Creoles in Eberron

Imagine this situation. Your party sets off from Korth on a little-used lightning rail headed south. You travel for hours, perhaps most of a day, and disembark on a crude platform with drifted sand on the sides. Ahead of you is a small Talenta village, inhabited by halflings in bright tribal dress leading around exotic beasts by rawhide bridles. In the furnace-hot air is the strong smell of spiced food and the jarringly dissonant tones of the reed flutes that accompany the halflings' drum circles. Before you take two steps, you are surrounded by a crowd of eager tribesmen, ready to show you around this strange town where you are very much an outsider. They shout rapid, staccato sentences at the party as they vie for patronage, using their native language… Common.
This foreign scene is different in every way from the large city, a capital of one of the Five Nations, which you just left. Well, every way except that they are speaking the exact same language as in Korth. Sure, there may be an accent and maybe some of the slang is different, but does this really create the scene you were hoping for? This is a little like British explorers traveling up the Niger River for days to encounter jungle tribes who speak only slightly differently than they do, or Chinese sailors sailing south to the Philippines for trade and discovering that the people there speak Mandarin with some variant names for local fruits.
The idea behind the language selection in D&D Fourth Edition is clear, to reduce the burden on DMs and players alike by limiting the number of languages, but sometimes this admirable goal creates situations that are not convenient. Sometimes you want players to feel a little lost and even to reward some character who has a strong connection to the place. If you have a Talenta tribesman in the hypothetical party above, it seems a bit cheap to have everyone else in the party navigate his homeland just as well as he does. How frustrating that would be, especially when they travel from there to the much more civilized and connected Zilargo where the gnomes are speaking Elven and the party is facing language barriers a hundred times more serious than in the remote and exotic Talenta plains. A determined DM could easily create a Halfling language to fix things but this raises as many issues as it solves. Should players be able to take it retroactively? Do halflings in the big cities speak this language at home? How can you ask players to take Halfling which is useful for a week of story time at the expense of not taking Elven, Goblin, or some other very useful language?
The idea of this article is to propose the use of creoles as a way of adding more language barriers to D&D without adding more languages. The term "creole," as explained below, refers to a stable, unique language that is easily identified as an amalgam of two other languages. Widely-spoken characters might already know how to use some of these languages and so they have no need to sacrifice their language choices just to get by but DMs can still create alienating situations for their players in alienating cultures.

What is a Creole?

A creole language, or simply a creole, is a stable language that has originated from a pidgin language that has been nativized (that is, taught to children). The vocabulary of a creole language consists of cognates from the parent languages, though there are often clear phonetic and semantic shifts. On the other hand, the grammar often has original features but may differ substantially from those of the parent languages.
Originally a term from French used to describe colonial dialects which were considered "improper" speech, the term today is applied to any language which fits the definition above, no matter what the parent languages are. Real world creoles include Haitian creole and other combinations of French and African languages; the original form of Swahili, which began as a trade language for Arabic merchants in East Africa; Spanish-based Chavacano widely spoken in the Phillipines; and English-based creoles spoken in Hawai'i, Belize, Jamaica, and Australia.

How Does This Work in 4E?

The first thing to remember is that there are no rolls. Languages are meant to be simple in 4e and this page assumes that this is always the goal. Below are several things to keep in mind to create the feeling of "otherness" the DM hopes to achieve, all of which should be fairly intuitive.
Requires knowledge of two languages.
If a character knows both parent languages that contributed to a creole, he can understand and communicate in that creole without incident. A goblin character, for example, who speaks both Common and Goblin well can understand any of the goblin ghettos he may enter in Korth or Sharn. Most members of the party, however, who speak only Common can manage just the basic gist of the conversation. The goblin NPCs may switch to pure Common (or pure Goblin) if they recognize that they are not completely understood, though a DM who wants to emphasize the foreign feeling of the goblinoid neighborhood might decide that these goblins don't know standard Common and are doing all they can already.
Partial understanding is one-way.
Though they can understand generally what is being said to them, someone who knows only "half" of a creole (that is, only one of the constituent languages) cannot communicate fully back. They will sound just as strange to the creole-speaker as they perceive his speech to be. In game terms this means that any language-dependent effects are unusable as long as the speakers are not speaking the same form. This includes Bluff checks to tell lies, most Diplomacy checks, and Intimidate checks that rely on verbal threats. A DM should arbitrate these on a case-by-case basis and the effect is identical to two creatures without a common language. Note that, just as with situations where a common language doesn't exist, non-verbal uses of Bluff and Intimidate that rely on body-language are unaffected.
Creoles are generally only verbal.
In the real world, creoles are usually reserved only for speaking and any written material or formal speech will rely on the more "standard forms." In a half-elf community, for example, someone might face language issues walking down the street but find that all of the signs are written in standard Common. However, signage might be written in the standard form of either parent language depending on the community. In border areas it is not uncommon to see a steady progression from one language to the other, allowing someone to measure their proximity to another nation by linguistic clues.

