Tuesday, January 7, 2014

[Gray Box Project] Cyclopedia of the Realms: Names in the Realms and Languages of the Realms

Where were we? Ah yes: the random info dump in the Cyclopedia that precedes the alphabetical entries proper. We get a two-fer today, as they're fairly related and we've got a lot of ground to catch up on!

Names in the Realms
Player characters may carry one- or two-part names, nicknames, titles, or pseudonyms in their career.
This section is divided up into several sub-headings by race and class. I like the idea that certain classes tend to share a commonality of naming conventions. First up, though, we have "Common Humanity" - naming conventions that transcend character class, presumably. In keeping with the setting's stated "high medieval" reference point, we're informed that most humans only go by one name, adding a second name only if required to differentiate between a similarly-named person in their community - or a famous person who shares their name! ("No, no. I'm Elminster the Barber.")

The text notes that surnames can and do change frequently over the course of one's life. There's also this funny parenthetical: "There are a large number of '“Trollkillers'” in the Realms, more a credit to the numbers of the monsters rather than the prowess of their slayers."

(Note to self when stocking random encounter tables: Trolls. Lots of trolls.)

Human nobles and gentry, likewise, follow medieval naming conventions for their social stratum, adopting a family name based on a famous forebear and sticking with it though their fortunes may later wane. (There's mention of a Wyvernspur family of Cormyr who have fallen greatly in esteem, though they are still quite well-off.) Nobles can also adopt "personal" second names just like the simple folk, likewise based on appearance or notable deeds.

Magic-users, the text then says, eschew long names or fancy titles, feeling that their reputations are sufficient. Ergo, our hapless Elminster Barber must go about using his second name at all times, whereas the Elminster need only sign one name when he cashes his checks. I had to think about this one for a minute. My instinct is to prefer wizards who go by overblown titles, somewhat in a Jack Vance-ian vein. But I think I dig this approach, too. It says a lot about the role of wizards in the Realms, or at least how wizards think of themselves in the Realms.

Human clerics, too, get a section of their own. This simply notes that a cleric's deity supplants any family or other secondary name, even in the case of a noble house. So if a Wyvernspur kid went off and became a cleric of Tymora, he'd no longer be Ralph Wyvernspur, but rather Ralph of Tymora.

(One thing missing from this section is a decent list of actual names. Examples are dropped here and there: Doust, Mourngrym, Amaster. And there are certainly plenty of NPCs listed in the DM's Sourcebook to draw further examples. Still, a nice sidebar list would've been much appreciated, even if it was only for typical human names of, say, the Dalelands.)

That's it for humans; it's on to demi-humans. First up are Elves, and here we get our first indication that Elves refer to themselves as "the People". Oh please spare me this Dances with Wolves "elves as the noble Indian" analog. Then again, it is incredibly of its time, so maybe I should just embrace it, along with the illustrations of the women with the poofy hair? I dunno. The poofy hair I can hang with. The other bit I'll mull over on our way to the "Elves" entry proper in the Cyclopedia.


Anyhoo, there's a note that Elves all have surnames, but that these tend to translate back into nicknames in the Common tongue; stuff like "Strongbow" and "Starglow" and what-have-you. The text notes, reasonably, that surnames are a necessity for a race that can have family members even in the same generation who are hundreds of years apart in age. No examples of Elf first names are given.

Dwarves, too, use surnames, albeit ancestor-related. Your surname is either the clan you hail from (if you're really low-born), or your famous forebears' name ("son of...", "grandson of...", "blood of..."). Again, we'll see what the actual entry on Dwarves has to say, but this is indicating to me not so much a "Norse" Dwarf culture but rather a rigidly caste-based culture. That might be a fun concept to play around with. Again, no examples of given names are, well, given.

Gnomes, it is then noted, not only carry second names, but even third names based on point of origin, in manner reminiscent of Victorian gentry.

"Wysdor Sandminer? Of the Scornubel Sandminers?"

"'Fraid not, old chap. I'm from the Arabel Sandminers."

Apart from that single name, we get no other examples.

Here's a good point to pause and say that, in my version of the Realms, I've already decided to mess around with demi-humans a bit. One of my players is a huge fan of the race, and I'm only too happy to elevate them somewhat. Also, Halflings do nothing for me outside of a Middle Earth context, so they're getting demoted.

I'm also playing around with names. As I'm preparing to start running my Realms campaign, I've settled on Eveningstar in Cormyr as a good initial home base. As we'll see when we get to the Cyclopedia entry, the write-ups on these towns are refreshingly sparse. There's a note that Eveningstar's herald is named Tzin Tzummer. No mention is made of his race, so I'm making him a gnome. Furthermore, his name is giving me ideas for gnomish names in general. I like that "tz" sound in there. I'll have to look for some linguistic precedents to help construct a short list of typical gnome names. (I do plan on retaining the "third name" thing, too, as it's charmingly amusing.)

So on to the Halflings that I won't be using (as intended) in my campaign. They're a sort of combination of the other demi-humans, bearing a first and second name, and Humans, in that they go through multiple name changes over the course of their lives. The example of naming conventions given here paints Halflings as frankly rather dickish and opportunistic, adopting a wide range of names and pseudonyms to suit their needs and cons. I was already thinking of replacing Halflings with Goblins, so this example actually rather fits that change at any rate.

Speaking of Goblins, there's a short section on Other Races, which notes that most make do with a single name with some sort of qualitative modifier as needed. Amusingly, the text also notes that Orcs usually just refer to each other by a word that translates roughly as "Hey you!", but can be inflected with a variety of different tonal meanings. If you've ever heard two people having an argument in a tonal language (like, say, Mandarin), you can appreciate the rich potential for communication this must afford.

