IFAQ: The Elvish Language

My new book Exploring Eberron is available now on the DM’s Guild. You can find a FAQ about it here. Yesterday I posted an IFAQ about developing languages. In the comments, a question came up about the role of the Elvish language in the world. Since the answers have broader implications on a general philosophy of worldbuilding, I wanted to make it a standalone IFAQ. So…

Elvish is the language of Thelanis. Is that primordially true, i.e. did Elves speak that language prior to their enslavement by the Giants? Also, if Elvish is the language of Thelanis, are Elves born knowing it, or must it be taught to children like any other language?

There are no canon answers to these questions. By the rules of D&D, elves speak Elvish. It’s part of their racial features. There’s no explanation of where the language came from or how they come to learn it. So first, to be clear, everything I’m about to say is what I do IN MY CAMPAIGN. It has no foundation in any canon source, though as far as I know it doesn’t contradict any canon source either; the topic has simply never come up. But if you don’t like it, don’t use it. To me, this is a perfect example of a choice where you need to think about the broader implications—you need to be sure you WANT your story to go down a particular path. So I’ll tell you my answer, but then I want to talk about WHY I’d answer that way.

First: Elvish is the language of Thelanis. That is primordially true. The planes are universal concepts, and their fundamental principles don’t change (setting aside the complications of Dal Quor!). With that said, one of the minor effects of Thelanis is that while you are in Thelanis, you understand Elvish. When you’re wandering through the Endless Weald, you can understand the songs of the dryads singing in the trees; you are part of the story and that means you understand its words. It is only when you and a dryad LEAVE Thelanis that you realize that you can’t understand her any more, and start hearing her words as Elvish instead simply understanding their meaning.

Second: In my Eberron, every elf is born with an innate understanding of the Elvish language. It doesn’t matter if you’re an orphan born in a Sharn gutter or a proud Aereni. You don’t have to be taught; the language a part of you, tied innately to the Fey Ancestry feature. It is impossible to be an elf and NOT understand Elvish.

WHY DO THIS? What appeals to me about this is that in concretely establishes that elves are not human. They aren’t just humans who have pointed ears and live for centuries. They are fundamentally alien beings whose minds do not work the same way as human minds. It further reinforces other things we’ve established about the elf cultures, namely that they are extremely tied to tradition and that they aren’t as innovative as humans. This makes sense if elves have a greater degree of engrained knowledge and instinct than humans. As an elf, you never have to develop a new language. You are born knowing THE LANGUAGE, the language that will allow you to speak to any elf anywhere.

This comes back to one of my basic principles of world building. I like exploring worlds that are unlike our own. To me, it’s fascinating to consider the impact of having a language seared into your brain from the moment of birth. How would that affect the development of culture? It is fundamentally the antithesis of the Babel story—the people of the world are divided by their many languages, but all elves are united by their common tongue.

The original question included this: was Giant the language that the oppressed elves were supposed to use with their overlords, while Elvish was preserved as the language they used among themselves? Absolutely. The giants weren’t going to learn Elvish, so elf servants had to learn at least basic Giant. It’s not that Elvish was preserved, because the elves couldn’t forget it even if they wanted to. But it was unquestionably SUPPRESSED, and elves would be punished for speaking it. But this is also a crucial factor in the eventual uprising. Captives of the giants, descendants of Qabalrin refugees, the unconquered ancestors of the Tairnadal—despite their different cultures and histories, they were united by the Elvish tongue and could always understand one another. Given this, one might well ask what about the Drow? First of all, by the RULES drow speak Elvish. Second, they possess the Fey Ancestry trait. To me, those two facts hold the answer. While altered by the giants, the drow still have their Fey Ancestry, and it is through that ancestry that they know the Elvish language.