Advanced Rules

Keeping things simple is a good idea but if you want to get a little more tricky, the following are suggestions for throwing even more curveballs at the PCs.

  • Obfuscation: While it's usually possible for characters fluent in only one parent language to discern what's being said, native creole speakers may try to be secretive and speak quickly or in local idioms so as to confuse outsiders. An orc trader with something to hide may try to use his Giant-Common creole to talk to his compatriot so that not even the half-orc PC can follow what's being said. This requires a Bluff check opposed by Insight checks from any charactes fluent in both constituent languages. A successful Bluff means that the speaker runs sufficient interference to prevent eavesdropping. Speakers who gained both parent languages from their racial options receive a +5 bonus to this roll.
  • Speaking like a Native: Even characters who are native speakers of both parent languages cannot speak a creole effortlessly. If a character who is fluent in both parent languages wishes to try to speak like the native-creole population, he must make a Streetwise check. Speakers who gained both parent languages from their racial options receive a +5 bonus to this roll.
  • Learning a Creole: In campaigns where creoles play a big roll, or for characters who want to emphasize their exotic origins, DMs may allow players to "take" a creole as if it were any other language. The easiest solution for this is to treat all the rules above as two-directional. A character who speaks a Dwarven-Common creole can understand with effort what's being said to him in Dwarven but can't use any language-dependent effects. Because he is a native, however, he automatically beats any Bluff rolls made to prevent eavesdropping by using a creole and does not have to make any sorts of rolls to speak like a native.

Example Creoles

The following are creole examples that DMs can include in their Eberron campaigns to create exotic atmospheres. Most are on the fringes of human civilization but others might be in the slums of Sharn.

Argon (Riedran-Draconic)

In the rules, Argon is already a separate language spoken by Seren barbarian tribes and dragonborn in other locations. It is possible, though, to treat it as a creole, a combination of the Riedran-like language spoken by human immigrants to Argonnessen and the Draconic language dragonborn tribes they would have met. Someone who speaks Draconic then would be able to pull out some meaning from a conversation in Argon but the "dialect" would be very strange and mixed with some exotic language. This also works for a language common in the jungles of Q'barra where dragonborn tribes mix with speakers of [Old Common] from Lazhaar.

Azhani (Goblin-Riedran)

The Shadow Marches are a melting pot of races, colonized by successive waves of Gatekeeper orcs, Dhakaani goblins, and humans pushing ever-westward in their settlement of Khorvaire. The orcs maintain their own culture and remain independent, but the mixture of goblins and humans which gave rise to the river port of Zarash'ak has resulted in a fusion language called Azhani. A complicated mixture of grammar with many exceptions and peculiarities, Azhani is difficult to master and limited in the topics which can be discussed easily, which is just as the people of Zarash'ak like it. Whether human traders, goblin rogues, or Tharashk negotiators, they often want a way to communicate without travelers from the Five Nations or tribesman of the orc settlements knowing what they are saying.

Bakyir (Common-Deep-Speech)

While cultures such as the duergar, githyanki, and githzerai are unmistakably alien, you may wish to remove them from other races of Khyber who serve the daelkyr lords willingly. Bakyir is a language which grew out of a trade-tongue with the people on the surface in rare situations where that world met with humanoid colonies in Khyber. As it developed, Bakyir began to spread to other colonies of githzerai and duergar who wished to speak something other than the debased Deep Speech of their former masters. This language continues in some areas where it can be used to speak privately from speakers of either parent language and Bakyir has developed a highly idiomatic grammar so that even those who can pick out a few unchanged words will lose the true meaning of a conversation in Bakyir.

Gutterspeak (Goblin-Giant)

The self-deprecating name that speakers pick for this language disguises its impressive utility and the subtle threat that it poses to the human hierarchies of the Five Nations. In the cities of Khorvaire, displaced and disenfranchised populations of goblinoids and Giant-speakers like orcs, ogres, and Droaamite minotaurs band together in the lower class neighborhoods. They bridge their language barriers with a language forged from the two main language groups, as well as some loanwords from gnoll dialect of Abyssal and even Deep Speech. Of course this unity is seen as a threatening precursor to revolts and rebellion to many community leaders in the Five Nations. Some particularly hard-line leaders in Thrane and Karrnath even outlaw its use which only serves to increase the importance of the language's power.

Liotian (Elven-Common)

Sometimes called Khorovar, this creole language developed in the city of Thaliost which boasted a large pre-war half-elf community. The language filtered back to the Lyrandar holdings in Stormhome and the Medani fortresses in Wroat where they found fertile ground in these strong Khorovar communities. When Thaliost became a common target during the Last War, refugee populations set off down the many varied arms of Scions Sound. Liotian communities already existed in the Five Nations, particularly in the city of Fairhaven, and their characteristic language has only strengthened with the displacement of Liotian culture.

