Languages in “Flat Black”

As I never desist from repeating, Flat Black was intended from the start for adventures in which more-or-less rational and cosmopolitan PCs encounter, decipher, and circumvent or exploit the oddities of strange but rational human societies on a succession of exotic planets. That makes it pretty much essential that PCs be able to talk to the locals nearly everywhere they go. Moreover, I have seen a few RPG rule sets that do a fair job of modelling characters’ knowledge of languages and limits on mutual intelligibility, but I have never yet seen one that makes it fun not being able to talk to the NPCs. RP¹ is a talky medium, and I enjoy it best when everyone² can just talk to each other.

So the first version of the Flat Black background document didn’t mention languages, and we just went on playing in English without worrying about it. Then there was an unfortunate encounter between a character-player with a degree in linguistics and a game with rules for knowledge of languages. An unfortunate question was asked. A perfectly reasonable Watsonian rationalisation explanation was offered. A vigorous debate ensued. A Doyleist argument was made. A poll was conducted. My players and other commentators ended up agreeing that for Doyleist reasons it is is best in Flat Black to ignore characters’ possible language limits and just get on with the stilted Vancean dialogue. But the Watsonian explanation is still there, and I still think it makes a lot of sense. Continued loss of linguistic diversity may be deplorable³, but it is plausible.

So here’s what happened in Flat Black, and why your PCs can speak to everyone everywhere⁴.

The drastic loss of language diversity on Earth in the 20th century, brought to us by radio, roads, and railways⁵, continued and even accelerated through the 21st centuries. People travelled for work and commercial opportunities, and they learned regional linguas franca for work, trade, and mass communications. Migrating to cities and travelling for work and commerce, they intermarried and formed mixed communities and families; children grew up using regional linguas franca outside the home; they brought up their children speaking the regional languages of their communities rather than the local languages of their grandparents. Besides which, many governments encouraged the use of national standard languages (e.g. in schooling, the law and courts, and by the bureaucracy) and some even deliberately suppressed regional patois. Of perhaps 50,000 languages spoken when the printing press was invented, about six or seven thousand are still spoken now, and 90% of those are in rapid decline. Air travel, urbanisation, TV, movies, and mobile phones have globalised language extinction; about a dozen languages are flourishing (English, Standard Chinese (Putonghua-Guoyu), Spanish, Hindustani/Hindi-Urdu, Bengali, Arabic, French, Malay (Malaysian-Indonesian), Portuguese, Russian….), the rest are languishing or declining.

In Flat Black those trends continued through the 21st century, so that by the time the first colonies were despatched almost everyone spoke one of the dozen regional languages, and the writing was on the wall for the ~500 other languages that still survived. Moreover, International Business English⁶ had cemented its position as the language of aviation, international business, diplomacy, scientific and scholarly publication, higher education, international co-operation, international discourse, and much global popular culture. IBE was the global lingua franca, widely spoken as a second language, especially by pilots &c., travellers, business folk, highly-trained scientists, scholars and technicians, the educated, and people involved in international discourse and co-operation.

Then International Standard English did to Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, Malay, Hindi and the rest what they had done to seven thousand local languages during the 21st century. By AD 2200 ISE was spoken everyone and by everyone. By AD 2300 “Standard” was the only first language on Earth⁷.

When the first colony was despatched (Avalon, on Tau Ceti III) in 2091 it was a hugely international effort that needed to spread its net across the globe to find enough reckless adventurers with the advanced expertise needed. IBE was their common language. IBE is what all their technical manuals and reference materials were available in. IBE is what they spoke among themselves and what their children learned at home and in the playground. But, because of the ever-increasing stream of continued migration from Earth, Avalon (and the seven other colonies subsequently established on Tau Ceti III) followed Earth’s development of IBE into ISE and then Standard. Everyone speaks Standard on Tau Ceti.

Other languages did survive on Earth in the 22nd century, and a few of the colonies established then were established by regional or cultural concerns that for various reasons adopted official languages other than English.

