Worldbuilding through Language in 5E D&D
Worldbuilding is a passion for many fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters and many players. Part of what drives this passion is a desire to make a place, a nation, a people or a culture feel alive and turns things like the simple concept of an orc or goblin that player characters sweep aside with swords and spells into cultures deserving of a deeper look. One deeper look to make the world feel more alive is the concept of culture and language to help define a people. Some cultures have a deep understanding of a written language, and others a verbal tradition. They may have customs and beliefs different from ours, but plausible within their own environment. How a people communicate can define how they behave. Their collective understanding of themselves and the world abroad defines itself through language.
Language is a key to worldbuilding 5E D&D cultures
Worldbuilding by this method means DMs taking language and culture seriously, and those considerations may take on aspects the casual gamer may not consider. When it comes to language and culture defining each other we have to look at a few things. What does this culture find important? How long does a member of this species typically live? How does life span affect language? What about the structure of a creature’s mouth? Could they pronounce certain sounds, or could they create new sounds we (as humans) cannot?
Let’s take a look at the common orc. Orcs live no more than three quarters of a century. Their culture is typically based on raiding, war, religion and survival their lives fraught with trials and suffering. Because they lack an agrarian tradition, they would have to hunt, gather and raid just to survive. This means they would be constantly on the move.
Any language they have is likely not a written one. Their mobile lifestyle would mean a language and culture based on an oral tradition. The fact that their lives are already short without the violence would mean a language based on relatively simple concepts. What would make this simplistic array of words define a culture? One possible idea is context. We have languages in our own world with very similar sounds (to our ears) meaning radically different things because of a slight inflection or stress. Context could take the place of this modifier for orcs. What may mean “you need to leave” in one setting might mean “get out!” in another. “I am hungry” in one setting might mean “I have no water” in another. Context, body language, timing, volume and so on could change the same words spoken by an orc from one thing to another.
The structure of their skulls would also affect language. They have tusks. That would affect what letters or sounds they could pronounce. To illustrate this point take your index and pinky fingers and stick them in your mouth between the lower gums and lower teeth right in front of your canines. Now say the alphabet. Movies, TV, video games and the like sometimes overlook with CGI faces unaffected by these factors. The simple fact is lip placement is important, and unless orcs drool 24/7 or are unable to drink water, lip placement is even more important. Tusks affect lip placement, and lip placement and teeth affect language. All of this builds an idea of how orcs speak mechanically and gives clues on how they communicate with each other. Those who speak the language but who are not from the culture might know the words, but the context might become an issue in translation. This should not only be true of orcs, but all species with a language. Culture informs language and vice versa.
With orcs established, let’s look at another humanoid race with who orcs war. No, not elves. Goblins. Specifically hobgoblins. Other well reviewed texts in the realms of D&D describe an afterlife for both orcs and hobgoblins where the two eternally war. Not only do their gods dislike each other in the lore, but their cultures differ quite radically. Orcs are the very nature of chaos and short life, while hobgoblins are rigid and structured. They do not suffer nor give insult, even to enemies. They are longer lived with a military structure in both their private and professional lives, with little to no room for failure. This means their communications would likely be far more literal and formal. Language would have very specific meanings with no desire to have ideas miscommunicated. There must be a written language. Because hobgoblins naturally live longer (both as a species and likely due to a more regimented lifestyle), a written language and structured culture would define them as a people.
Visual clues to their ability to form language are evident as well. Let’s look at the hobgoblin face in the 5E D&D Monster Manual. The nose and jaw structure look feline to me. Whereas orcs take on a lower jaw of a wild boar, hobgoblins would have teeth which might be a mix of cats and humanity. Their sharper teeth and better defined tongue and lip structure might have the capacity for very complex language.
Add their understanding of their own faith, and you could even surmise their language reflects a very complex nomenclature. Based on the established lore, one god of the goblins oppressed the rest. This act of military superiority would have deep meaning to the hobgoblin people. After all their entire culture is martial. Adherence to authority is integral to their understanding of reality, so you can imagine this also affects their language. If that’s the case, then you can draw upon real world examples of how a culture might name themselves based on a faith.
Examining the dress and armor of hobgoblins, there is a very obvious “samurai” aesthetic, whereas the sword shown in the monster manual reminds me of a Chinese dao. For hobgoblins in my own personal game world, I have taken a spin on Mandarin Chinese and added a suffix to their names if they are a practitioner of the established faith of Magubluyet (the chief god of the goblins) to create a unique nomenclature for the people. This idea comes from the Sikh faith where some believers take on the surname of Singh. In the case of hobgoblins, I added “buyet” to the end of a name built on a Mandarin Chinese word, but pronounced in a more western way. The result created a unique and obviously recognizable name. My players who recognized these names responded accordingly, knowing full well they might be dealing with the Red Sun Khanate in my world of Thöll, and thereby adjusted their behaviors based on the expectations of hobgoblin culture.
