Unless you have been hiding under a rock, you have probably heard of Dungeons and Dragons, so I won’t go into too many details describing the system or various settings. One prominent feature of all the game’s many settings is the presence of various planes and the alien denizens therein. Many of these creatures have their own languages which players can learn either through their background, or as the game progresses. Languages, even in reality, can sound very different and distinctive, but how much more so when the person speaking lacks something even resembling human biology? I noticed that as a dungeon master, my tools for painting the scene in regards to the sound and texture of some of the more otherworldly languages in Dungeons and Dragons were a little lacking. The Player’s Handbook gives us a few scripts of some common languages and a brief description of their origins and the impression they give, but this wasn’t quite enough. I decided to sit down and try to imagine my way through what it must be like to speak with a sapient creature made entirely from water, or the tricks devils may have come up with to accurately catalogue the vast intricacies of infernal contracts. How exactly does one write down a trade agreement in the plane of elemental fire, where everything is literally made of fire? Why do demons, devils, and aberrations, which can almost universally communicate telepathically, even have a spoken language? How does one preserve records in Limbo, the plane of elemental chaos, when materials are constantly changing in form and shape? This was the rabbit hole I found myself sliding down, and I admit that I am rather proud of the end result, but I would like to not that it is in no way canonical. I hope, however, that you can find inspiration as I did. I also tried to present it in a manner as setting neutral (though definitely still D&D) as I could, and in character to boot. If you are perhaps looking to add a little color to flavor the loot haul your players get for defeating the Conjurer Felithron and taking his stuff, maybe he has this book sitting around? Please remember to share your feedback on our forums or discord, I am eager to see how you put these ideas to use.
Language, both written and verbal, are a means of transferring information reliably from one person to the another. A spoken language will evolve naturally to deliver as much information as it can reliably in a brief time. Written language was an adaptation among mortals to allow for the preservation of knowledge. The wheel is a wide and diverse place however, and while the languages of the planes all seek a similar utility of their languages and communication, the results are shockingly alien at times. One can see the subtle influences the words and writings of immortal beings had on mortal kind.
Primordial: the elemental tongue
The language of the elemental planes is the song of creation itself, a string of notes shared between the four prime alchemical elements of earth, water, fire and air. Primordial is the language shared by lordly genie, fierce elementals, and mischievous mephits alike, and has distinct dialects on each plane, despite ultimately being a shared language. Like many of the immortal languages, its speech is somewhat mundane, but can have seemingly magical effects to one who has taken it upon themselves to master its nuances.
Primordial is a language of vibration, the rhythm of energy moving through flowing air, solid stone, crashing water, and crackling flame. Spoken primordial thus sounds much like complex humming. Earth elementals might apply pressure to create a vibration in a node of quartz, while a mephit of magma might speak through the crackling of a flame. A great alchemist once said that of the elemental beings, mortals shared most with the denizens of the plane of air. In speech this is certainly the case, as a mortal can learn to speak primordial through humming and careful throat manipulation, moving air as a Djinn chanter might.
Primordial speakers have learned to record information in this tongue by binding it to their native element. In the plane of water, one might find a small pocket of water that vibrates with a fine pattern, or a crystal tuned to a careful series of frequencies on the plane of earth.
This recording method is convenient on the elemental planes, as their respective elements are everlasting there. One need not worry, for example, of the flames holding a trade contract between Efreeti lords extinguishing on the plane of fire itself. These techniques are difficult for a mortal to replicate, but not impossible for a truly dedicated scholar. A mortal that has set themselves to master this “recorded” primordial must through careful study attune themselves to one of the prime elements. Once this decision is made, it causes an imprinting on the soul and cannot be changed.
Auran is the most common choice, as due to common biological composition, mortals are naturally inclined to communicate with strategically manipulated air. A message recorded in Auran might be a sort of buzzing or ringing sound that can be carefully pitched outward and linger in the air. To an untrained observer, this could be mistaken as an insect, or as ventriloquism. A master of the Auran language might even be able to store such a message in a bottle to be heard at another time.
Terran is a significant reason for the common association with crystals and the arcane arts. A mortal or immortal attuned to the element of earth can record a message of vibrations in a crystal of quartz. This method, while less common among non-native speakers than Auran, is perhaps the second most employed by mortal primordial speakers.
Aquan attuned mortals might record a message as a ripple in a bowl or bottle of water. This is viewed as crude by native speakers, and more magically inclined speakers might instead choose to animate the water when elegance is required.
