolve in your campaign, you can make progress towards learning new languages.
Just be sure to tell the DM that when you’re getting ready to sleep you spend 1 hour reading your Let’s Learn Goblin textbook!
Work smarter not harder
I’ve seen players put their knowledge of the goblin language to good use and win over a band of goblin marauders; instead of killing them, the party managed to free a group of fairly benign goblins from indentured servitude.
Speaking other languages can remove prejudices from your characters experience, and provide your party with other options other than fight fight fight.
What languages are there in D&D?
Once you’re faced with having to choose a language, what languages your character can speak are first based on your race.
A standard languages table is all well and good, but I’ve also included additional ones in this languages table (exotic in italics):
|Deep Speech||Aboleths, Cloakers||–|
There are also languages with many dialects, for example Primordial Language, which contains the four elemental planes creatures who speak Aquan, Auran, Ignan, and Terran. The speakers of those different dialects can communicate with one another (all listed above).
Who can speak in code? Thieves Cant.
No, that’s not a typo! There exists a secret language which only Rogues have access to. During your rogue training, you were taught a covert series of codes, jargon, and idioms that allow you to communicate with others who can speak thieves cant.
To the untrained ear it sounds like common, or whatever language you are speaking in, because you can hide your true meaning in plain sight right amidst the other words meant to disguise it.
How does Thieves Cant actually sound?
You can get really inventive with it. One example that comes to mind is an episode of Star Trek The Next Generation called “Darmok” (S05E02) in which the crew’s universal translator seems to be functioning normally, but cannot translate the meaning behind a race they encounter.
Even though the words come through translated as English, the crew can’t make sense of it. While the words are all there, the meaning is not; “Temba, his arms wide,” has no meaning to someone who does not speak Darmok.
The verbosity is embiggening
Hiding code words and phrases in amongst regular speech can have a huge advantage. You can signal intentions to someone, plan complex maneuvers even, all while appearing to be having a normal, if somewhat verbose conversation.
It takes four times as long to say something in thieves cant than it does in regular speech, but this is the cost of being all sneaky. The words that someone who has knowledge of the secret language will be paying attention to will be peppered in amongst the regular phrases; it’s not just the words themselves but the way they are said.
Careful not to “nudge nudge, wink wink” too much, or others may catch on to your deception.
Common: “I picked up a shiny apple from the market yesterday, from in front of the swank glassworks. But it had a worm burrowing in it. I had to cut around it and the apple was still fine to eat, but I let the two guards who went to buy something after me know that they need to be careful of that bunch of apples. Not sure if I’ll go back to that stall.”
From that example, someone with knowledge of Thieves Cant would understand: “The glassworks is a lucrative target. We can tunnel in from the market stall out front. There are two guards. Not sure if it’s a good idea or not.”
Sign me up
The words in a code are just the first layer of the complexity in the secret language. How you position your body and even use your hands also have a specific meaning.
The thief in the above example may have been casually picking some ear wax out of his left ear as he was conveying his message. Gross right?
A fellow thief knows this means they are being watched and they best discuss things at a later time. In fact, much of thieve’s cant can be communicated without words.
Simply ordering a type of ale at the right bar in town and leaving the coins on the counter in just the right position could be a simple communication.
What does it mean?
Maybe it’s a confirmation that payment was received? Maybe it is the appropriate sign telling the local thieves an out-of-towner is passing and is not looking for trouble? Well it’s your world you decide!
The words all make sense, but the hidden meaning is only there to someone who knows to look for it. Careful though; present company may include members who you are unaware are trained in thieves cant.
Perhaps those that have regular run-ins with thieves might not be able to decipher the literal meaning of the cant, but have encountered the code enough to know a secret communication has transpired?
With any language, but especially thieves cant, never assume you are the only speaker present. That said, this language is meant to be a boldfaced way of being sneaky in plain sight.
A wise man once said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
Speak friend and enter goes for more than just doors; if you speak to someone in their language you will ingratiate yourself to them.
As ever: good luck; have fun!