This gets to a much deeper and more complicated question: Do the Khoravar (half-elves) innately understand Elvish, or do THEY have to learn it? The reason this is complicated is because it has vast ramifications on the relationship between Khoravar and Elves. We’ve often raised the question can a half-elf become a Tairnadal? Could they join the Undying Court? If all elves innately understand Elvish and Khorvar do NOT understand Elvish, that’s a deep point in favor of the idea that Khorvar are fundamentally not elves… while if they are born with the knowledge of Elvish, that’s a strong argument that they ARE spiritually part of the elf species and COULD connect with Patron Ancestors. PERSONALLY, I would say that Khoravar DO innately know Elvish, for the same reason as drow. Under the rules of 5E, half-elves possess the Fey Ancestry feat and have Elvish as an ingrained language. For me, it’s all about that Fey Ancestry; part of what it means to have Fey Ancestry is to KNOW ELVISH, in the same way that I’ve said that part of being a druid is that you KNOW DRUIDIC. This also explains why the Valenar were so quick to bring in Khoravar administrators; they may not consider them equals, but it’s good to have an administrator who KNOWS THE LANGUAGE. But this is definitely a case where I could see a DM ruling the other way specifically because of how they want to play out that story of the Khoravar who wants to be Tairnadal. We’ve also made a point of saying that many Khoravar communities develop a Khoravar Cant that is a unique blend of Elvish and Common; part of the point of this is that they KNOW Elvish, but they are choosing to speak in a manner that is unique to THEIR people, not simply relying on the language of either parent. Likewise, it adds color to the relationship between Aereni and drow; even though the drow were created to kill elves, they still know the Language.

So this raises another interesting question… what happens when you need a new word? A situation arises where there’s a concept that’s never been expressed in Elvish, or a poet is expressing an entirely new concept. Do they create a new word? If so, wouldn’t they have to teach it to others? Isn’t this exactly how we end up developing unique dialects and new languages? Certainly. But this is where we get back to the point that they’re not human, that they are touched by the Fey, that this is something that fundamentally doesn’t make sense. The poet doesn’t create a new word the way a human poet would. They realize they already know the word, even though it’s never been spoken in Elvish before. And once spoken, every other fey creature also knows that word. Because Elvish isn’t just a mundane, mortal language; it is an immortal, magical language. An elf knows Elvish because fundamentally, they are fey, and being fey means knowing Elvish. The language evolves as it is needed, and all fey creatures know the language. What this DOES mean is that any creature without Fey ancestry who learns Elvish WILL find that new words occasionally appear and they’ll have to learn their meaning, because without Fey Ancestry, they don’t get those automatic dictionary updates.

This is a long discussion of a point that, mechanically, makes no difference. Because by the rules, elves just know Elvish. It’s a racial feature with no inherent story. But the point is that once you add a story you GIVE it meaning. The reason I’d say that they DO all know it, that it is fundamentally tied to Fey Ancestry is because I WANT to explore the impact of that decision—on the Xen’drik Uprising, on the relationship between Khoravar and Aereni, on the idea of elves being bound to tradition. I think it’s interesting to explore ways in which elves AREN’T like humans, and to imagine what it would be like to be born with immediate, perfect knowledge of a language.

So, in conclusion, when there is no canon answer to questions like this—or even if there is!—the question to me is always how will it affect the story, and what story do I want to tell? *I* find the story of innate-knowledge-of-Elvish more INTERESTING that Elvish-is-just-a-mundane-language-like-any-other. But you certainly don’t have to agree with me!

Are there other languages that would work the same way?

Certainly. I’d say that an aasimar understands Celestial the same way that an elf understands Elvish; they don’t have to learn it, and you can’t be an aasimar and NOT understand Celestial (unless you’re an aasimar tied to a power that speaks another immortal language; note that the Court aasimar in Exploring Eberron speaks both Elvish and Celestial, and of course has Fey Ancestry!). All true immortals are born innately possessing all of their basic knowledge, including languages, and I would say that just like I’ve suggested with Elvish, if Celestial needs a new word, all creatures with an innate knowledge of Celestial automatically know that word. Again, MORTALS who have LEARNED the language wouldn’t get that automatic update. This could be an interesting element for archaeologists, being able to date inscriptions in Abyssal or Celestial based on “Note the use of ‘Alael’, which didn’t become part of the language until the Age of Giants.” But in general this would be an aspect of immortal languages. Humans can make new languages; immortals are born knowing their language, and again, can usually make themselves understood when they wish to.

In this article I suggested that Undercommon might be constantly evolving, but that anyone who could speak Undercommon automatically knows the current form of it—essentially the same principle as the Elvish dictionary updates, but that rather than just ADDING to the existing language, the pre-existing words are always changing… and that when you find inscriptions in Undercommon, they may make no sense under the current form of the language or they might have taken on a new meaning. However, this is a pretty difficult concept for us poor mortals to wrap our brains around, and I didn’t actually push it in either the Wayfinder’s Guide or Rising From The Last War.

Before the fall of Xen’drik were there multiple Giant languages for each realm?