Ignan is the most difficult for mortals to master, not due to any complexity of the dialect, but for the fleeting nature of fire on the material plane. A well-fueled flame or even a magical ever-burning flame is essential for this form of recording outside of the plane of fire. This does not deter devout cults and those seeking to curry favor with Efreeti lords from taking such steps however.
While these techniques can be mastered by a mortal, even without the use of magic, the elemental lords deemed it fit to create a set of written symbols that correlate with essential vibrations of the primordial language, coinciding with the earliest appearances of writing among mortals on the material plane. This allows one to in essence “write” primordial, and many contracts with Genie lords are duplicated in this script. This is however seen as the most crass and base utilization of the primordial language, and one familiar with the courts of the elemental planes will know to turn down an offer for such recordings as it is often offered an insult to the intelligence of an outsider.
Sylvan: the words of fair folk
The fey is a realm of chaotic possibly, steeped in both natural beauty and cold shadow, and the language of the land reflects this. Sylvan is one of the more difficult languages one can seek to master, as it is more than a mere sum of its parts. The fey tongue employs words, implied meaning, posture, facial expression, gestures of the spirit (read through the pupils, according to most fey), and an ever-shifting rule set for courtly decorum to convey meaning. To the unenlightened this lends the fey a reputation, not entirely undeserved, for capriciousness. You could be forgiven for stabbing a fairy one day, and the next be hunted mercilessly for not bowing after using a word three different times in the same conversation.
While sylvan does have a written alphabet, which is employed in the elven language, attempts to record sylvan in written form lose a great deal of meaning in the translation. Some of the greatest recorded works in sylvan are documents in multiple parts, often triplicate or in some multiple of three, and associated with something that changes in a gradual pace. For example, in the poem “L’orindel Arelon” one is instructed to read the first section if it is spring, the second section in summer, or the last section if it is winter, and one reads from the front or the back of the codex “Mastelion” depending on whether short or long hair is currently the courtly fashion. Mortal masters of the language suggest that with enough practice one gets a feel for the subtleties of the language, but it is not an exact science.
Celestial: an angelic chorus
The celestial plane is a place of absolute goodness and order. It has heavily influenced the mortal definition of beauty, and by extension wealth, and the language reflects this, but in many ways celestial has also been influenced by mortality. Much formal language among mortals, particularly among mankind, uses borrowed words and expressions from celestial. Scholars agree that this is a lingering tradition from ancient nobility offering oaths in celestial. The reason for this is partly one of practicality however, it is difficult to deceive in celestial. Any attempt to mislead with the goodly tongue causes a physical pain, typically on the tongue itself. It takes someone very practiced or very determined to tell a blatant falsehood in celestial without wincing. The words of celestial as a language share a repetitive structure that, when combined with proper inflection, sound much akin to a song or poem. A group of angels is referred to as a chorus because of this.
Angels saw little need for writing before mortality embraced the practice of preserving information. They are immortal, and do not attempt to deceive each other, so the preservation of knowledge for future generations was not a driving force in the cultural development of the heavens. As such, celestial is typically recorded using the common alphabet. This was decided by the angels so that mortals could best understand their meaning. Interestingly enough, angels were not fully satisfied with the common alphabet, and their writings often heavily incorporate pictures in the text and margin. It is from this occurrence that the practice of illuminated manuscripts was founded, and where the process gets its name.
Abyssal: proclamations of violence
Perhaps the direct inverse of celestial, abyssal, the language of demons, is a harsh language that shares an interesting relationship with mortality. A sentence in abyssal consists of growls and clicks that seem almost a twisted mockery of common. The language is exactly that, a lingering vestige of the demon’s origin through the coalescence of material wickedness in the Abyss, and strictly utilized to spread suffering to mortals. Demons have no need for language, as all demons capable of rational thought can communicate with telepathy, so when a language did emerge it was driven by a need to inspire terror in mortal kind.
Demons never bothered creating a written language, as such things are a rarity by their very nature. The written form of abyssal was created by mortals seeking to make binding agreements with demonic forces, and is intentionally convoluted to make such dark knowledge easy to keep hidden. Written abyssal is a series of overlapping glyphs, first read from right to left with one set of glyphs, then bottom to top with the other.
