Dealing with Languages

I'm sure this must have come up before at some point, but I am trying to figure out 'good' ways of dealing with Languages in Mythic Europe.

I am the main storyteller in a long-standing group and our old Campaign just ended our new one beginning. Our old game was set in Devon, so we had only a limited number of languages to worry about; everybody basically spoke Norman French, 'English', Welsh or Cornish, with of course Latin and a few strays here and there.

Our new game is Set in Venice, and this has posed a whole host of difficulties. Besides the plethora of languages that exist in the surrounding area even if one 'fudges'(Greek, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Croat-Serbian, Arabic) there is the issue of how to deal with both the languages of Italy and the Languages of Germany without it becoming unruly. The two competing issues are at heart 'accuracy', in which the diversity of languages on the Italian peninsula seems in this era to be pretty expansive, and making Languages an empty point sink wherein the guy who speaks Greek, Arabic, Venetian and Some Variant of Russian has spent the same point as SOme-one who speaks Venetian, Tuscan, Lombard and Sicilian.

So two questions really; The first have someone done a reasonably division of languages for the Region?

Two, how have people handled languages, any interesting rules variants I might bolt into my game. I've been toying with an idea such that related languages offer cost breaks and/or default to related tongues, but I'm interested in what other people have done.

Faith & Flame has a section on languages of Provence, and default levels for speakers of other languages, and Against the Dark covers the Transylvanian tribunal and has a section on languages which covers the opposite side of the Adriatic to Venice.

Seeing as Veneto is a common trade language and is vaguely related to a lot of Italian languages, the simple ways would either be saying every village has at least one person who can speak Veneto or allowing people fluent in Veneto to just about get by with most of the surrounding tongues.

The supernatural way is to make texts of "Thoughts within babble" and spells to CrMe words inside people's heads common, and deal with people astounded at your powers, or allowing everyone with Faerie Blood to purchase Faerie Speech as a virtue.

The complex way is to draw up a list of languages, enforce the rules thoroughly and get people to hire translators or use agents to do as much as possible.

You're welcome to use my table. It's still a work in progress, but it's pretty far along. It's got that region covered pretty well. The question marks are for myself, places I'm still filling in. ... 85428792#5

Here are a few:

  • Starting the language with points equal to the default level. For example, if you have a language at 5 and are learning one that defaults to that at -3, then you get 15 free points in that other one. This can be problematic if you allow switching of specialties.
  • Language as Accelerated Abilities. This lets you pick up more much easier, but it had problems at character generation as several spots in the game assume you have spent 75 points on you native language.
  • Buy the language "family" and use what would have been the "language" as a specialty, ignoring the "dialects."
  • Allow adding specialties to a language for 5 points apiece.

Note that the need for translators can create openings for Companions to be that much more valuable, especially since magi tend to be worse at social interaction.

Thanks callen, that is very similar to what I was thinking in some ways, though as always the debate between realism and usability rages on. A part of me knows there will never really be a system that is fully realized(if linguists can agree on language divisions, what makes me think role-players ever will) but avoiding needless point-sinks for translator characters was a big priority. If I modify or come up with anything myself I'll post it.

I would point out that callen's table is truly excellent. Also, in my games translation is usually no big deal because, instead of seeing it as something for companions to sink points into, we see it as something for one or two specialist grogs to sink points into.

You cold simply solve this with a communication spell that allows the person to communicate (speak and understand) any language spoken to them.

If there are any older magus around they could lend the players such a magic item until they "solve" the problem them self, ether learning the language or inventing some spell to help. This would have the benefit that the players can take turn being the person with the item giving every one their turn in the spotlight.

In earlier versions of ArM such a spell did exist. But in ArM5 p.149 Thoughts within Babble allows only to read minds to understand spoken communication. This allows a quick-thinking magus to conclude the meaning of some spoken words, and thus make simple utterings in a rudimentary and mostly ungrammatical fashion.

By combining this with CrMe magic (ArM5 p.148 box Creo Mentem Guidelines Level 4 Guideline, refined in A&A p.32 box Creo Mentem Guidelines) to put a thought directly into a target's mind, basic communication can be established.