This comes back to the whole question of language-in-games in general. Xen’drik is a massive continent and there were multiple, very distinct giant civilizations. Barring some exterior factor—IE Fey-Ancestry-means-you-speak-Elvish—it’s reasonable to assume that these different giant cultures would all have developed unique languages. However, it’s also the case that we haven’t defined those languages; we’ve never mentioned Sulatan or Elevenese. What we’ve said is that the language we know as Giant was the COMMON TONGUE of Xen’drik, widespread enough that it is what you find spoken by the vast diverse range of creatures across the continent. I might very well introduce the idea of Elevenese as a PLOT DEVICE—the adventurers have found an ancient scroll in Risia that’s written in old Elevenese, the pre-Giant language of the Group of Eleven! It’s completely unknown in the modern age, and you’ll need to use Comprehend Language!—but I’m not going to expect a player character to waste a language slot learning Elevenese; Giant is the language you NEED to know to get by in Xen’drik. Again, at the end of the day, it’s the question of how will this decision affect the story you and your friends tell at your table?

What is the difference/relationship between Celestial and Draconic?

In the article that’s been linked a few times I suggested that they might be the same, but I’ve actually backed off from that (and we didn’t include it in Rising From The Last War). I think that there are SIMILARITIES between the two, just as I’ve suggested that Goblin and Orc may have their roots in Abyssal (noting the similarity between Goblin and the names of the Overlords). But essentially, I think Draconic is the oldest MORTAL language, but it’s not an IMMORTAL language.

What about gnomes? Aren’t they fey? Do they know Elvish?

The idea that gnomes are from Thelanis was added into the fourth edition books specifically to address the fact that in fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons, gnomes were fey creatures. This is no longer true in fifth edition, and it’s not something we mention in Rising From The Last War. To my mind, this is in the same category as BAATOR, which was added into the planar cosmology in fourth edition, and REMOVED AGAIN in Rising From The Last War. Canon can evolve, and the latest canon does NOT have gnomes as Thelanian immigrants. What I have suggested is that there are gnomes who have immigrated FROM EBERRON TO THELANIS through the Feyspires, but they are natives of Eberron. They do not have Fey Ancestry and as such don’t have an innate understanding of Elvish. If a gnome knows Elvish, it’s because they learned it like anyone else.

Setting aside the fact that the idea of gnomes being from Thelanis was always a 4E artifact, the gnomes and elves of Eberron have a few very fundamental differences that reflect this. The elves are deeply bound to tradition and not driven toward innovation. They are happy to exist in isolation. By contrast, gnomes are typically extremely inquisitive. They are called out as being explorers, seeking out new lands and discovering new cultures. The Zil try different religions. House Sivis is specifically called out as having created multiple languages. They’ve reverse-engineered elemental binding techniques recovered from Xen’drik. The fact that there’s some gnomes in Thelanis is a reflection of that deeply inquisitive nature—not of Thelanian origins. With that said, as I describe in the Exploring Eberron FAQ, I’m playing a gnome artificer from Pylas Pyrial in my current campaign. But he’s NOT a fey creature; he’s just using the “Magical Thinking” style of artifice tied to his Pyrial upbringing.

Thanks for taking this deep dive into the Elvish rabbit hole. And thanks to my Patrons for making it possible!

42 thoughts on “IFAQ: The Elvish Language

  1. Very cool! What I’ve done in my game is say that Sylvan is the language of Thelanis, and that Elven is basically a magical conlang, based on Sylvan, that the ancient Phiarlans developed through big rituals specifically to give themselves a means of communication that couldn’t be understood by the giants, either through mundane means or through magic like Comprehend Languages. 50 millennia later, that magic has weakened, but I think it’s a really cool origin for the language.

    I’ve spent far too much time thinking about how I want the Elven writing system to work.

    • That makes sense, and is more in keeping with canon, as Sylvan is listed as a language in Rising. But I like the idea of it as a fundamentally immortal, supernatural language.

      • Sylvan is also listed in the ECS as the language of Thelanis – but using Elven script, so there may be a way of reconciling them.

  2. “because the elves couldn’t forget it even if they wanted to”

    Feeblemind removes the target’s ability to understand language (true in both 3e and 5e). Do you think Feeblemind comes out on top because it’s (rather powerful) magic, or do Eberron’s Elves retain their knowledge of Elvish becuase it’s an innate part of them?

    • My goal it to provide an interesting story, not a concrete mechanical benefit. And Feeblemind is a powerful supernatural effect; I’d say it trumps innate knowledge of Elvish.

