Ars Magica: Romandy
Note: The following is not a faithful representation of real world linguistic history, and where I do borrow from the real world, it’s often simplified. When addressing language for this campaign, I’m balancing real world developments, the potential value of each language in the game, and reducing communication speed-bumps to a tolerable level. The result is a Mythic Europe where most people can have decent conversations far from home without learning an entirely new language.
But first . . .
To know how to read or write a language, you need skill with Artes Liberales. Each level of Artes Liberales unlocks up to one additional alphabet, syllabary, or logography.
In the real world, orthographies can wildly diverge even when based on the same alphabet (compare, for example, English versus Irish Gaelic versus Hungarian. Come back once you’ve massaged the cramp from your tongue), and it would be reasonable to say that you’d need to spend lots of class time studying different orthographies even when the alphabets are almost the same. For simplicity, if you know the basic Roman alphabet, you can read and write any language using a variation of the Roman alphabet. The same principle applies for other writing systems except where explicitly noted.
Roman alphabet – Covers most European languages. Use Wikipedia to figure out if a language in question is included: the list is extensive.
Cyrillic alphabet – Covers most Slavic Orthodox languages, Vlach/Romanian, and some Caucasian languages.
Arabic alphabet – Covers languages in a huge geographic area from Morocco to India. Use Wikipedia if you have a question about a particular language therein.
Greek alphabet – Covers all the Greek languages.
Hebrew alphabet – Ancient and liturgical Hebrew.
Coptic scripts – See the entry on Coptic in House Seshat
Other writing systems – Mythic Europe and the Near East have writing systems that are geographically limited, lightly used, poorly attested, or outright extinct in 1400. They may may or may not have a moment of importance within the campaign. These include Georgian, Armenian, Aramaic, Glagolitic, Syriac, Sogdian, Ogham, Runic, Punic, Pahlavi, Mongolian, Uyghur, etc. It’s extremely unlikely that any PC would start with or learn any of these writing systems, though it’s not strictly forbidden.
Language Skill Levels
Rarely will you ever make a language skill roll. Instead, the skill level usually dictates the limits of your proficiency with the language in question.
1 – You know many basic interactions and pleasantries by rote.
2 – You can have uncomplicated conversations.
3 – You can converse with others on a daily basis without much difficulty. Conversations with specialized terms and extensive word play become possible but difficult. **Rank 3 essentially lets you roleplay as speaking a given language without difficulty.
4 – You experience only small snags in communication, such as a moderate accent or recurring difficulty on a point or two of grammar.
5 – You’re either a native speaker or all but native.
6+ – These higher levels signify facility among the great writers and artists of the language. Hermeticists and Humanists at these levels may write Summae in a way pleasing to the literary ear, but these higher levels do not improve the Quality of any instructive text.
Exposure XP and Languages – If you make no concerted effort to learn the local language but engage in it on a regular basis, you earn 1 XP in that language during one season. This XP is earned concurrently with XP through training, practicing, studying, etc., a different skill. Once your skill is level 3, you no longer can earn exposure XP for your language in this way.
“Engaging on a regular basis” requires, at a minimum, ten minutes of speaking or listening to the language most days of the week. Typical interactions with grogs, townsfolk, and such will normally satisfy this standard. Restricting most of your interactions to fellow magi and your precious library won’t satisfy this standard (but don’t let that stop you from playing a reclusive Latinist. A multitude of magi are just that).
Romand and Allemanic
These are precursor languages to modern Arpitan and Swiss German respectively. Each will be considered its own language despite their marginal statuses in Mythic Europe since they happen to be the local vernaculars where the campaign will primarily take place.
Furthermore, with the way Language Groups (see below) work, PCs that speak both languages at level 5 effectively won’t have trouble communicating across half of Europe.
Groups define languages of some mutual intelligibility whether by common roots, cross pollination, or both. A few languages fall into their own groups, effectively making them isolates for game purposes.
Except where otherwise noted, when communicating with someone speaking a different language but one from the same group, your effective communication level is -2. Furthermore, treat any language level at 6+ as 5 when making this calculation. These standards usually mean speakers of languages in the same group have no practical difficulty in regular communication.
Some (certainly not all) obscure European and Near Eastern languages are included below. Furthermore, large groups of dialects (e.g. Abruzzese, Siciliano, Romano, Napolitano, Toscano, etc.) are ironed into one larger language (e.g Southern Italian) for simplicity’s sake.
Latin – All forms of Latin extant are covered with this language skill without modifications (e.g. someone with Latin 5 is equally proficient at speaking Medieval and Classical Latin). *Latin and Romance languages are mutually intelligible at -3.
Romance – Romand, French, Occitan, Catalan, Castilian, Portuguese, Northern Italian, Southern Italian, Vlach.
Celtic – Breton, Welsh, Gaelic.