Taking a cue from ArM5 p.105 Sample Powers Mental Communication and creating CrMe devices for direct mind-to-mind communication between a few intelligent beings is also possible, rather easy, and gets the language issue out of the way completely.

But knowledge of the spoken language in question, in the sense of acquiring a temporary Language Ability of any level, cannot be gained thus by magi from 1220 Mythic Europe. See for this HoH:S p.68ff Memory and this recent thread.


There isn't too much we know about the spoken Volgare in 1220.

It makes sense to go about organizing it for Ars in the same way as German. So there was literary HIgh Middle German and Low Middle German in 1220, which ArM5 calls High German and Low German. There are many dialects of both, which ArM5 treats as typical specializations.

The 13th century Volgare derives from vulgar Latin, spoken all over Italy. It is a single language just like Low German, with many, many dialects. Add to this Sardinian (with its own derivation from Latin) as separate language. Call Volgare in ArM5 Italian, to not confuse the readers, and you are done with the Italian languages in ArM5.
13th century spoken Venetian might have been strongly influenced by Greek and Albanian, and if you absolutely wish you can treat it as another separate language - but it is considered a dialect of Volgare in general. Have a look at this, and make up your mind.


I never suggested learning language with the help of magic. Only being able to speak / make yourself understood. I do like the implanting permanent or temporary memories idea tho. You could make a similar spell to the "Babble" one your referenced. I think a Intellego Mentem with a Imaginem prerequisite should do the trick. Such a spell would allow the caster to speak there normal language while tricking the listener/s that they understood what they heard as there own spoken language.

I fell the other mental communication way you are suggesting sure can work. But I see a severe flaw with it. If I where to communicate mentally with a normal towns person they would most likely freak the hell out, hearing voices in their head. Sure it is a nice thing to do between people who know what you are but I see a very limited use for this. Similar to why magus do not use fireballs in town to resolve conflicts.

And yes you could do a similar thing with the Imaginem to trick people to think they heard you speak. The drawback would be, I assume, this would be way harder to do on a group of people. As mental communication usually is a P2P thing. Also if you do not do it permanently they would remember the voice in their head I assume. Same with the spoken version, but I think it is way easier to convince someone that they clearly are mistaken because if I did not speak there language how could they understand what I was saying and help/do what I asked of them.

Also I only play with the 4th edition so I am not super familiar with the 5th edition, maybe my suggestion would not work. But I really see no reason to why not.

I find OneShot's response somewhat misleading. At least, it would mislead me into thinking that in 1220 there is a single language called Volgare in the Italian peninsula, derived from "vulgar" Latin, with many dialects -- and different from, say, Catalan. This is not exactly the case.

The languages spoken in 1220 in the Italian peninsula, most of the Iberic states (Basque being a notable exception), and the French lands, are all derived from Latin (the technical term is that they are Romance languages). But they have all drifted significantly from Latin -- not as much because of contact with other languages but just because languages drift. With significantly I mean that if you are fluent (5 on the Ars Magica scale) in one, you can probably read any other one, or Latin, at 2 on the Ars Magica scale, and listen to it at 1, or 2 if the other party makes an effort to make himself understood. This is what a modern speaker of Italian would encounter when trying to understand Spanish, and viceversa. The distinction between reading and listening is significant, because even words that are written in a very similar fashion can sound completely different -- so you can't really judge how close two languages are sound by reading them.

There is no single "Volgare". There are many. Volgare (literally "of the common folk") is what the local language (derived from Latin) is called in to contrast it with its original, "high" form language (Latin). But the Volgare spoken in Florence (relatively close to modern Italian) is about as different from the Volgare spoken in Venice, or that spoken in Sicily, as it is from Latin, or Catalan, or the Langue d'Oc. This is not a mere -1 penalty to the language score. You can understand something, or a lot if you are reading or speaking with someone actively trying to be helpful, but definitely not everything. Of course, you can handwave it all in the name of playability, and lump the 1220 Volgare spoken in Venice with that spoken in Sicily and that spoken in Florence. But then you really should lump together most of the languages spoken in 1220 in the lands occupied today by Italy, France, Spain, Portugal into a single language called ... Latin :slight_smile:

Personally, I think that this unintelligibility really gives a lot of historical flavour to the game, and it does not sacrifice playability (particularly in a game in which magic is readily accessible to the players). People who have to interact with many different lands either:
a) Learn a specialized common language, spoken in a cultural niche over many areas. Latin if you are a scholar. Sabir (a trade language) if you are a merchant. Hebrew if you are a Jew.
b) Hire an interpreter who speaks the local language, and either your language or an appropriate common language. If you are a merchant and want to deal with the locals, there's probably a local merchant who shares Sabir with you.
c) Use magic! Or other supernatural powers: Faeries for example can take a single Minor Virtue that allows them to speak every language.