  3. So in your games Sylvan as the language of the fey is wholly subsumed into Elvish?

    From this talk of language having the totems of Lamannia understand Druidic seems right too, if we combine your previous suggestion of Druidic as the language of Eberron and the suggestion that the totems are potential sources of primal magic. If there were any meaningful statblock you could write for a mile-long wolf that is.

    • So in your games Sylvan as the language of the fey is wholly subsumed into Elvish?

      That’s what I am suggesting here, and it’s what I suggested in this article:
      http://keith-baker.com/lightning-round-2-26-18-languages-elementals-and-pirates/

      However, I forgot that we DIDN’T do this in Rising From The Last War. So it’s definitely not canon.Again, why I like it is that it gives elves a concrete connection to the fey and an aspect that is fundamentally supernatural. But it’s NOT the canon answer.

    • “If there were any meaningful statblock you could write for a mile-long wolf that is.”

      Well there is at least one WotC d20 system based game (which, IMO, is one of the best using the system) that includes stuff that big in the core book…

  4. Very interesting. Conjures up the scene of a poetic Archfey whose story involves studying the nature of a thing and naming it, and those words rippling throughout the Fey-touched
    … and yet it also brings to mind a villainous Archfey who has had their name or a word stricken from the linguistic memory.

    • Certainly. The concept of immortal languages definitely plays into the idea of true names; because the language isn’t a cultural construct, it’s a universal truth.

  5. How does this interact with naming? Do elves name their children in Elvish, or have some other standard for names due to the fundemental nature of meaning Elvish words have?

  6. I honestly loved the older article about reducing the languages and highlighting ones that matter, and this just adds to that so I’m happy for this too!

    • In the article that’s been linked a few times I suggested that they might be the same, but I’ve actually backed off from that (and we didn’t include it in Rising). I think that there are SIMILARITIES between the two, just as I’ve suggested that Goblin and Orc may have their roots in Abyssal (noting the similarity between Goblin and the names of the Overlords). But essentially, I think Draconic is the oldest MORTAL language, but it’s not an IMMORTAL language.

      • Does Draconic still have the innate ties to magic that make it used in a lot of arcane inscriptions, or is that just Celestial?

        • I am also interested in this – and the ties to.Dragonmarks. IME, i’m strongly leaning towards Dragonmarks being 39 characters, or glyphs – sort of, ish – in a protolanguage that is, or is similar to, written Celestial – and playing with the words of power being played out in flesh. The reason the prophecy has power is it arranges dragonmarks on rhe page of the world.

        • I still use Draconic as the underlying language of arcane science, yes. The dragons were the first civilization to pioneer arcane science.

  7. Do the automatic updates to Undercommon apply to anyone who has learned to speak it, or just the immortals born knowing it?

    • With the evolving Undercommon, my thought was that everyone who knows it—regardless of source—knows the current version. This is what makes it stranger than my suggestion for Elvish. Essentially, immortals are connected to a supernatural source that delivers updates. While Undercommon is more like a virus that continues to evolve in your brain; once you infect yourself with that knowledge, it keeps changing within you.

      • Ooo, thinking of Undercommon like a virus, I think I’m going to have it “infect” not just people that learn it, but people that *understand it by any means*.

        Read or listen to it while using the spell comprehend languages or tongues? You know Undercommon now whether you like it or not!

        Probably be creepy about it too, have people that have recently learned it accidentally say Undercommon words instead of the word in the language they are intending to speak mixed in. I’m going to have fun with this.

  8. Do you think it is a feature of such immortal languages that they encode truths of reality?

    For example, do the names of plants hint at their medicinal properties or the how closeness of the names of animals indicate how similar they are?

  9. Where does Primordial fit into all this? I could see it being the language of Lamannia natives since the merfolk speak a dialect of it.

    In my games, Primordial is an inherently supernatural language especially useful because each of the four elemental dialects is a way to transmit speech through that specific medium. For instance, Aquan is for speaking underwater and speaking Ignan into a flame causes it to flicker in a precise pattern of light signals decipherable to anyone else that speaks Primordial.

  10. Awesome! I loved that old article on language use and had also been wondering about the Celestial/Draconic bit.

    Elven being an automatically known language for elves is fascinating!

  11. Thanks, Keith! You explored facets of Elvish that hadn’t even occurred to me. Wow . One little question: Elves understand their language from birth, but does the maturing brain and vocal apparatus of the child affect what they can actually understand or speak? Can a newborn understand an epic Elvish poem, and then explain to Mother dearest how much they appreciated it?

