Turkish, Mofo–Do You Speak It?

Posted: 8 July 2015 in Settings
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I dived down another rabbit hole this week; languages. It began innocently enough…


In an ideal world, I would generate a planet’s statistics, use them to inform the description, use that to create a gripping adventure, and then select a name which encapsulates all of those in a subtle way. The players would then look back at the end of the adventure and get an "Aha!" moment of the kind readers of the Chronicles of Narnia get when they learn that Cair Paravel means "lesser court", Aslan means "lion", or Jadis means "witch".

The most time-consuming part is selecting the perfect name, but I’m using an existing map whose worlds are already named. So, I decided to reverse the process; find out what the name means, and assign world statistics and tags to match. When I did that, several things quickly became apparent.

First, most of the world names on the map mean something in several languages. This is a good thing as it gives more details for the world description; Ria can mean a drowned river valley, a river, a kiln for drying corn, a moustache or blood, depending on which language you pick, so it’s easy to imagine an agricultural world where the main crop is corn, the men (and possibly women) have luxuriant facial hair, and there is a civil war caused by bloodlines.

Second, if you’re sufficiently creative, you can bias things towards the languages implied by the GM Resources chapter in Stars Without Number: Arabic, Chinese, English, Hindi, Japanese, Russian, and Spanish. Godoro, for example, means "mattress" in Swahili, but most of the countries where it is spoken plan to join the proposed East African Federation, whose official language would be English. That reduces the effort you need to create new resources such as random name tables.

Third, as always in Traveller or SWN, any statistical analysis of the sector is dominated by the few high-population worlds; in this case, the three most heavily-populated planets have 98.3% of the sector’s inhabitants between them, and when you add in the next three biggest populations that rises to 99.7%.


Meanwhile, back in the real world…

Currently there are some 6,000 languages on Earth, of which roughly half are "endangered" and likely to become extinct within the next century; every few months, one of those languages dies out. How many will be left by 3200 AD is anyone’s guess, as is which ones would be spoken in any given sector; you could put up a convincing case for any number of options, maybe “the Latvians sought isolation to preserve the purity of their mother tongue” or “by the time the Hungarians got into space, all the good planets near Earth were already taken” or “only the official languages of the United Nations have survived”.

Whatever the case, we can be pretty sure that the Terran Mandate ruled in English; the main current contender for the position of world language, it’s easier to learn than (say) Mandarin, and it got there first – almost one person in three on Earth speaks English already, and it’s hard to see anything else replacing it with a head start like that.

So when that wretched air recycler breaks down for the third time this week, and you have to read a 600-year old technical manual to figure out how to fix it – that manual is almost certainly written in English. Which you almost certainly learned as a second language for just that purpose. As did the guy who wrote it. Good luck.


Now I have a context to frame my decisions, but there are still several ways I could skin this particular cat.

First, I could say that each planet has multiple languages, one for each language in which its name means something. The people of Kuzu, for example,  would use half a dozen different languages, and there would be 50-100 in the sector at large, more than any PC would ever learn.

Second, I could say that each planet has one official language, and bias those towards the cultures in the SWN GM Resources chapter to save myself some work. In this case the principal languages would be Arabic (Maadin), Japanese (Kuzu), and Turkish (Mizah), with maybe another dozen or so spoken on minor worlds; it’s credible that a PC focussed on linguistics could learn to speak all the languages of the sector.

Third, I could assume a single dominant language, which based on the world names and populations would be Turkish. Traveller fandom has debated how Turkish the rim-spinward region of the Official Traveller Universe is, but I reckon the designers of Dark Nebula had a Turkish dictionary handy when they needed some world names in a hurry – Eski, Hasara, Icat, Kov, Kuzu, Maadin, Mizah, Simsek…

All of those options leave English in the same position; it’s the language of trade and science, because of its dominance in the former Terran Mandate; much the same as today, actually.

At this point, I took a long, hard look at the likely players. As far as languages go, I am the only one who really cares, so any effort I put into linguistics is going to be wasted. I resign myself to option three, and drive on.


So I reluctantly come to the conclusion that yet again, for this campaign, languages don’t matter; if an NPC is trading with you, fixing your ship, or sitting in the control tower telling you where to land, he’s doing that in English, whatever he argues with his mother-in-law in at home. If he’s shooting at you, he’s probably yelling in Turkish, because almost all military forces in the sector belong to the Regional Hegemons – and that’s what they speak. As members of an English-speaking ethnic minority on a Turkish planet, the PCs speak both, and if they need to communicate with, say, a Latvian speaker in a starport bar, a Common Knowledge roll should suffice.

Like interstellar trading, the more I dig into languages, the less my campaigns seem to need them.

Oh, and that thing on TV sci-fi shows where everyone speaks English? Probably true, after all.


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