In ArM5 you would need to know the language of the listeners for that, if you wish to use Imaginem: there is no implicit translation function in Hermetic magic. See for this:

Quite so! To implant a memory of him talking to a target, a magus needs to know the words he was saying. To implant a memory of direct mind-to-mind communication, he does not. But this appears indeed very weird to the target.


Indeed. This is true for all the vernacular languages of the middle ages.

There is no single Low Middle German or High Middle German either. But the multitude of dialects you have need not lead you to a multitude of Language Abilities in ArM5.

Around 1200, the Romance languages are all "in statu nascendi", and emerge from the continuum of dialects that is Vulgar Latin. We have very few instances of vernacular in Italy at that time conveyed to us: I gave links to the best known ones above. Looking these up, you don't see the differences you claim. The Cantico del Sole, the Ritmo Bellunese, the works of the soon to emerge Sicilian School do not differ that much among each other. You can all understand them applying modern day Italian plus some basic linguistic techniques, which medieval people substituted with the patience necessary to live and communicate in an environment of a multitude of local dialects.


I totally agree with you there. I mean there are a crap ton of languages/dialects in Italy alone. So trying to "learn" them all I would say is a useless wast of time for a magus. For a companion, being a interpreter could probably be a lucrative work in the right city. Also this can be used as good plot hooks.

Just look at the linguistic map of Italy: ... _Italy.png

No. I am a native speaker of Italian, and I can "sort of" understand the Ritmo Bellunese, or the Sicilian school poetry, if I read them. With "sort of" (as I said) I mean I can understand most of what gets said, but every line or two there's a word I don't get. This is about the same level of understanding I have for written Spanish, which I have never studied nor had extensive contact with. I guess it was more or less the level of understanding I had for Latin when I started studying it. I think the closest score on the Ars Magica scale is a 2 ("You can sustain a short conversation on a common topic. You still make many mistakes, and often fail to catch what others say.".

I believe that I'd find understanding them spoken significantly more difficult -- unless the other speaker made an effort to be understood. In part that's because the drift between the romance languages has a significant phonetic component: people simply pronounce the same letters differently. In part it's because when I read and I don't understand, I have the time to stop, re-read, and consider the possibilities, which is not the case in a "normal" conversation. So I guess my level of understanding would drop to about 1. It's certainly true for Spanish, or, say, Sicilian: if I hear two native speakers speaking between themselves, I get something, but not a lot (Ars Magica score of 1). If, on the other hand, they patiently try to make themselves clear to me, I get most, but not quite all, that they are trying to say (Ars Magica score of 2).

Incidentally, I disagree with this notion too. Most people in medieval Europe would never travel more than a few dozen miles from home, and would never face anything except their own very, very local dialect (ok, and Latin at mass, if you want to be picky). Which is probably one of the reasons why so many different tongues evolved from Latin over such a relatively short span of time!

Yes. I am not a native Italian speaker, but for me it works the same - which means I understand them quite well by interpolating.

Yes. Have a look at de Sica's La Ciociara again some time, when Cesira (Sofia Loren) talks "Sant' Eufemese". That's supposed to be a local Italian dialect, certainly not a separate language. But do you understand it?

This is the point of real medieval people with different dialects speaking to each other. They certainly needed to take some time to communicate. I've seen a similar thing recently, when a Chinese translator courteously, professionally and repeatedly asked the expert she was serving, before she really understood and proceeded to translate. While with my landlord of ages ago, who spoke a notoriously difficult dialect of my native language and was always in a hurry, I needed to stipulate that he would send me his daughter if something was to be sorted out: everybody happy.