  • Navabharata was a national-prestige project of the Republic of India, and its official language was Standard Hindi (a register of Hindustani). But some of the participants were native Bengali-speakers or speakers of Indian English, all the technical manuals and reference works were in English, so people talked a lot of IBE at work and all the children had to be taught IBE. Then in 2130 the Indian government “privatised” the colony and it started accepting migrants from all over the world. About 2155 people started arriving on Navabharata who did not speak Hindustani, but they stopped going after a while. Then in the Age of Piracy there were invasions by Standard-speaking adventurers from other worlds On Navabharata people speak Navabharatan English, a dialect of English that is mutually comprehensible with Standard, but heavily accented and with a lot of Hindustani borrowings. The divine caste (who are educated off-world) speak Standard as a second dialect. The population of Navabharata is 0.137% of Humanity.

  • Hijra⁸ was a conservative Sunni Muslim theocratic utopia. It adopted Classical Arabic as its official language and deliberately suppressed IBE. And as Islam declined on Earth along with the general decline of frank supernaturalism Hijra’s stream of migrants from Earth dwindled: there was no overwhelming flood of ISE-speaking and Standard-speaking monoglots in the late migration period. On Hijra they speak Arabic, and some people, especially researchers and technical experts learn to read Standard. The population of Hijra is 0.065% of Humanity.

  • Xin Tian Di was a national-prestige project of the Republic of China, established with Putonghua as its official language. It received over 2.5 million ISE and Standard speaking immigrants after 2250, besides all their reference materials and popular culture. The everyday language on Xin Tian Di is a Chinese-influenced version of Standard, the upper classes speak Putonghua as a language of refinement and high culture. The population of Xin Tian Di is 0.31% of Humanity.

  • Paraíso was a “national” prestige project of Mercosur, a South-American union of nations that did not long survive. It was established with Spanish and Portuguese as joint official languages, but all the early colonist were highly-educated people with manuals and technical references in IBE, and the colony was privatised that thrown open to international migrants after only 15 years. So the colony switched to IBE, ISE, and Standard as it received continual and increasing flows of migrants from an ever-more monoglot standard-speaking world. They speak a Spanish-influences dialect of Standard on Paraíso. The population of Paraíso is 0.43% of Humanity.

  • Fureidis was a “secular, but culturally Muslim” colony that early on attracted a majority of speakers of Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Bengali, and Malay. IBE was the language they had in common and the language of their technical manuals and reference materials. They spoke IBE at work and in schoolyards, and as they intermarried they increasing spoke it at home. Then there came later migrants from ISE-speaking and Standard-speaking Earth. On Fureidis they speak a dialect of Standard that has influences from the other languages, mostly Malay. The population of Fureidis is 0.053% of Humanity.

  • Covenant was a joint Israeli secular and Jewish religious separatist colony that also attracted dribs and drabs of religious communities that thought they would be compatible, “Noahide” religious innovators etc. It originally had Modern Hebrew as its official language, but that was a revival that didn’t take. Covenant struggled to attract migrants in the later migration period, so the influence of Standard-speaking late migrants was not overwhelming. Nevertheless most people on Covenant abandoned Hebrew. They on Covenant speak a dialect of Standard influenced by Hebrew. The population of Covenant is 0.433% of Humanity.

  • Persatuan was a secular utopist venture that, for cultural reasons, attracted mostly migrants from Indonesia and Malaysia. They spoke Malay on Persatuan through the Age of Isolation; highly-educated people learned Standard to access standard references and technical publications. Now Persatuan is learning Standard to modernise. The population of Persatuan is 0.106% of Humanity.

  • Khemet started out as a pan-African secular separatist colony, and suffered from a crazy attempt to revive ancient Egyptian as an official language. It attracted many early migrants who spoke French, Arabic, and Swahili, but as usual they had IBE in common and used references and manuals in IBE. Then they got 1.5 million migrants from ISE-speaking and Standard-speaking Earth. People speak Standard on Khemet. 0.144% of Humanity

Apart from that, all the colonies were either broadly international in the foundations or had regional roots in English-speaking North America, or were founded after everyone on Earth spoke ISE or Standards to begin with.

¹ Outside of that branch of it that is closest to skirmish wargaming.