Languages of the Realms
Most people north and east of the Sea of Fallen Stars are literate, at least to some degree. This is not the case, travelers and tutors have intimated, throughout the Realms. Westgate, southern Sembia, and perhaps Hillsfar are the predominantly literate areas in the vicinity, and Waterdeep on the Sword Coast; elsewhere "trust to your tongue," as wayfarers say.
Here we see a slight departure from the "13th century" analogy for the sake of convenience. According to Wikipedia, Italy in the 13th century had the highest literacy rate in Europe since the fall of the Western Empire, at a staggering 30 percent. Hardly "most people," though. Then again, we have broad swaths of the Realms that are still largely illiterate, much like in the 13th century. Although now I'm wondering about literacy rates in the Arab world at the time - anyone have any idea of that?

Speaking of matters of convenience, we then get this passage (emphasis added):
Almost all intelligent creatures you might encounter can understand and speak "common" (the trade-tongue of men, spoken with little variance all across the known Realms) . . . . From region to region of the Realms, Common may have different accents and slightly different vocabularies, influenced by other local human and nonhuman tongues. While a native of Thay will be able to communicate with a denizen of Baldur's Gate, each will be aware of the other's ridiculous accent.
My initial reaction to this is to call bullshit, of course. The general rule across all human cultures and all human history has been an extreme balkanization of language, to the point where sometimes people who live in adjacent valleys can't even understand each other.


This all, of course, gets back to the points I raised in discussing the Realms' simplified calendrical system. Sure, it might be more realistic to have a jumble of languages, dialects, etc., but is it worth the headache? I'm reminded of the first edition of King Arthur Pendragon, which featured skills for foreign languages; if your knight met someone from France or Germany or Ireland, you needed points in the relevant language to be able to communicate. This part of the game was dropped by subsequent editions because not only was it not fun, it wasn't really part of Arthurian canon. In a similar sense, universal communication has been pretty much a constant in the D&D genre since the beginning.

Not only does it make for more convenient gaming, I believe it also reflects the cultural origins of the game. America in the 1970s was still a time when the mainstream cultural assumption was that you could travel anywhere in the country and not worry about communication any more than in terms of having to listen to someone's "ridiculous accent," as the Cyclopedia puts it.

Curiously enough, the DM's Sourcebook has a map the compares the size of Faerûn to the United States. They match up pretty closely. Just eyeballing the page, I'd say that if Waterdeep is Portland, Oregon, then Portland, Maine is maybe around Heliogabalus in Damara. Certainly in our world there is a "common tongue" spoken at all points between those two fair cities. But that's because they share a common history of cultural expansion and domination, isn't it? So what does that imply for the Human kingdoms of the Realms? As much as I'm willing to suspend my disbelief for the sake of gaming convenience, a rationale for the Common tongue rooted in the setting's history would add a nice extra dimension to the convention. I'll keep this in the back of my mind as I go through the history of the Realms revealed in the text.

(Incidentally, S. John Ross has a hilarious take on Common speech in his Uresia: Grave of Heaven setting: it's a true trade pidgin, and considered hopelessly crude and déclassé by polite society; it's the tongue of merchants, pirates, and adventurers only. Better bone up on the local language before you present yourself before the Duke!)

At any rate, demi-human speech gets a similar treatment, saying that there are "common" tongues for each major race that vary only by regionalisms and strange accents, too. Fair enough - in for a penny, in for a pound. There's also some First Edition-specific talk about alignment tongues and the secret languages of druids, thieves, and illusionists. I'm running my game with an AD&D-style ruleset (Joseph Bloch's Adventures Dark and Deep, specifically), and for some reason I'm totally okay with certain classes having their own languages, but I'll be damned if I'll be using alignment tongues. I don't care how "old school" it may be. I've looked at various ways to justify it, and I just can't. So I'm ignoring that section.

There then follows a section on written texts. Interestingly, the text notes that the most common form of literacy is the runic script of the Dwarves. There is a written form of Common, but it must be taken as a separate language, "as most individuals use runes for conveying information." There's an archaic form of Common (called Thorass - "the universal language of the long-ago Realms" - that certainly sounds like that common cultural link I was talking about above) which adventurers might expect to find in moldering tomes and dungeon monuments, a secret script (Ruathlek) used only by illusionists, and an Elven script (Espruar), as well. The Dwarven runes, called Dethek, are most commonly carved on stone, although there is an intriguing note about dwarves binding thin sheets of metal together to form books. I'll definitely have to include a metal tome of Dwarven make in my campaign.

The Norse overtones of Dwarf culture become more overt here, as the "runestones" that Dwarves most commonly write on are taken straight from Viking culture. No mention is made of non-Dwarven writing systems, although I'd assume humans and others who scribe runes as often as not use ink and paper.

There's a neat graphic showing the different alphabets of Thorass, Espruar, and Dethek. It's not Tolkien by any means, the different alphabets just being a straight cypher system, but it's a nice tool for putting together a handout for the players to decode.

The section ends with a fun little sidebar giving examples of common salutations and farewells among the different races and cultures. "Well met" has become a classic, but I also like the warriors' favored farewell of "Until swords part!" (which reminds me of Greenwood's tale of his first DM and her farewell of "Swords bright!") or the hobgoblin "If you die while I'm gone, do it quietly." Then there's the Halfling: "Good morning, and good day after that! Don't let anything curl your hair!" (to which is sometimes added) "'Ware that Big Folk, and mind the goblins too!"

Yeah, no regrets about dropping them from my campaign.



Next up: Currency in the Realms!
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