For example, a very important NPC to my players is a hobgoblin woman named Taijhaungbuyet. This would be pronounced “TIE-zhawng-by-YET” and means “iron shoe, follower of Magubluyet.” You might gather from her name that despite her role as a scout commander she started off very deliberate and clumsy in her training, and this may have inspired or driven her to overcome her name and become the best in her unit at what she did. Language and an understanding of culture in this regard informs this NPC’s story. It turns her from another hobgoblin in armor with a chip on her shoulder to a person with ambitions, goals and needs. She becomes a person, all because of language and better understanding of culture. Her name rolls off the tongue of my players now simply by practice and her relationship with one of the players. They recognize when they do not hear “buyet” and suspect any in the culture without it as a suffix.
This nomenclature informs how their language might be spoken. Since hobgoblins are the most ‘human’ among goblinoids I see them as the basis for the language and culture, with goblins and bugbears each having their own take. Nouns are complex and long, describing the nature of an item. Verbs are short and punchy. Names are very formal. Everything is spoken with precision. Because hobgoblins regard insult as a huge risk this means their pronunciation of other languages would be very technical, likely with hobgoblin annunciation and inflection.
What does all this mean in a game context? For those wanting to really push roleplaying in their games it means simple dialogues can take on more meaning. It means lore takes on substance and players build verisimilitude in your world. Puzzles or player handouts, map keys or descriptions can be presented in a given language, and the like. Not every player is into this sort of deep delve. But for those so inclined, they gain a chance to shine.
Orc language primer
For DMs equally inclined what follows is an incomplete list of the Orc language used at my table. It informs names for orc and half-orcs at my table, place names in orc territory and quick phrases for player characters and NPCs to riff on during game play. It should be noted that orcs are classically misogynist in their own lore, and female orcs and half-orcs in their society typically needed to do more to be recognized. This is reflected in their language where “Kosh” can mean both “female” and “weak/soft.” Some females in this society might embrace this as part of their nomenclature simply to have that extra bit of surprise when they jam a spear in the gullet of a mouthy orc male.
This also gives non-orc players a window into what to expect in orc culture, and how far they have to come. In my own homebrew world, hobgoblins do not share this view on sex or gender, and hobgoblin women warriors take greater joy in educating orc men in the error of this view. In this way language becomes a reflection of world view, giving clues to the outsiders of this culture in what to expect or perhaps what to exploit. Following is an example of the Orc language used at my table.
- Ko – do or make
- Ki – (pronounced “KEE”) – have or possess
- Jo – think or head
- Vey – go
- Bekki – break
- Mek’na – attack or strike
- Kon’ey – made to go (used for flee, escape or exile depending on context)
- Kosh – person, female/feminine (also as derogatory for soft or weak)
- Cho – you or they (typically 2nd or 3rd person singular)
- Choo – they (plural)
- Chak – that or those (object/place)
- Nek – negative or no
- Hala – positive or yes
- Mabekki – the self-professed will to destroy or kill; aggression.
- Sha – me, mine or myself
- Shee – we or us
- Rek – person, male
- Ka – is, am or to be
- Ma’ak – very, much or more
- Shaan – shameful or sorrow
- Sebak – always or forever
- Ma – person
- ‘b – (suffix) ownership. Example: “Sha’b” – mine/ownership. Adding “‘b” to “Cho” (Cho’b) makes “you” mean “yours”
- ‘ng – (suffix) want or need (arguably the same among orcs). Examples: Sha’ng, Cho’ng; syllables pronounced distinctly (e.g.”sha -ng”)
- Bek – break, destroy or kill
- Uk – (pronounced OOK) – the dirt or earth in its simple form; mud or sand
- Ju’uk – stop or halt
- Go’benga – dwarf, gnome…they’re all the same to orcs
- Nah – night or dark
- Lugh – light or sun
- Rhissa – forest
- Nahrhissa – drow
- Lughrissa – surface elf (any…they’re all the same)
- Thish – water
- Lak – sickness or infection
- Zhosh – hook or grapple
- Vong- burn or fire
- Ju’nt – defend
- Go – small or half
- Benga – dig
- Shoo – then, after or following
- Vazhu – look, examine, view
- Fesh – consume/eat/drink
- Chunga – big, strong, important
- Kerr – dog or dog like
- Kerlak – gnoll
- Shishka – stealth, quiet or subtle
- Pa-goosh – forget or forgot
- Zhesh – grab or take
- Rash – raid or pillage
Some practical examples come from how I’ve actually (yes, for real) spoken this made up language around my own home.
Cho’k ka ko fesh. “You need to go and do eating and drinking.” Actual translations based on context, body language, what I am holdingand the inflection or stress in my voice:
- “It supper time. Come eat.”
- “Take your medications.”
- “Have a drink!”
Using quick and punchy phrases at your own game table like this can completely change meaning depending on context, so things like voice volume, inflection, eye contact and body language take on greater meaning. I invite other DMs and players to experiment with languages like this. You do not need to have a full language built. A series of rules on names might be enough, or a series of hand signals used across the table in conjunction with a spoken word. Language means many things to many people. Have fun with it.