² Within reason, naturally. I have made effective use of characters who can’t talk or have no common languages with the PCs for the purposes of particular adventures.

³ As a stolid monoglot who likes access to information and stories, I perhaps deplore it less than those players who are linguists. Sorry about that.

⁴ Without having to assume, let alone mention, high-intensity high-tech language course delivered by AI teachers on interstellar liners, nor computerised automatic simultaneous interpretation running on wearable computers. (Such things, implausible thirty years ago, are on the edge of reality now.)

⁵ And the decline of violence.

⁶ Not exactly the same as the English spoken in Anglophone countries.

⁷ I don’t say this is inevitable: Flat Black is not futurism. I don’t say it would be a good thing: Flat Black is not a utopia. I just say that this is why you don’t nave to deal with lack of mutual comprehension when talking to NPCs in most Flat Black adventures.

⁸ I have to change that to a better name.

It’s important to me that in Tela, the setting of Tapestry, there are not just seven races, but multiple culture areas per race, and each culture area has a substantial number of languages. Of course I can’t create those languages; J.R.R. Tolkien and M.A.R. Barker in collaboration could not get within orders of magnitude of the actual number of languages in a realistic world. But one of the continuing themes is the sense of diversity, and language is part of that.

So, for example, though I haven’t worked out a vocabulary or a grammar for the principal language of the trolls of Montes Nubili, I have made a point of telling the player whose character comes from there that his character’s language has almost nothing but irregular verbs. Having Eidetic Memory, they can learn the conjugation of a verb in one or two hearings, even if it’s nothing like the conjugation of any other verb.

This has meant that the trading expedition had quite a bit of silent barter and of guessing at the intentions of the locals. Though of course from time to time I’ve come up with a local who has some reason to know one of the languages of the exotic foreigners. And the voyage has lasted long enough so that all of the voyagers have gained at least Broken fluency in each other’s languages.

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In a gamist sense, “not understanding the language” is a challenge that needs to be overcome, much like “the guards won’t let us in to see the king”. The problem is, it’s the same challenge every time, unless you’re running a game of Fighting Linguists (“Aha! The morphosyntactic alignment is nominative–accusative, but there are two object cases: accusative and partitive!”). I think this is why basically every television series that’s dealt with exploring strange new worlds has rapidly settled on “the main cast can talk with everyone they meet” as the default. (Stargate SG-1 took a little time to settle – one early episode explicitly dealt with a language barrier – but after that they didn’t want to repeat the effect.)

We’re not as restricted as television, though. If we assume that all characters have at least basic fluency in Local (“help”, “where’s the toilet”, “two beers please, my friend is paying”) – or all locals have basic fluency in Player Character – then varying fluency levels between PCs can still be interesting: on this world, the face man is so impaired by language problems that the shy engineer has to talk to the locals instead. That’s a tool for getting characters out of their comfort zones and encouraging players to be inventive. It’s not a thing to over-use, but it seems potentially handy, and it tends to imply a manageable number of languages in use rather than a whole new language per world. (You’d probably want a system that coped with dialects and similarities and things, and modulated social and creative skills based on fluency; I wrote one such for GURPS 4e, and it’s in Pyramid #3/44.)

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In a discussion of this discussion that is taking place in the Flat Black group on FaceBook, one of the participants (a linguist and professional translator/interpreter) has pointed to that there is a great deal of regional variation in global linguas franca such as English, French, and Portuguese — to the extent that speakers of English in Singapore and Tanzania understand British and US content without any difficulty and believe that they are speaking clear English, but have so much Chinese and Swahili (respectively) in their lexicon that they are quite difficult to follow. He urged me to consider that there must be a similar range of variation in Standard.

Here is a copy of my reply:

Yes, I understand that. Standard is not quite a group of 625 related languages, though you might classify the dialects on Navabharata, Xin Tian Di, Hijra, Fureidis, Paraíso, and Covenant as related languages. It is, however, a collection of dialects, not a single uniform language.

