During our last Worldbuilding post, we explored some of the things that impact the development of a community’s sense of culture and identity, like geography, how they transfer knowledge, and how they feel about other cultures.
Today, let’s look at the way different cultural norms and values are reflected in the language– I don’t just mean the specific languages (Common, Dwarvish, etc.), but the way people communicate with one another. Think about the town where you grew up, and the different ways people act around each other. Are there certain words and phrases that they use that aren’t found elsewhere? You can learn a lot about a community’s culture by listening to the way they speak to one another and you can apply this to worldbuilding as well!
Think about a town in your D&D campaign, or in one of your favourite stories: how do people interact with each other? The way we speak to others can vary greatly depending on the specific characteristics of a town– are people typically more formal or informal with new acquaintances? Is it a very spiritual community, with shared beliefs and practices? Are artistic pursuits valued more or less than practical ones? All of these things can add unique qualities to your PCs and NPCs alike! Here are some examples:
Formality and Familiarity
If a community is more formal and reserved, they may treat newcomers with a sense of cautious respect. More formal greetings and manners of addressing
Conversely, a culture that is more open and relaxed may adopt manners of speech that are informal and relaxed, and you might hear more local slang (‘sup, dawg? No? Ok then…). The way people make small talk can even be different: will general conversation focus on something neutral, like the weather, or is someone more likely to ask personal questions about you and your family? You can see differences such as these between different eastern and western European cultures. For example: communication styles in Poland tend to be a bit more formal than those in Italian communities.
Artistry and Practicality
Is the community pre-disposed to artistic pursuits, or practical ones? Do they value things like poetry, music, and works of theatrical flair? If so, the everyday language may adopt some elements of these artistic tendencies. It may be more descriptive or evocative of emotions and ideals. Perhaps manners of speech are more conceptual, and not necessarily grounded in “what is”, but what “could be”.
On the other hand, if cultural values are grounded more in reality and focused on practicality, people are less likely to mince words with flowery language and more likely to speak in clear, direct terms. It might be far better to “get to the point” than waste valuable time with superfluous phrases. Latin-based cultures might be more descriptive and passionate in their speech, while German and Austrian communication styles are typically more direct.
Spirituality and Superstition
If the culture in question is centered upon the shared belief in a certain deity or set of ideals, then greetings, well-wishes, and colloquialisms will likely reflect that. Do they invoke the name of their god when wishing eachother luck and good fortune? Do they emphasize certain ideals when speaking positively or negatively about something or someone? In the world of Iyastera, it is common to find clerics and followers of Llyr in sea-port cities, and the phrase “May the wind fill your sails” is a frequently-heard blessing amongst sailors.
Superstitions can also be heard in regional languages and communication styles. For example, the numbers four and seven are considered unlucky in Japanese culture due to their close association with the word for “death”, so different names for these numbers are often used. likewise, in North American culture, the number 13 is considered unlucky and you will be hard-pressed to find the 13th floor on any building.
Individuality and Collectivism
A culture that values individualism will highlight the achievements and contributions of specific members of the community, while a more collectivist culture will typically place more value on concepts like teamwork and togetherness. One of the most clear ways you can hear which way a community leans is through the usage of words like “I”, “me” or “my” versus “We”, “Us”, and “our”.
In a more collectivist society, credit for accomplishments will usually be shared by a group and, likewise, responsibility for mistakes will be assumed by the whole team as opposed to one person being singled out for blame. Decision-making will be determined with the interests of the whole in mind, rather than specific individuals. People will be less likely to voice dissenting opinions out of a desire to maintain peace and balance. In an individualistic society, on the other hand, specific people within the community might be highlighted for their deeds a bit differently (whether negative or positive), and it won’t be as odd for someone to go against the grain and speak out against something they disagree with.
If your party is exploring a metropolitan city, they may come across a number of different languages all at once, and certain words and phrases may find their way into conversation in standard Common as well. It also isn’t uncommon to see signs and printed media in more than one tongue. Think about the blending and evolution of local sayings influenced by the diverse languages of the community.
As you can see, language and culture are inextricably intertwined, both in real life and in your
fictional worlds, and you can learn a lot from the way different people communicate with each other! These are just a few examples that you can use to give depth to your settings, PCs, and NPCs! What other examples can you come up with?