Infernal: a mouth full of lies
The language of the hells is a continual exercise in oddities from the perspective of linguistic evolution. Scholars agree that infernal originated as a written language well before it was ever spoken. Devils are capable of communication by thought, but needed a system for record keeping and contract preservation. The result is a notably efficient language with clear meaning in definition, but leaving plenty of room for the interpretation of intent. Infernal has a written alphabet, and while it can be written on parchment, it is frequently engraved in metal as a series of minute slashes and notches. Interviews with several imps suggest this is both for a record that can survive the heat of the hells, and is difficult to alter or falsify. It is common practice for devils to record contracts into the links of chains, and it is actually from this practice that the phrase “loophole” is derived.
Spoken infernal is a surprisingly pleasant language, though not as rhythmically flowing as celestial. It has been adapted, according to an official statement from the embassy of the third layer of hell, entirely for the purpose of facilitating prosperous interaction with mortality, An interesting note on spoken infernal, perhaps as a subtle slight against the angelic host, is the mild euphoric sensation a mortal receives when speaking intentional deceptions in infernal.
Deep Speech: the color from outer space
Aberrations are entities from distant realms, and particularly alien to mortal kind. Their shared language, known colloquially as deep speech but having no true name of its own, is more akin to projected thought than traditional speech. The language itself is almost never spoken audibly by aberrations, and is largely found in the collected writings of madmen and profane tomes. Proper pronunciation of deep speech is impossible with typical mortal biology, though can be most accurately recreated by species bearing gills. Any mortal speaking the deep speech will thus be speaking with a distinct “mortal accent” without some form of augmentation or assistance. Deep speech is strangely devoid of descriptive adjectives, leaving much to the imagination of the observer, though psychic impressions often embedded in text fill in the missing details. This process is typically considered heavily detrimental to the psyche.
Many aberrations seem to forego the use of deep speech, preferring instead to communicate with telepathy and to preserve information through embedded psychic impressions. This has led to much speculation among scholarly circles about the true purpose of the deep speech. Mortals speaking or hearing deep speech often report seeing motes of strange colors creep at the edge of vision, and those few proficient in the deep speech will occasionally embed psychic messages in written text, though this may not always be intentional. Reading deep speech is an assault on the senses, as recorded stimuli and feelings assert themselves on the mind of the reader, forcing them to experience the world as the writer did.
Modron: machine language
Modrons are a mechanical race from the plane of mechanus with a unique method of communication that varies in complexity as the need demands. There is still much scholarly debate over the details of the modron language. We do know they have no written language, instead dedicating monodrones, the lowest caste of the modron, to record and later recite a specific record as needed, which they will do with perfect clarity.
Attempts to communicate with modron in their own language has been successful, though only through magical assistance. The modron language is incredibly simple, but each rank of their rigid caste system adds a layer of complexity to communicate more information as needed. It is theorized that a mortal might be able to communicate at a quadrone to nonaton level of complexity without assistance through magic, though no endeavors have been successful to date.
Spoken modron heavily employs a hard K sound in the words for add, subtract, if, then, and equate. Since these words appear frequently in modron conversation, and the language is spoken with a blurring rapidity, a sentence in modron will seem like a long whirr punctuated with a series of clicks. The grammatical structure of the modron language seems mathematical, using frequent value comparisons and conditional statements.
Slaadi: chaotic croaking
The language of limbo, the plane of elemental chaos, is possibly the least understood language in the cosmos, though that is perhaps intentional. Slaad, the natives of limbo, have no need for language, being able to communicate by thought as many extraplanar beings do. Many scholars theorize that the slaadi language is merely a vestige left over from the former lives of slaad, having once been mortals, but the end result is too twisted and random to be comprehended by any but the most chaotic of beings. Spoken slaadi sounds like an unholy mixture of gurgling, frog-like croaking, and shrieking.
Slaadi also has a written form. This is surprising, as the preservation of any knowledge should be theoretically impossible on the plane of elemental chaos. Afterall, any paper or recording material would simply change to another material at some point. Written slaadi is thus recorded on the only unchanging material in limbo, slaad themselves. Written slaadi was developed by the caste of green slaad to create lengthy tattoo records of their deeds, but was quickly adapted for spell casting and perhaps more sinister purposes by the gray and death slaad castes. The language seems largely pictographic, but remains as chaotic in nature as the language’s spoken form, as the inks used to create the tattoos constantly shift. Attempts to comprehend the writing without magical assistance have been fruitless, yet the fact that such divination yields success confirms that it is indeed writing and not mere artistry. Rumors exist of folios of chaotic knowledge bound in red and blue vellum, but such reports have never been substantiated.