The dialects of Standard spoken on the primary colonies have been diverging for 450–590 years from the Standard spoken in Earth’s global village. In such a span of time a great deal of change can occur: I can puzzle out the Middle Ebglish of Wyclif and Chaucer when it is written, but I would not be able to understand it spoken, nor make myself understood in it. Or in other examples there can be less change: Icelanders can read 900-year-old sagas and find that the language seems quaint but is not difficult. A lot of the rapidity of change in English has been driven by its encounters with other languages, especially French, and a lot of course by novelty. Standard had collisions like that on about eight colonies, with Hindi, Chinese, Arabic, Spanish/Portuguese, and Hebrew. But on the great majority it has not. And the colonies have not experienced the transformative shock of innovation that the English suffered from the Industrial revolution: there has been no need to coin ten thousand words and idioms for ten thousand new products and uses, because on every colony from its foundation until the Suite began to develop about a hundred years ago, technological progress has not been a matter for innovation but of recovering the capability of producing goods and services that are described in the popular and technical literature of old Earth.

There’s a lot of regional variation in English, French, Portuguese, Spanish: they have been radiating since the sixteenth century. There is even more variation in Chinese, Malay, Arabic, and I think Hindustani, which have been radiating longer. Now there may be a trend of convergence, and not just because of the efforts of the Chinese government. Australian English is a lot less distinctive than it was forty years ago, and my particular sociolect (Cultivated Australian) is vanishing completely. Anyway, most of that local variation in the regional linguas franca was established by divergence while there was no corpus of recorded speech. The colonies in “Flat Black”, on the other hand, spent most of the Age of Isolation as small societies of up to a few tens of millions in possession of three hundred years of Netflix from Earth: centuries of cultural output from ten billion people. We don’t know how much that will stabilise their language, but I am not unreasonable when I posit that it will do so to some extent.

On the gripping hand, Flat Black is not futurism. I am not trying to predict what will happen. I don’t even feel an urge to choose events that are especially likely. It’s a setting for SF RPG adventures in the style of Jack Vance’s “Oikumene”, “Gaean Reach”, “Alastor Cluster”, and I am designing it for that purpose. Jack Vance’s characters occasionally encounter a local dialect term or untranslatable word for some part of the local social experience. But they don’t have trouble making themselves understood, they don’t spend weeks cramming a language ahead of their arrival on a new planet, and they don’t wear (much less carry) a computer interpreter. Characters in “Flat Black” won’t do those things either.

Just now English is a diverse language, though not as diverse as Arabic. It has at least dozens of local and regional dialects spoken by native speakers, some of which have been drifting apart since the time of the Great Vowel Shift. Beside that in several areas we have communities that already have a common language learning English as a second language together. People learning ESL in Singapore are creating a variety of English influenced by the Chinese language that they already share. People in India are creating a variety of English influenced by the Hindustani languages that they already share. People in Tanzania are creating a variety of English influenced by Swahili. While on one hand the regional and socio-economic ranges of English within Australia, the UK, and I think the USA are narrowing, globally, English is getting more diverse. For now.

One of the new emerging varieties of English is International Business English, the language of international co-operation in business, diplomacy, and science. It is not “English as she is spoken” by natives: the EU has observed that its working groups communicate more effectively in English when there are no native English-speakers in the group, and that when a native speaker joins a team its mutual comprehension becomes less efficient¹. IBE is not global English as a whole: it is one dialect in a developing macrolanguage. Businessmen from Singapore, scientists from India, and diplomats from Tanzania might well speak Singlish, Hinglish, or Tanglish in their home towns, but they don’t lard their English with Chinese, Hindi, or Swahili idioms while they are speaking to (or writing for) Brazilians, Germans, and Vietnamese at international conferences.

In Flat Black it was IBE, not vernacular English, that became a global lingua franca. It picked up lexicon from other languages while it did so, and shed grammar. But because it was used specifically for international communications it did not break up into regional varieties even though vernacular English in general was doing so at the time. A dozen varieties of English developed; IBE was one of them; IBE was the English that was used and learned globally. Then the IBE of AD 2100 developed into the ISE of AD 2200 and as it did so destroyed the regional Englishes along with the other surviving languages.

