23 December 2020

Earthdawn 4E: Rules Variant 17 - Linguistics

This is the seventeenth Rules Variant, part of an ongoing series about Earthdawn Fourth Edition. Introduction and Index.

Everything contained here is the work of a fan and not associated with FASA Games.

This rules variant is focused entirely on making languages feel more alive without going too far down the linguistics rabbit hole. Which is very deep indeed. These are intended to add depth and life without requiring too much effort to make them accessible. Too much detail or verisimilitude and it becomes unweildly and inaccessible. I'm trying to find a good place in the middle to facilitate the value without making introducing it crushing.

The names and organization here is simply what I liked for this purpose and doesn't reflect anything beyond that.


Racial languages are silly at the very, very best. Deeply stupid to very troubling more likely. They place racial “purity” over culture. Why would a troll who grew up in Travar speak “Troll” over the local language? There’s a lot of things that don’t make sense, but this one is actively awful. It also doesn’t match with the rest of the setting which does have regional languages… in addition to new racial languages. Where’s that facepalm?

How did we get here? D&D. It had racial languages (and even alignment languages if you go far enough back) because they’re easy. Alignment languages were an entirely different kind of dumb, but still on that side of the spectrum. Thankfully, they’re gone now. Being fair, having named languages is difficult in a game without a setting. It implies more of a setting than D&D seemed to want to imply, despite heavily implying a setting. Just with a lot of blanks for you to fill in. However, that level of racial homogeneity was lazy and… not great.

Barsaive is an entirely cosmopolitan place where Namegivers of all types freely associate throughout the cities. Towards that end, this is an attempt to bring more depth and culture to the complicated linguistics this can create. For the sake of simplicity, this does elide the naturally occurring differences from 400 years of isolation. Which can range from languages turning entirely into their own thing or completely stagnating and seeing no variation at all. It’s worth noting “no variation” doesn’t mean the language is the same as that commonly spoken, as that language lived, breathed, and changed by exposure and use. It’s more akin to comparing Middle English to Contemporary English—there’s going to be some problems, though not insurmountable. Gullah and High Tider are US-centric examples of fairly isolated languages in the context of a modern society.

Using this a language-in-isolation does present an avenue to give value to abilities sometimes perceived as underused, such as Etiquette and Speak Language (talent). Misunderstandings, communication difficulties (if not outright breakdown), factional conflict between suspicious isolationists and grateful rescuees.

The difficulties posed by linguistic drift are most significant for recently opened kaers and/or isolated communities. Once exposed to the prevailing dialects of their region, they are likely to acclimatize readily. 

This organizes languages into rough families, though some of these organizations are more of convenience than accuracy (as indicated by the text). Languages and their dialects are noted by that text. The further away from the same dialect, the more difficult it is for two speakers to interact. For example, Throalic is the most common form of Scythan in Barsaive and virtually everyone speaks it. A Throalic speaker and a Scythan speaker can understand each other, but there are some minor difficulties due to linguistic drift. A Throalic speaker and a speaker with a dialect particular to one of the Throalic cities may have similar difficulties, while the Scythan speaker and the speaker with a dialect of Throalic may have significant difficulties as the euphemisms and many meanings are quite different, even as the words are shared.

Language Families

  • Scythan (language) — Technically the parent language, this language is rarely spoken compared to the Throalic dialect. It still sees some use in the Scythan Mountains and isolated communities.

    • Throalic (dialect) — The official language of Throal is the most prevalent language in Barsaive, spoken, read, and written by nearly every Namegiver. It shows the cultural dominance of Throal on the provincial landscape. This is the “common” tongue and language of trade.

      • Individual Throalic cities (dialect) — Each Throalic city has their own dialect with minor variations, though not particularly strong.

      • Oshane (dialect, pidgin) — This Throalic city is notable for its Throalic/Or’zet pidgin

  • Kratan (language, pidgin) — A pidgin of Throalic, Or’zet, Landisian. Kratan also possesses its own unique vocabulary and word usages, often designed to obscure the intended meaning from any eavesdroppers. The language shifts frequently and speakers are just as willing to rifle through languages for new verbage as they are for coins in your coat.

  • Sperethiel (language) — What was once the official language of the Elven Court, things changed since the Scourge. While still ostensibly spoken throughout elven lands across the world, this represents the language spoken by the elf diaspora in Barsaive prior to the Scourge.

    • Theran (language) — A simplified version of the parent language where similarities can be seen, but lacks the depth of meaning in favor of efficiency.

    • The Queen’s Sperethiel (dialect) — What is formally called “Sperethiel” but is beginning to diverge from the Sperethiel of the rest of Barsaive due to the need for new vocabulary to describe their unique situation and centuries of isolation. The linguistic drift is relatively small given the time, but speeding up with the biological and social distance.

    • Shosaran (language, pidgin) — A pidgin of Sperethiel and local languages based on hundreds of years of commingling. 

    • Sereathan (dialect) — Considered by the elves of Sereatha to be the truest form of Sperethiel with no deviations, it's not. It may have the same words, but they're not used in the same ways and gained different meanings and subtleties to reflect the distinct culture of the City of Spires over the centuries.

