Series Info...Playing with History #17:

The Peculiarities of Language

by Michael Karlin

"To hate a man because he was born in another country, because he speaks a different language, or because he takes a different view on this subject or that, is a great folly."
- John Amos Comenius

A year ago, I was reading a website that listed the European languages that are in severe decline such that they were expected to be extinct within the next four to five generations. It approximated the communities still speaking the old dialects, and I was surprised to find significant albeit dwindling communities speaking archaic languages such as Livonian, Old Provencal and Cornish Gaelic. But these are languages lagging in a time where the world's cultures are converging on one another. Thirty years ago, the ATM machines in Toronto did not ask if you wanted a receipt in seven different languages.

Language says much about the development of a culture. Words exist in some languages that do not exist in others, and certain languages are more descriptive of the lot of culture than others. As examples, I point to the Inuktitut phenomenon of having scores of words describing different grades of snow, and the amount of adjectives in the Yiddish language describing various states of misery. As any Canadian will know, but surely this exists elsewhere, languages rally and even define minorities within a country. This may lead to political conflict. In Northern Ireland, the Catholic minority often uses Gaelic as a means of differentiating themselves from their Protestant brethren, and thus the language itself, one far more ancient than the civil strife that plagues the region, becomes a tool of politics and identity. In Turkey, the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the transition period that immediately followed was symbolised by Attaturk's decision to change the Turkish language to one that used the Latin alphabet rather than the Arabic one. Many authors argue that before 1848 and the great Spring of Nations whereby minorities throughout Europe rose up against their colonial masters, there was no equivalent to the modern definition of "ethnicity," and different peoples were defined in linguistic or religious terms.

This is a sort of conflict that is incredible to analyse, because of the fundamental nature of what language represents: the expression of one's perspective of the world. While I believe that one should take Comenius' quote above to heart, I also believe that the conflict that arises with differences in language, or at least recreating the symbolism of different languages, can be a very interesting aspect to add to a persistent game world. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to recreate this incredible force of history in the confines of a computer game, much more so than religion, economics or any other intangible mechanism used to fuel change in the world. Especially if you choose a more ancient setting, you cannot possibly expect to have a market that speaks ancient Nubian. If your game requires the working knowledge of two languages, your target market will shrink immensely, although since moving to Europe I have since learned that it would not shrink completely given the amount of people who speak several languages. Are there many ways to sidestep this barrier, or is this just one more unfortunate sacrifice one must make for playability? I am not so sure.

In Castle Marrach, the language question is approached quite ingeniously, as it works on the limited theory that to a person who hears a language in which they are completely unfamiliar, that language will sound like utter gibberish. Yes, they will be able to identify sounds, or prominent syllables, but otherwise the listener will not be able to understand anything at all. In order to prevent the knowledge of languages through linguistic similarity, such as a Swede's ability to "pick up" aspects of Norwegian given the similarities of the languages even though this Swede does not formally speak Norwegian, the languages in question are seemingly unrelated to one another. Technically, any game can utilise this system, although the languages are generated by a computer using syllables rather than grammar, and as such it does not recreate the "language representing culture" phenomenon I described earlier. Languages are used as symbols of class, a trade or professional membership.

In Glory of the Nile, there will be several languages a character will be able to learn, such as the Nubian language. A staff member went through particular strains to research elements of those ancient languages and accurately recreate the syllables and sounds used in them, but of course the language as they will exist in the game will not sound anything like Nubian as spoken. We are working on a computer game, after all, not translation software. However, since many ancient civilisations were small in size and population, it was not uncommon for them to "specialise" in certain trades or professions in order to ensure survival for their tribe. Minoan, therefore, will be an integral language for one wanting to become merchants, and Nubian for those interested in warfare.

One idea mentioned to me, an idea that will not be implemented in Glory of the Nile but interesting to include here, is that upon character creation, one would select their nationality/linguistic group (depending on the era) and automatically speak that mother tongue. While this would create separate communities within one gaming environment, I think it would adequately represent the distrust that evolves with differences. As well, this would create a third class (supposing there were but two groups) of people who learn the other or opposing language as a political commodity, with benefits and drawbacks. Of course the tone of such a game would be much different than the tone we are crafting for Nile.

Languages are much more important than I originally assessed them to be when I first started the game, and their effect on history is undeniable.

[ <— #16: Sensitivities and Perceptions | #18: Theocracy 101 —> ]

Recent Discussions on Playing with History: