Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Goblin doesn't have a word for "friend."

One of the oft-neglected concepts in gaming is of the various languages spoken by player characters and monsters. At most, players who roll well for Intelligence write down a few languages out of the list and periodically remember that they have such a thing. This, of course, becomes an issue when the monsters surrender or the players attempt to parlay instead of fighting. Typically, it's handled relatively simply: PCs with the language get to talk with the monsters.

Personally, I like to have a bit more fun with the concept. The one I've run into most is goblin, which is a great stock humanoid type. The way I figure it, goblins are mostly a savage, uncivilized race who break down into small tribes unless actively enslaved by some higher force, like orcs or hobgoblins. This brings us to the question of what goblin language is actually like.

The first thing about goblin is the counting system. There's really no reason for goblins to have a significant counting system; the exact numbers aren't their concern as much as having a rough estimate. So they have words for one and two, which are pretty much universal, and for "some" (which may vary from goblin to goblin) and "many" (which also varies but is bigger than "some"). This is conveniently frustrating for their interrogators, for whom the difference between 5 and 9 goblins may be more significant. I would expect "some" to be based around the goblin's family or fighting unit, depending on the exact context.

Then there are other fun things. Goblins aren't nice folk. The way I figure it, they probably don't have a lot of words for making nice – as the title of this post says, there's no word for "friend." The closest would mean something more like "goblin of my tribe," with a different word for "goblin of another tribe." A human would mostly be referred to by whether they were a threat, or whether the goblin group could defeat them, or whether they were slavers. No concept of allies and alliances exists, and even attempts at diplomacy would involve threats or admission of weakness. Lofty concepts of "fairness," "equality," "justice" would be boiled down to a handful of ideas - "human nonsense" and "weakness."

Goblin language's richness is one that humans would not prefer - the word for what smells good probably includes a rat on a stick. Threats abound, as do vocabulary for hunting, killing, tunnelling and so on. War is present, but as a permanent condition of goblin society. There is no word for "peace" or even "truce." Likewise, what need is there for a distinction between "earn," "find," and "steal"? If goblins are primarily raiders, and secondarily scavengers, there is fundamentally no difference between them.

This is just a sketch; I think I'll write up a more complete (and definitive, possibly with "translations" for effect) article on goblin speech for the miscellany. Has anybody else done any work on this? Or have any input on what a goblin (or orc, or what you like) language should be like?


  1. This is great, Wayne. I agree about having no word for Peace or Truce, but wouldn't that also mean there is no word for War, since Peace is its absence and Truce is its cessation? Battle or even Fight I can understand, as that is the actual pursuit of War, but by this logic it seems that Goblins are essentially always at War.

    Anyway, very thought provoking and a good deal of fun for Goblin-PC parleying.

    I was struck while reading this that Goblins would normally count a group of non-Goblins by whether or not they outnumbered them. A group which the Goblins outnumber by 2:1 or more might be called "Eat", less than 2:1 and up to even odds might be called "Hide" and those which outnumber the little blighters might be called "Run".

    I see the Goblin Tongue as a very crude and immediate language driven by their constant struggles revolving around survival in the underworld.

    Interesting topic!

  2. Thanks, Dave.

    I actually agree about not having a word for war - only for different levels of war (on hiatus, skirmishes, full-scale war). I think of humanoid existence as basically one where the closest thing you get to "peace" is "attacking them is more trouble than it's worth."

    And yes, thinking in terms of "what can you say in goblin terms?" is very fun when doing gets the players to think more creatively, whether we're talking about interrogation or trying to negotiate not fighting.

  3. Interesting thoughts there.

    One think I always liked about the trolls of Glorantha was that for them the world was dualistic. Everything was either "uz" or "food". It said so much about their attitude. I loved it.

    The language of a race would express a lot of things like that.

  4. You can probably manage simple languages by referring to Basic English and its 850 word list. Take out what you think goblins shouldn't have, add 150 words that goblins care about, and you've got a vocabulary.

    Now come up with some nonsense words that sound goblin-like, and start assigning them as the goblin word for each of the above 1000.

    Then decide on some funky language rules, what kind of writing (if any) they use, and draw up the writing system.

    It's far more than you'd ever need, but it's well within reach if you cared to.

  5. As long as you include "Bree Yark!" on the list, I'll be happy.

  6. I like your point about languages being forgotten by players.

    Goblins play prominantly in my settings as I have a fondness for using them as random encounters, red herrings, even the occasional ally or NPC.

    I have to say though that the goblins in my world, though not having specifics, are very aware of quantitative differences and I haven't made them such warmongers that they have no word for "peace".


  7. This is good solid thinking on language, and very useful for roleplaying. In fact, I'd say you can make more hay with languages defining concepts the race values, doesn't value, and doesn't even consider, than coming up with lists of randomly jumbled syllables.

    I've flirted with this sort of thing myself, and once made life a bit difficult for the players trying to negotiate with a group of humanoids in a goblinish. and therefore being unable to communicate "we come in peace" or "we don't want to harm you".

    Both Draconic and Dwarvish have 100 words for "mine", but for very different understandings of the word in English.

  8. Yeah, it might come out sounding something like, "I'm not going to hurt you very much," or, "I'm only going to hurt you a little".


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