Old Common (Riedran-Common)

Though the name is somewhat inaccurate, this language is somewhat similar to the language that Lazhaar settlers originally brought with them from Sarlona. It is hardly the same language but it exists somewhere between Galifaran Common and Riedran, mostly by being constantly pulled between trade languages on both sides of the Bitter Sea. Spoken in the Lazhaar Principalities, Old Common has also disseminated back to some seaside neighborhoods in Korth and in Q'barra from Lazhaarite trading ports such as Port Verge. In the Five Nations, the general perception of Old Common is that it is a vague "pirate talk" from copper novels but it is a legitimate creole language that many in the Lazhaar Principalities speak as their only language.

Shedani (Elven-Giant)

The drow tribes of Xen'drik continue to speak a mixture of the Elvish tongue from Thelanis and the language of their giantish overlords. Eladrin and elves often see this as a betrayal of their kind but drow consider it a necessary and unique reclaiming of power. In the oral-based traditions of their race, language is a very powerful thing and the drow take great pleasure in using Giantish words for their own purposes. For instance, the giants' word for themselves is used by the drow to mean "drunkard" while the word for "drow" is used to mean a lord or master. Such reversals rarely go over well with the giants but they are a source of pride to the dark elves.
Many races of Xen'drik learn this creole instead of Common as it serves as a useful trade tongue for those who deal with enterprising drow tribes.

Talentan (Dwarven-Common)

The halflings of the Talenta plains originally spoke a patois of Dwarven before the arrival of humans. They traded with the clans of the Mror Holds and relied on their language for their own communities, though the Talenta dialect was reportedly almost incomprehensible. When the human settlers from Sarlona arrived and displaced the dwarves as the halflings' main trading partners, the Talenta tribes began to shift to Common. Among city halflings and in the cosmopolitan streets of Gatherhold, this shift occurred smoothly centuries ago. In the truly remote tribal lands Dwarven remains dominatnt but across much of the plains a creole with influences from both languages has developed. Called alternately Tribespeak, Bhazragi (in the Mror Holds), and Talentan, most halfling tribesmen think of it as a unique language. Despite the original terms for flora and fauna from the Talenta Plains, speakers of Common and Dwarven can generally get by in the plains and even halflings from the Karrnath or Gatherhold learn both languages to survive on trips to their homeland.

Syrk (Riedran-Giant)

The trading cities of Syrkarn in Sarlona may rely on Riedran and Common to deal with traders from overseas, but in the countryside Syrks speak a patois of Riedran and their ancestral giant-blooded ancestors. The language is a rough and practical one, not prone to metaphors or imagery, though there is a rich storytelling tradition. Syrks have an impressive amount of their ancestry and culture memorized through campfire sessions and long work days only improved by a bard's tales. In the quiet resistance to Riedran rule, this memorization also comes in handy for the memorization of long messages in the succinct syntax of the Syrk language. The provincial Syrks don't always realize that language is not a large barrier to many psionic masters from Riedran but against their agents it can be very useful.

Taskaan (Riedran-Dwarven)

The northern reaches of Sarlona are inhabited by shifter tribes that have been removed from the rest of the world for generations. They deal intermittently with both the Inspired lords of Riedra and the Akiak dwarf clans in the border mountains. Over time, these other civilizations' languages replaced the shifters' own tongues and most shifter tribes speak Dwarven, Riedran, or, increasingly, a creole of both. The Taskaan creole is used throughout the Tundra now, especially after the Akiak dwarves become more and more ensconced in the Tashana Tundra lands and the shifters feel the need to obscure their conversations from outsiders. The recent growth of Whitetooth has also built up the language there where merchants use it to confuse and fast-talk visitors.

Vvaraa'shul (Giant-Draconic)

According to the orcs of the Gatekeeper tribes, the dragon Vvaraak gave them language as well as druid magic. This is likely an exaggeration, but the tribes do speak an ancient combination of Giantish and Draconic which lends credence to the claims. Vvaraa'shul, as they call the language, is spoken throughout the Shadow Marches and in many pockets of the Eldeen Reaches. Because it is associated with the protective practices of the Gatekeeper druids, many in the western wilds of Khorvaire insist on writing their scrolls and ritual books in Vvaraa'shul. It can be found in non-magical protections as well, engravings in ancient stone markers in the swamplands that warn travelers away from sites poisoned by the daelkyr. While most people in the streets of Zarash'ak, Valshar'ak, and Urthhold speak Common or Azhani, travelers in small villages of the countryside sometimes run into language barriers when they don't understand the ancient tribal tongue.

Zilasalza (Elven-Dwarven)

The "Zil-Elvish" language that is spoken by gnomes is not too disimilar to Elven, but the gnomes actively cultivate the differences to create a unique language. Like many things in Zil culture, Zilasalza is used as a tool for secrecy and gnomes often prefer it among themselves to prevent eavesdropping. Documents from the Trust may be written in Zilasalza, using elaborate Elven characters as a further barrier to interception. Truly important messages are written in a code as well, creating documents inscrutable to the outside world.

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