Ingvaeonic – Frisian, English, Dutch (though closer to the German group languages, I lumped it in with English and Frisian to make this group a little more useful).
German – Alemannic, High German, Low German, Yiddish.
Norse – Icelandic, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish.
West Slavic – Polish, Czech/Slovak, Pomeranian.
South Slavic – Slovenian, Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, Old Church Slavonic (dead as a spoken language).
East Slavic – Ruthenian, Russian.
Greek – Covers all forms of spoken and written Greek—including Classical, Koine, Medieval, Ionic, Attic, Doric, and Pontic—without any penalty for mutual intelligibility.
Ugric – Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian. *Hungarian is mutually intelligible with Finnish and Estonian at -3 and vice versa.
Baltic – Lithuanian, Latvian, Prussian.
Turkic – Includes all Turkic languages without any penalty for mutual intelligibility.
Arabic – Includes all Arabic languages—including Maltese and Classical Arabic—without penalties for mutual intelligibility. Aramaic and Hebrew are mutually intelligible with Arabic and each other at -3.
Iranian – Includes Kurdish, Persian, Old Persian, and Pashto.
Isolates (Unless noted, none of these languages are mutually intelligible with others) – Basque, Berber, Coptic (dead spoken), Hebrew (dead spoken, see Arabic), Aramaic (see Arabic), Armenian, Georgian-Caucasian, Mongolic, Albanian.
Example of mutual intelligibility: Helka from Krakow is a gifted Polish poet (Polish 6) and Maria, originally from Munich but currently from Prague, speaks Czech (4). They meet in a Krakow tavern and take up a light conversation.
Polish and Czech are part of the same language group (Western Slavic), so their languages have some mutual intelligibility. When talking with Maria, Helka effectively understands her at level 3 (6+ is treated as a 5 to start, then -2 is applied for speaking within the same language group). She has no real trouble understanding Maria unless Maria decides to use some high flung Czech.
Maria’s not quite as comfortable in her communications with Helka. She understands Helka at level 2 (4 for her Czech, -2 for speaking within the same language group). Helka probably has to keep her discourse fairly simple in order for Maria to understand her.
Now, if Maria had Czech at 5+, for all intents and purposes, the GM would rule that they converse without difficulties.
In Mythic Western Europe, green shoots of vernacular literature have poked through the soil, perhaps most famously The Song of Roland and The Poem of El Cid. Nevertheless, due to inertia or otherwise, writers vastly prefer the use of Medieval Latin in their works. Though use of this written language restricts literacy to the well-educated, it does enable the dispersion of knowledge across a vast geographic area.
Spoken languages (vernaculars) continue to diverge and evolve. Still, in many cases, they’re more akin to dialects of a massive umbrella language and mutually intelligible enough. For instance, a pilgrim from Naples in Southern Italy can make the journey to Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain by foot and not have much trouble talking with anyone in between; he would encounter many strange variations of “Roman” along the way, but none so different from his own that he’d have trouble having light chats.
German and Romance languages form the primary barrier of mutual intelligibility in Mythic Europe. Roughly south of the Alps and west of the Rhine, Romance languages spread deep roots from a discrete Roman ancestor. North and east of the line, a perpetual mosh of Germanic tongues from ancient times continues to churn, and they’ve expanded into privileged communities in Slavic lands. Greek remains the preeminent language of southeastern Europe and is still important to a wide community of scholars and in Eastern Orthodox churches. Arabic dialects predominate in the Islamic world. Languages with less opportunities for widespread intelligibility (English, Finnish, Albanian, Kurdish, etc.) do thrive in their localities, but overall, they’re useful only in small geographic regions.
Yes, though vernacular literature continues to grow in dribs and drabs, Latin still predominates as the written language of Mythic Western Christendom and its scholars and churchmen, but nascent Italian Humanism will perpetuate the ongoing tectonic shift in communication.
Starting with Petrarch, Italian scholastics grow to see contemporary Latin as degenerate. They turn towards studying and reviving the use of Classical Latin, and while this movement increases the stature of and emphasis on style in literature, it further divorces written Latin from its already tenuous vernacular relations. This increased difficulty in learning to write effectively is another step in the long march towards the eventual predominance of vernacular literature and definitive foundations of national languages.
These developments so far affect the Hermetic world less than the rest of Europe. Magi remain insular overall and a tiny population compared to the rest of educated Europeans. Furthermore, being highly educated themselves, magi have taken up Classical Latin with aplomb while the ad fonte movement is still confined mostly to Italy in the mundane world. However, Medieval Latin underpins the overwhelming corpus of the Hermetic Order’s texts from Bonisagus himself until almost 1400. Consequently, that varied form of Latin will remain a paramount area of study for most Hermeticists until vernacular translations reach a high threshold of accuracy and ease of reproduction.