Easy cheap ubiquitous international communications were not the only force for linguistic globalisation on Earth while ISE was developing. The world grew richer and countries more equal. International travel got quicker, cheaper, and more widely available. More people, lots more people, took to travelling. Not only were there substantial migrations and diasporas, but the rate of population churn rose and stayed high. It became common to study, train, and teach abroad. It became unremarkable to get a job in a foreign country, or even to go to abroad to look for a job. Every neighbourhood, every workplace, every hobby club, and every post-elementary classroom became a miniature Australia — a quarter of the people were immigrants from another country and another quarter had at least one immigrant parent. Classmates, workmates, and neighbours married each other. This went on for six generations before mass emigration to the stars even started. Race, culture, and language went through the blender.

Now admittedly, I know a chap whose native language is English who married a Catalan woman, their common language being Mandarin. The settled in Spain, and brought their children up tetralingual in Castilian, Catalan, Chinese, and English. But they are nuts². In most cases a Tanglish-Singlish mixed couple raising their kids where ISE is spoken in the schoolyards and on the high streets are going to see their children speaking ISE in public and marrying the descendants of different mixes, and their grandchildren will speak only ISE at home. Standard languages smother minority languages in three generations. It happened to German and Polish in the USA, it is happening to Spanish there too.

In the age of mass migration c. AD 2200 to AD 2353 Earth was a global village with drastically reduced regionalism in race, culture, and especially language.

Then we come to the question of the colonies developing distinct dialects by independent drift during the Age of Isolation, the Age of Piracy, the Formation Wars, and the Consolidation of the Empire. That could have been fast, like the development of English from the Great Vowel Shift to the present. Or it could have been slow, like the stasis of Icelandic since the mid-16th Century. Or the colonies’ possession of gargantuan legacies of voice and AV recorded material from 24th-century Earth, and the continual interaction of the people with vice-recognising and speech-synthesising computers programmed on Earth, might have slowed change even more than that.

It suits my needs as a setting designer to say that the rate of change varied from case to case, but that in most cases it was slow enough that contemporary Standard in 606 PDT is a collection of dialects that, while distinctive, are for the most part mutually intelligible.

¹ Yes, the Germans speak English better than the English do. Shakespeare is better when translated into IBE by a German.

² Sorry, Davey, You’re a nut.

My wife remembers an office job where she served as unofficial English-English translator, between the man from Newcastle (UK) and the man just off the boat from Jamaica.

Doylist point taken. Diegetically, it seems likely that at least some isolated colonies would experience significant linguistic drift (much like those Singapore/Tanzanian people, adding their own vocabulary but still able to understand the English media they brought with them). But then they can also understand the PCs, so problem solved!

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Good point.

I noted above that they speak such dialects on Navabharata, Hijra, XinTian Di, Paraíso, Fureidis, and Covenant, and that on Persatuan people actually speak a different language: Malay.

My eldest brother had a job for a short while — six or eight weeks — as the doctor in Julia Creek. He was only really a second-year resident at the time, stationed in Mount Isa Hospital, but the previous doctor had just walked out of the job and gone home to Kenya. Charles was terrified the whole time he was there: not fully trained, running both the hospital and the general practice, and feeling out of his depth and a long way from backup. When Queensland Health found a permanent (and fully-qualified) replacement and Charles got to go, the community sent a representative to give Charles a bunch of flowers and their thanks. The representative was nearly in tears.

“You’re the best doctor we’ve ever had!” she said.

“I’m not.” said Charles. “I’m really not.”

“You’re the first we’ve had who we could understand.”


Some of its details are quite subtle. I deal, remotely, with a number of Americans who are native English-speakers. Some parts of British English are worth playing up, because I can be entertainingly funny to them in speech while having the irony control turned down to 2. But it makes a difference in writing if I say “April 22nd” or “22nd April.” The first is their native order; the second is mine, and while they can understand it, the additional thought involved means they sometimes fail to appreciate the closeness of a date. They’re using US English rather than IBE.


I find “22nd April” a really odd form. What I commonly use, and what I think I’ve mostly seen in academic journal correspondence, is “22 April.”

In speech, I use “the twenty-second of April”, but I spell it “22 April” for clarity.