  • Cathan (language) — Spoken by the people of the Servos Jungle, this language has the same common ancestor as Iopan and Landisian, but grew much further from those roots. Some linguistic scholars argue it represents the “truest” version of the original language, and the other branches co-evolved further away.

  • Unknown parent — The lost parent language prominent in the more human dominated areas of the province. There are likely more dialects from this parent and other languages in the province and beyond may trace their roots here.
    • Iopan (dialect) — Iopans consider their language to be the parent language from which Landisian is born, but this isn't accurate. Both come from the same parent language, but evolved in different ways to reflect the needs of the speakers. Still, this is listed as a dialect of Landisian for simplicity in organization, rather than accuracy.

    • Landisian (language)— Considered the parent language of most Barsavian languages commonly spoken by humans, this is not entirely true. Current scholarly linguistic studies indicate a parent language of the contemporary languages and their dialects.

      • Jerran (dialect) — This dialect of Landisian has a somewhat cosmopolitan feel to it, with words borrowed from throughout Barsaive and beyond. However, the recent Iopan influence is beginning to show.

      • Scavian (dialect, pidgin) — This is most accurately described as a pidgin of the Travaran dialect of Landisian and Shivarrotal.

      • Travaran (dialect) — A dialect known for its clipped sounds and skewed vocabulary. It possesses significant unique and adapted terminology, some with no discernable origin and others borrowed or put to use for the unique culture of the city.

      • Urupan (dialect) — A young dialect with expected influences from Shivarrotal and Throalic. Most notable are the comparatively exotic words borrowed from The People Across the Sea.

  • Marellyawenkhurtectl (language) — the common language of obsidimen

  • Or’zat (language) — The original language spoken by the people who identify as the progenitors of Cara Fahd. Uniquely adapted to speaking with the tusks common to orks. There is no written language.

    • Or’zet (language) — The official language of Cara Fahd. It grew from influences and concepts introduced by other languages, most notably Throalic.

  • Shivarrotal (language) — The parent language spoken by t’skrang throughout Barsaive. Those who grow up apart from an aropagoi don’t develop the dialect specific to those circumstances.

    • Aropagoi (dialect) — Each aropagoi has its own specialized terminology to reflect their way of life.

      • Niall (dialect) — Some nialls also have distinct dialects, though this typically only occurs in isolated communities, where there's a need for very specialized terminology, or significant exposure to other cultures.

  • [Spirit Wind] (language) — Similar in structure and sound to Shivarrotal, it's wholly distinct and something of a linguistic curiosity as to how it's learned and passed on.

  • Unknown parent — The lost parent language of the “trollish” tongues. While all are technically parallel branches from this language, they're considered dialects of Ustrectish for linguistic teaching. This has something to do with availability for instruction and likelihood the instructor will attempt to kill pupils for some real or imagined insult.

    • Ustrectish (language) — Once the language of Ustrect, this is now the prevailing language spoken by so-called “lowland” trolls throughout Barsaive. 

    • [Highland] (dialect) — It would be the gravest of insults to consider the root language spoken by Crystal Raiders to be derived from the language of their lowland cousins, and it's not entirely wrong. This dialect of the lost parent language has considerably more words and nuance around the concepts of honor, raiding, and various other aspects unique to their lives.

      • Mountain range (dialect) — The highland trolls of each mountain range are somewhat isolated and have more linguistically in common with each other than the moots of a different mountain range.

        • Each clan (dialect) — This reflects the differences that can arise within each clan to reflect their perceptions, both of themselves and the greater world around them.

    • Unknown origin [Ustrectish B] (dialect) — This language is very rare. While it clearly shares the same parent language as the other two primary dialects in Barsaive, it's a parallel branch rather than branching from one of them. Speakers can still be found in isolated parts of eastern Barsaive.

  • Saheerys (language) — Spoken by the various clans within Glenwood Deep, very little is actually known about the origins of this language or any dialects that may arise. All too often what seems like break-through research into the subject turns out to be nothing more than a joke sustained by various native speakers. This is very discouraging and means any conclusions on the matter are met with skepticism from the scholarly community. Most vociferously from native speakers with contradictory claims to whatever the prevailing theory there may be. Continued research on this topic is utterly pointless.

How to Deal with Dialects

There are three methods. The first is to use Etiquette; the differences between the dialect and the parent language are differing aspects. The gamemaster should adjudicate just how different the dialect the character knows is from the dialect they are dealing with. Pidgin languages can also be dealt with in this way, but the number of differences are considerably more. Another is to use Speak Language, allowing the character to become familiar with the dialect. The final is either to increase the Difficulty Number or the number of successes required, based on the differences between the two dialects.

Pidgins can be treated something like a distant dialect from parent languages, even if it is a dialect or distinct language. Speakers pick up some of the words and there may be a familiar structure, but Difficulties should be significantly increased to communicate.


  1. Thanks! Something like this has been needed for a long time! The description of how the languages relate to one another will definitely be used in my campaigns from now on.

  2. Nice. Cool walkthrough of the languages. Defenitely going to steal this for my upcomming campaign