Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Monitors: linguistics

A quick bit of setting for you. It's way too long since I Monitored.

So I thought I'd start fleshing things out with the most obvious starting point: inventing some languages.


Stop looking at me like that.

Languages in Monitors

The classic model for sci-fi settings - and just about every setting, actually - assumes a single lingua franca (Common, or Galactic, or whatever) which everyone can use to communicate. This is (from a certain point of view, although not that of a linguist!) a nice idea, but I think it works a lot better when you're basically dealing with humans with pointy ears and/or wobbly foreheads, who can be believed to have broadly similar vocal apparatus.

Animals are a different story, though; as would aliens logically tend to be. There is huge variation in the kinds of vocalisations animals can produce, based on pretty fundamental bits of physiology like tongue flexibility, existence of vocal chords and the plumbing of the respiratory system. Moreover, some animals don't use oral communication at all, but have other methods of making noise.

I do want to play up the "actual biology" bits of Monitors, as I've tried to do with the reptiles, and so after some thought, I think it makes sense to assume a number of standardised languages based on the noises creatures are physically capable of producing. While systems, planets and countries will continue to have their own languages, which may be completely different from these linguas franca, most creatures with some connection to galactic civilisation will be able to communicate somewhat in their most suitable lingua franca.

For now, I'm just going to call these Lects. I might come up with a better term later on, who knows? Trouble is, I can probably come up with something I enjoy, but not everyone wants to try and pronounce Greek-based linguistic terminology, y'know?

The lects, therefore, are a group of broad standardised formal, well, lects. They are all artificial; each one is a compromise language based simply on the physiological capabilities of groups of creatures, largely on the sounds they are capable of producing and perceiving. Lects are quite flexible, and so different groups of speakers will produce sounds at very different pitches, very different speeds, or sometimes in very different ways - the important thing is that they can produce equivalent sets of sounds in order to communicate systematically. While there will be creatures brought up speaking any given lect, most have another native language (or several) and learn the lect as part of their general education.

Note that the various animal groups mentioned below aren't game-mechanical ones, they're just to give an idea of the kind of creatures I'm thinking of.


Tsiririk is a language of chirrups, twitters and chittering. Many of its speakers have no lips, while others have limited flexibility around the mouth. Speakers include avians, rodentians and cetaceans.


Roowaa is highly tonal, with a large pool of liquids and very few other consonants, as speakers tend to have no fine control of the tongue. Growls, howls and yelps are common. Speakers include canine, feline, simian and ursine creatures.


Hhiishkh is known chiefly for its shortage of vowels, plosives, and other typical features. Its speakers have no vocal chords, and struggle to produce anything other than buzzes, hisses and whirrs. Speakers include many insectoid and reptilian creatures.


Rrrkrr is a highly resonant language, constructed for those creatures whose vocal organs rely on rasps and booms. Anurans are the best-known speakers, but some avians, ruminants and vegetable-based lifeforms are well-suited to Rrrkrr.


Auumn is a consonantless and highly tonal language, consisting of a wide variety of vowels, hums, whistles and groans. Most speakers are from aquatic genera, as such sounds are well-suited to underwater conversation. Speakers include ceteceans, pisceans, bovines, some avians, porcines, some insectoids and proboscideans.


Poachak has the widest variety of consonants, and is used by creatures with highly-developed vocal tracts that can accomodate this range. Most speakers are avians, particularly corvids and psittacines.


Some creatures have very limited ability to produce sound, and rely on patterns of noise rather than the sounds themselves. They include some creatures whose preferred communication is not sound-based, but have learned to grunt or tap out patterns, to gesture rhythmically or to pulse with colour. It is often slow, but some creatures can speak it with astonishing speed. Robots often speak binary, as do cephalopods and some energy-based lifeforms.

As well as lects, there are many local languages. Some are simply local variations (to varying degree) of the lect, while others are completely different and sometimes species-specific.

Oh, and finally...


While conversation between different species can be problematic, there does exist a common written language, used for official purposes throughout most of the known universe. This allows drawing up of treaties and contracts, exchange of science and other important information, and fairly rapid contact between educated individuals who can't physically speak the same language. There are visual, tactile, sonic, thermal and olfactory variants of mesoglyphic that make it readable by just about all intelligent species, and common technology can translate readily between these forms.

Palenque glyphs

Language mechanics

Although the various lects are very divergent, some species have the physiology to learn more than one lect, especially with the use of technology to hear or produce the appropriate sounds. As such, Monitors characters can potentially learn any of the lects. I may decide that Monitors cybernetics includes a vocaliser, issued to all recruits, which allows them to translate their knowledge of a language into the correct sounds. Thus, a chelonian Monitor (normally limited to Hhiishkh or Binary) could study Auumn and Tsiririk, and rely on the vocaliser to actually speak it.

All Monitors characters automatically speak, read and write a native language of their choice. All player characters, and all educated or cosmopolitan NPCs, also speak a related lect at Advanced level. Less educated NPCs may speak their lect at only Conversational level, and a few (especially primitive or isolated groups) speak little or no lect, only their own languages.

Languages (including lects) can be understood at three levels (four, if you include "nothing"): Basic, Conversational and Advanced. These are pretty much what they sound like. Basic allows you a tourist knowledge of the language. Conversational allows you to chat to people comfortably, but you don't understand complex forms of the language like colloquialisms, high literature, ritualistic or archaic forms, and technical terminology. Advanced knowledge means you're fluent and can handle all the intricacies of the language, although of course your abilities are still limited by your education and general knowledge; you may miss the implications of a quote if you don't have the cultural background, or not understand a piece of technical jargon if you haven't studied the subject.

During basic training, Monitors acquire Basic competence in all the lects. They can select four additional ranks of language from across the range available. For other lects and languages, they must rely on translators or technology. Monitors translation technology is somewhat better than ours, but still leaves a lot to be desired, and so only limited communication is possible; there are no Universal Translators.

All Monitors, and educated NPCs, can read and write visual and tactile Mesoglyphic fluently. NPCs with technical or administrative jobs, in any uniformed services, or in cosmopolitan areas, also tend to have fluent or good knowledge of Mesoglyphic. Poorly-educated NPCs may know only a a smattering, and those living in remote areas may not understand it at all.

Using languages

Quite how language works depends on two major things: how much time you have available, and the effects of failure.

Under normal circumstances, no rolls are necessary - you simply understand the language at the level you are capable of.

Given enough time, patience and resources (and potentially willingness to do ridiculous charades) you can increase your effective level by one in terms of the information communicated, although it won't improve people's evaluation of your linguistic ability. You are likely to miss some nuances even so.

If you're not in control of the situation, and trying to deal with information above your competence level, the GM may allow a roll on whatever skill seems appropriate. Examples include:

  • trying to communicate urgently
  • eavesdropping
  • addressing someone who can't ask for clarification

In general, a success will convey a little more information than you could normally manage, but a failure may lead to a misunderstanding. As such, it is often safer to stay within your comfort zone.

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