Midnight RPG - Orcish Written Language

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"The hosts of Izrador contain far more sorts of foul creatures than just orcs, and none of these have the orcs’ facility with language. As a result, the armies and agents of Izrador use a language the dwarves call Black Tongue. It is a simple tongue that even the most dim-witted ogre is able to master. They use this language when encamped, on patrol, or fighting together. Many of the non-orc races of Izrador’s horde have begun using the language exclusively, even when among only their own kind. Because of its simplicity, Black Tongue can only be used at pidgin competence." - Midnight: Second Edition, pp. 160

As described in the main Midnight campaign book, Black Tongue is an extremely simple language that is nonetheless useable to convey everything that the Shadow's non-orcish minions might need to communicate with one another. Since no further information on the language appears in any Midnight supplements (so far as I know), I have come up with the following on my own.

Black Tongue has no alphabet per se, but every word in its lexicon is made up of 104 distinct syllables (Agh, Bur, Il, Ish, Krim, Pat, Ren, Ul, Vor, Zha and Zum, to name a few), which can be combined in thousands of different ways. "Aghbur" is a word, as are "Ishzum" and "Ulren". No single word is more than four syllables long, although compound words are common. There are words for only fourteen numbers: 1 through 10, 50, 100, 500 and 1000, as well as for a few other specific numbers, such as "a dozen" or "a fist".

Spending time around Kyuad and Zal'Kazzir has made Durgaz interested in the possibilities presented by written language. He briefly considered asking Zal or Kyuad to teach him to read Courtier or Colonial, but decided against it, instead trying to puzzle out the fundamentals of the written word by himself. In the process, he has created something entirely new: a heretofore nonexistent written variant of Black Tongue, the simplest language he knows.

The actual creation of the alphabet was simple: assigning a unique symbol to each of the 104 syllables that make up the Black Tongue. Examples:

Agh: @
Bur: #
Il: %
Ish: ^
Krim: $
Pat: &
Ren: *
Shi: ]
Ul: (
Vor: !
Zha: )
Zum: ?

Thus, "Agh burzum-ishi krimpatul!" (Out of darkness bind them!) becomes: @ #?^] $&(

Over the past few weeks on his "off-time", Durgaz has been steadily compiling a master key of the symbols he has devised for each syllable in the Black Tongue and inscribing it on the giant worg hide he got from Ossion using a heated dagger-point. The 104 symbols were easy to write down. Clarifying the meaning of each one was harder. The solution was to use a rebus-puzzle approach, of sorts -- under the spot where all 104 symbols were written down, he has recorded two columns containing, in each row, a simple picture of something followed by the symbols representing its syllables.

Example: A picture of a shield, called a "zhabur" in Black Tongue, followed by the symbols for "Zha" and "Bur": )#
And on the next row: a picture of a boro, called an "ishipat" in Black Tongue, followed by the symbols for "Ish", "Shi" and "Pat": ^]&

Assuming that the words are picked so as not to overlap too much in terms of what syllables they use, and assuming at least two syllables per word, the entire "dictionary" can be summed up in somewhere between thirty and fifty rows. And anyone with a familiarity with Black Tongue, and knowing that each symbol represents a syllable, can pick up the hide and easily figure out what syllable is represented by what symbol. Looking at the two examples above, it's easy to figure out that, say, "zhapat" would be )&.

Surprisingly simple. The trickiest part, honestly, would be memorizing the 104 symbols, and Durgaz will specifically be choosing symbols that are vaguely relatable to common words using the syllables they represent. (He's not, obviously, actually using number signs and brackets.) The best part is that it should be useable to communicate anything that can be spoken in Black Tongue, thanks to the sheer simplicity of the language. Thank the ogres for making that necessary.


On the number of characters:
The Cherokee syllabary has 84 characters, and it boasts one of the highest learning and retention rates of any written language anywhere (maybe the Cherokee are just smarter, hehe). I think black tongue could get away with 60-70 characters.

One option (maybe for the development of orcish) might be to make the written language be a syllabic alphabet. In these, each character has an inherant vowel that can be changed or muted with a diacritic. This simplifies the language by requiring the reader to learn the diacritics for the vowel sounds, and then a collection of 30-40 consonants. This is closer to an alphabet, however. Ethiopic, one of the oldest writing systems in the world, and Inuktitut (sort of), which is less than a century old, are both examples. Inuktitut is normally classified as a syllabary because each character is different, but only because they are mirrored or rotated. Rotating a letter to change it isn't much different than adding two little circles to the top of it.


