Languages in Traveller

Some thoughts on Languages in Traveller

I still fondly recall the Cantina scene from the movie Star Wars (or Star Wars: A New Hope). Aside from the plethora of aliens in the taproom, there is the famous encounter between Han Solo and the Rodian bounty hunter, Greedo. While Solo speaks “English”, Greedo answers him in an alien language (Huttese, I believe), but both can obviously understand each other. The reason for this may be as simple as that they are both running translation programmes on their handcomps and listening to the translation through an ear bug. Alternatively, Solo may very well understand Huttese (described elsewhere as a criminal dialect) but can’t, or won’t speak it, while Greedo, for similar reasons cannot, or will not, speak “English”.

I am not a linguist, but I admire the work of those who are, especially those who have chosen to invent their own languages. An imaginary language that has been conceived of as a series of vowel, consonant and syllable sounds, and that follows logical rules for grammar and structure, can add depth to a story or a roleplaying game. Anyone can call a planet ‘Myxpltic’, and the name may even look okay on the page, but roleplaying games are essentially language games and if you can’t pronounce the name you’ve created, or can’t imagine how the word sounds, then it might as well be called ‘Mud’ as far as your players are concerned.

Traveller has a number of Alien Major Races, and innumerable Minor Races. And just as it is important that these aliens should “look” alien, and not just ‘people in rubber suits’, so they should have languages that reflect both their culture and history, as well as how they physically form sounds to communicate. Several of the Classic Traveller Alien Modules – Aslan, Vargr, K’kree, and Droyne – explored the concept of languages for these races and even went as far as defining the frequencies of vowel and consonant sounds which, in turn, suggested how these languages would sound. Handy little random tables were included in the original Modules that allowed players and referees to construct syllables in the various languages and, by stringing these syllables together, to construct words.

As far as I’m aware, it was only in Alien Module 3: Vargr that we saw extensive treatment of an alien language – in this case Arrghoun, an obscure Vargr dialect – complete with rules for grammar and a Vocabulary. While working on scripts for The BurrowWolf webcomic, I decided that I wanted to have some Vargr characters speaking a Vargr dialect, with English subtitles. Therefore, I shamelessly borrowed the Arrghoun Vocab and converted it into a searchable document. I then added words to the Vocab, as I needed them for my story, by simply generating blocks of one, two and three syllable words with Space Corsair’s Traveller Alien Language word generator, stacking the word blocks in another file, and then using the words I liked the look of.

When a certain critical mass of words had been generated and defined in my vocab, I began to notice two effects. The first was that I was consciously trying to put myself into the mind of a Vargr and think how he might describe something, what expressions or turns of phrase might be Vargr cultural shorthand for expressions we use such as “How’re you going?” or “What’s happening/what’s up?” The second effect was that faced with the need for a new word, I would carefully look through my Vocab for synonyms. Could an existing word have two meanings, depending upon context, or could there be a root word that, with a different ending, would become the new word I needed? For example, vonutoea is Arrghoun for ‘star’, vonutoe dzourrgh is ‘starship’ and vonutoevargr is ‘starfarer’. Therefore vonutoelouthghu is ‘starport’, and my contribution to the work of Messers Keith, Miller and Harshman.

Arrghoun is a very simple language and pretty much works on a straight word substitution method – there a couple of simple rules for conjugations, person, adjectives, and plurals, but it is consistent, and fun to use. More importantly from my perspective, it allows me to introduce something a little exotic and alien into my Traveller campaign. The downside of this approach to language is the shear amount of work required to build a half decent vocabulary. With several other Major Races active in my campaign, as well as over half a dozen Minor Races I could quite easily spend the rest of my life fooling around with words and never have any time for playing.

Another approach to language is that which I’ve used for my Aslan character Ahkalhyo in the Reaver’s Deep PbEM game I’m playing in. From what I understand from Classic Traveller Alien Module 1: Aslan, Gurps Traveller: Alien Races 2, and the MegaTraveller Solomani and Aslan book, Trokh, the Aslan language, is a very complicated communication form, with layers of meaning, subtle status indicators and non-verbal components involving tail and ear positions and stance. I have found a very limited Aslan Vocab on-line, but it was not a lot of use for what I wanted to do.

Fortunately, Ahkalhyo is working as a pilot for a human crew. By attempting to use a formal narrative style for his in-character posts, I have tried to indicate that his grasp of Galanglic is not very broad or colloquial. I have also had a bit of fun creating Trokh words for favourite foods, holo-vid dramas and other such personal things that would leak through into his narrative. All new words, with their meanings, are noted in a list I keep on his character sheet so that I keep the references consistent, and can find the words again for later posts. With this collection of Aslan technical and personal terms I can, again, introduce something a little exotic and alien into the game I am playing in.

If your Traveller Universe has some form of the Third Imperium (or other large stellar Empire), then you probably already have some form of “standard’ language – be it Galanglic or, in my Traveller campaign, Imperial Basic. All citizens of the Stellar Polity will speak the main language but, to add a little colour and flavour to the campaign setting, they may very well speak it with a regional or cultural accent. In the Third Imperium there are various cultural areas, reflecting historical ethnic settlement, now rolled into the Empire. For your campaign, look for possible settlement patterns in the history of your subsectors, or for possible centres of economic power. A High Population world will probably dominate the worlds within Jump-2 of it by shear numbers, a High Tech/High Population world might dominate all worlds within Jump-4 of it, while a High Tech/High Population world with an A Class starport may extend its cultural domination up to Jump-6, or along a Reach or Main. By shear weight in numbers and by economic might, the world in question will act as a focus for culture and power, and possibly as a point of origin for the populations of smaller colony worlds.