In ArM5 two people from neighbouring cities or areas would not learn each others' dialects as separate languages, but speak considerately and articulately. The fun in La Ciocara was, that nobody but those from Sant' Eufemia understood Cesira's "Sant' Eufemese", until she slowed down and adapted to the refugees from Rome. As this situation is so common in the middle ages, I would not penalize ArM5 communication between people with different dialects here beyond the rules, unless a participant really wishes to emulate Cesira letting rip.


The notion of "related languages" is explored in several ArM5 books (e.g. Guardians of the Forest, or Faith and Flame): basically, knowing a language allows you to speak "related" languages at the same score, with a -1 to -4 penalty. So, if you know Low Saxon (Frisian) at 5, you can speak other Low Saxon languages at 4, High Saxon and English at 3, West Norse at 2. Speak Occitan at 5? You can Speak Catalan at 4, and French, Burgundian and Sabir at 3.

This is simple, but has a disadvantage. If you are fluent (5) in one of two languages that are fairly "close" - say involving a -2 penalty - and you want to learn the other, you start at 0, not at 5-2=3, meaning your first 30xp will be a total waste (which is neither fun nor realistic). In fact, it turns out that if you want to speak the second fluently, you are better off improving the first to 7, so that the second gets spoken at 7-2=5: this costs 65 xp rather than the 75 xp it costs to bring the second language from 0 to 5.

Which I do not particularly like, because I really do not think that the best way to be widely spoken is to be the perfect master of a single language. But all "solutions" I see bring their own drawbacks...

Yes, only a select few traveled. And they where to the biggest extent people part of the upper class. One of the sources to use when historically studding how people traveled is the church records of pilgrimage. Those where one of the few times people started to travel.

It was part of the industrialization when people first started to move around and move into the cites looking for work. To a extent you can see a similar thing going on in China now.

Like: scholars, students, merchants and their employees, knights and their retinue, mercenaries, sailors, teamsters, herdsmen on the transhumance, artists and their helpers, entire construction workshops from architect and taskmasters down to apprentices, some traveling journeymen, farmers on their several days long way to market, and those looking for work in the towns. This is still a minority, but a very significant one.

The expanding 13th century towns were typically in need of cheap labor already. See Stadtluft macht frei. This increases around 1240, when that actual principle of law had already been abolished - and certainly not for lack of application.


Sure some of the once you list are people who travel. The Herdsmen, sure but there are only a select few places where people live that way, also most of the areas they travel are underpopulated by nature and probably they sell there exes livestock at the same market every time.

The artists, well most of them would look for a benefactor that they can get paid by to produce art. Sure they might travel but I think most of them would stay in a big city looking for work. As traveling takes long time, that is time they don´t work or get money.

The construction workshops and people, well most buildings take a really long time like cathedrals so they can employ people for literally generations. So many of them would not travel but learn there craft on site, live work and die. And houses and such do not employ the big number of these people.

Farmers, well I am not really sure here. Most of Europe have a feudal system in place where the farmers are as close to slaves as can be without being actual slaves. Also the market they would travel to would be a market that would be as close as possible. If they travel to a market at all.

Almost forgot the sailors, most of them are probably fishermen. They just fish locally of the coast. So very few would do any actual traveling.

People going to towns looking for work. Well not really sure what type of work they are looking for. Really before any industries pop up there would be very little work to be had in cities. Most professions have apprentices and they more then often are paid positions.

I would say the most traveling the common man did was probably during wartime. Either drafted into a army or fleeing a enemy army approaching. Also there is the crusades, they had a ton of people travel a very long distance. But That would at best be a certain type of traveling. This type I would argue do not expose the people to any local customs or languages like say a tourist would be.

Also the clergy, they probably have a sort of good % of people traveling.

Just saying that sure people did travel. Just that it is way way more rare then you normally would think. Also I would argue that proper travel is not a farmer going to a local market. But more a merchant traveling to a neighboring region or country.

Stadtluft macht frei: I did not really see anything hinting that people where moving to towns to work. But rather to escape the feudal system. Sort of the slaves escaping north in the US. But sure, many people in the same places creates opportunity and work. But I would not really compare this to the scale of things during the industrialization.