I like that idea for the later written adaptation of Orcish. However, one of the main points I wanted to make with the written version of Black Tongue was that it could be picked up with relative ease by beings who had no previous knowledge of any written language. The one syllable = one character system works very well for this; you see a picture of something with a two-syllable name followed by a 'word' made up of two characters, and now you know what syllables those two characters represent. Given orcs' capacity for language, I'd bet most of them could commit it to memory in a week. (Assuming they had the skill points to spend ... </metagame>)

If the Cherokee syllabary only has 84 characters, I'd say we could get away with lowering Black Tongue to, oh, 67. The Cherokee people were obviously a lot smarter than ogres, orcs and filthy, filthy goblins, and besides, the Black Tongue seems mostly limited to short, gutteral bursts. How many different elaborations on "ugh!" do you really need?


I think we need to be careful how much corrolation we imply between BT and Orcish, because they are not the same language. "Sword" might be one word in Orcish and another in BT. That doesn't preclude us from using the same syllabary for each, however. But people who know how to write in BT are still going to spell words differently in Orcish, because they are different words, even though they share some of the same characters.

The next step[edit]

I think the next step would be to start making a list of the syllables that would need to be represented by both languages. Do you agree?

For BT I think it would work to cut out some specific sounds from the language as a whole, and then go from there. Like the hard S (sound or Ossion). Creatures with big, tusk-filled mouths would have a hard time with that whistling. Once we have a structure for how the symbols can be created, we can think up all 67 or so that we need.

For Orcish, well, it'll be more complex to say the least. I can do some research into this.


One thing you might want to consider is both the Linguistic and the Political connotations of the Black Tongue.

Linguistically, Black Speech is a bastardized pidgin of Dark Speech, the Language of Evil, unspeakable by man (well... almost). The Black Speech is a crude dialect both because it is designed to be very easy to learn, but also because the language from which it is taken is seriously incomplete to begin with. According to Book of Vile Darkness:

"There are no words in the Dark Speech for good concepts such as kindness, mercy or purity. However, Evil characters can speak of Misery, Anguish, Hate, and Betrayal with an accuracy impossible in any other language."

It seems reasonable then that any new system should distance itself as far as possible from Black Tongue and its self-limiting linguistic artifacts.

Politically, Black Tongue is even worse. Firstly, it places the Odrendor on the same linguistic plane as Ogres and Trolls, reinforcing both the cultural link with the minions of Shadow and the Orcish slave-mentality. Even worse, the language itself is composed of the cast-off verbal crumbs of the Dark God himself. It seems wise that any Orcish language, especially given its existing antecedants in Old Dwarven and the linguistic adaptability of the Odrendor, should borrow and include as much as possible from other, already successful languages, as I'm sure it already does to some degree (Just as English does).

Hope this helps.


We have a problem here. If I'm remembering right, the information in the languages section of the Midnight 2nd Ed. book doesn't say that Black Tongue (BT) is derived from anything. Andrew says it's a dumbed-down version of Orcish. Adam says Black Speech.

If you're just conjecturing, then I'm going to throw out what is far more likely than either of your guesses: it's a degenerated amalgamation of the native tongues of goblins, ogres, giant-men, and hobgoblins, and has nothing at all to do with other standard languages.

Without references, I'm going to have to assume we're all wrong.


Bill: you are remembering right. I thought I remembered something somewhere implying that Black Tongue was to Orcish what stripped-down-caveman-pig-latin would be to English, but I can't find it anywhere in the book, so I think I may have just made it up. I certainly don't see anything relating Black Tongue to Dark Speech other than the similarity of their names, unless Kevin made some sort of house-specific ruling on that. Absent any 'official' ruling on the topic, I'd go with Bill's theory, as it makes a lot more sense.

Adam: you are correct that Black Tongue, being the language designed for creatures too dumb to speak anything else, would not be the best choice politically. However, I'm envisioning the Black Tongue written variant as more of a 'bridge' language than anything else. If Black Tongue is as simple as I'm envisioning it (with all sentences and words being reducible to the same unchanging set of syllables), then it would be an excellent 'starter language' for creatures with no history of literacy. Once the orcs can read and write the Black Tongue's written variant, they are in a much better position to learn other written languages, and once they begin to pick up smatterings of other languages (as they invariably will, given the orcs' linguistic abilities), it becomes much more feasible to try and adapt the much-more-complex Orcish.