For example, in the Gamelea Subsector of the RimWorlds all Imperial citizens speak Basic. In the Gamelea Cluster, which is dominated economically and by population by the Tech Level 15 system of Gamelea (something like 90% of the population of the cluster are resident in the Gamelea system), and where all the worlds within the Cluster are Jump-1 from Gamelea, the Gamelean dialect of Imperial Basic predominates. Both Ventura and Feor, with large populations of their own, have their own accents, but their populations still speak Gamelean Basic. Bryak, Jump-2 from Gamelea, actually has a larger population than Gamelea but is only Tech Level 9. Therefore, its ‘area of dominance’ is pretty much restricted to its own system – Bryakis speak Gamelean Basic but with such a heavy accent that Bryaki Basic is a strong contender to be considered as a separate dialect.

So, how might we reflect languages and dialects in game mechanic terms? How can languages be made to work in your Traveller game? Mongoose Traveller has a Language Skill and one can take levels in a language (becoming more fluent at the language), or acquire more languages. No such skill exists in Classic Traveller but I would be inclined to permit a player to convert one level of Steward or Carouse Skill into Language Skill. In this case I am interpreting Language Skill as ‘having a facility to learn languages’.

A character will have a native language to Level 3. Characters with Education of 9+ automatically increase their native language to Level 4 at no cost. Characters with Education 12+ automatically increase their native language to Level 5 at no cost.

Having gained a ‘facility to learn languages’, the character averages her Intelligence and Education stats to produce a point pool. This point pool can be used to buy languages, or to increase the character’s fluency in an already purchased language.

Fluency levels are measured thusly:
Level 1: Basic Communication – “Where this?” “How much?” “Where food?”
Level 2: Average Communication – “ I needs hydropump for this many days” “You want how much for that?” A poorly educated native speaker (Education 3 – 5) with limited vocabulary. Otherwise, speaks with a heavy accent of origin and tends to mangle syntax or grammar.
Level 3: Good Communication – Native speaker with average education (Education 6 – 8) and vocabulary. Otherwise, speaks like a native, though still retains accent of origin.
Level 4: Excellent Communication – Native speaker with advanced education (Education 9 –11) and expanded vocabulary. Otherwise, speaks like a well educated native and able to debate history, art, poetry, politics, etc. Still retains a trace of accent of origin, though usually not noticeable to a native speaker.
Level 5: Superb Communication – Native speaker with superior education (Education 12 – 14) and extensive vocabulary. Otherwise, speaks like a well-educated native. Has possibly studied older forms of the language and can make allusions to classical authors, etc.

For example, Eeather gains Language Skill during character generation. She has Intelligence 9 and Education 8. Averaging her two stats, she has a point pool of 8 to play with. As a native of Feor, she already speaks Gamelean Basic (with a Feorian accent) to Level 3. Eeather is a Merchant and decides that picking up a couple of extra languages could be a good career move. Passage through Kalar-Wi space opens markets in the Cabria and Lymethius subsectors so she decides that taking Kalar-Wi to Level 2 for two points is a good starter. Beyond Kalar-Wi lies the Aslan Huiha Esoyatre in Lymethius subsector, so Eeather takes Trokh Esoyatre to Level 4 for four points, as Aslan, while pretty touchy about matters of pride and honour, respect someone who respects their language and culture. With her final two points, Eeather takes Trade Lingo, a pidgin language commonly used by merchants moving to and fro across the Imperial Border.

In summary, Eeather speaks:
Gamelean Imperial Basic Level 3 (Feorian accent)
Kalar-Wi Level 2 (Heavy Feorian accent)
Trokh Esoyatre Level 4 (Minimal Feorian accent)
Trade Lingo Level 2 (Heavy Feorian accent)

As a Merchant Broker or Factor, she will be an asset to any ship crossing the Imperial Frontier.

Characters without Language skill can learn a new language, but only at the same rate that they would learn any other new skill. Such characters also have a Language points pool of the average of their Intelligence and Education stats. They can only spend their pooled Language points as they have time to learn a level of language – this can be from a native speaker or from tape or wafer, and real time or through hypnosleep. The best time to learn new languages is obviously during the enforced idleness of a space trip.

If one of the first actions of your players when they hit dockside in your Traveller campaign is to check out the chipware markets for language chips for their handcomps, or to start haggling with the local chandlers in their own dialects, then language has become a flavour beyond vanilla in your story telling.

And Uzlatsizurtou is an Arrghoun word meaning ‘to be certain’ and is pronounced:
“uz-lo-sur-zur-tow” (the last syllable rhymes with ‘pow’).

This article originally appeared as a post on this blog on 6 April 2010


  1. This is very cool. LIke the way you take into account dialects.

    1. Thank you for the comments. I am looking at adding flavour to my game (languages and dialects) without making any new mechanisms cumbersome, complicated or "you-must-use-this-or-you-will-die".

      With default accents/dialects for Imperial Basic/Galanglic, players can use language as little or as much as they like, depending upon the sort of game they want to play.

  2. And it is nice to see that I am not the only one who both does not require those damned Captcha and whose Pages don't allow you to Subscribe to them.