    • I don’t think we have a race Saint Alias here. My assumption would be that early childhood language education for elves is similar to in humans, but it’s not about introducing new concepts so much as it is “reminding” them of them. Maybe when introducing color words, as the lesson goes on the instructor needs to provide less and less prodding for the students to “remember” more and more obscure color words, until the instructor doesn’t even need to tell the students the word for “puce”, they just know it already.

  12. This is great! As a language guy, I enjoy this.

    I assume then the same goes for Tieflings?
    What about Gnomes? Given their Fey flavor, would that work for them too? Interesting then how it’ll connect to the Mark of Scribing.

    • I’ve added a section about the gnomes to the end of the article, so check that out.

      Tieflings can have many different origins in Eberron. Most tieflings are planetouched—influenced by manifest zones—and I could see some logic to adjusting their racial languages to reflect the plane they are tied to.

    • INMYEBERRON Modern Elvish in khorvaire sounds like peruvian/bolivan accent since they have lot´s of influence of the gigant (that sounds like quechua / incan language) so could give you lot of color to your game.

      But thelanis elven could sound with a more LOTR accent since it´s more ancestral and fey.

  13. How would the Gnome language (Zil?) factor in all of this? If I understand the canon correctly, gnomes are descended from the eladrin of Pylas Pirial, so I would imagine that the Zil language would also be descended from the language of Thelanis. So one could reasonably expect some kind of similarities in treatment for the gnome language, or even to have gnomes and elves speak the same language?

    Then again, the latter is no fun to me. Since gnomes are much more innovative than elves, it would make sense that their language comes to differ from Thelanian and (gasp!) evolve away from it. But it could still be interesting to apply the same fey-ancestry vibe of every gnome just inherently knowing the language –– because of the connection to Thelanis. Would that be fair? I imagine gnomes would really revel in a language that not so much changes but gets continually enriched with ever new ways of saying the same old things.

  14. Are there any other languages that work the same way? Other than the languages of immortals are there any other races that are born knowing their language?

  15. Hey, Keith!

    Gnomish language have roots on goblin or elven language in your opinion?

    Or maybe is a mix? Because if gnomes aren’t from Feyspires, but travel there, I would expected that they already had a language.

    • I think the Gnome language is entirely unique, not based on Elvish or Goblin. It’s been called out before that the MODERN Gnome language may not be their original language — that the Zil may have created a superior language sometime in their history and replaced their original one. Note that House Sivis in particular is called out as having created a number of unique languages; it’s canon that Sivis has a language called Stonespeech, that allows them to convey lots of information in few words to improve the efficiency of Sending.

      • Interesting. Do you think that other gnome cultures, as the island of Lhaazar that I forgot the name, would make their own language and this is different from Zil modern language?

        • The Principality of Lorghalen was established by the Zil gnomes, but they aren’t tied to Zilargo or the Trust. And yes, they did make their own unique language—though they all learn Common to communicate with other Lhazaar.

  16. This is what I do in my games, to cut down on the raw number of extraplanar languages;

    “Immortal creatures all speak one tongue, the language of creation and prophecy. This language is called Supernal. All creatures capable of speech understand spoken Supernal, but only immortal creatures can speak or read it. Immortal creatures in turn understand all spoken language.

    Mortal creatures of the planes or who interact closely with immortals have languages of their own; for example, Barazhad is the ancient tongue of the mortal servitors of Overlords, and the Kalamer of Lammania have their own language. In some cases these languages even have magical properties. Rhaani is the mortal tongue of Thelanis, and all fey – including elves and their modern descendants – innately know how to speak it.”

    In this paradigm, I’ve cut Quori (Quori can use Supernal, and Quori, Kalashtar, and Inspired can communicate via telepathy, so they don’t need another layer of special communication on top of that); I think the full list of immortal-influenced languages in my games is Barazhad (abyssal/infernal, for servitors of native fiends – but notably not the fiends themselves), Iokharic (draconic, influenced by Couatl), Rhaani (Elven), Xor (undercommon, mortal aberrations and those touched by Xoriat), [A Kalamer Language, haven’t settled on a name], and Gith (for Githzerai and Githyanki). Davek (dwarven) is theorized by some scholars to be such a language, originating in Risia, but the jury’s still out on that one.

  17. This it´s a good article; IN MY EBERRON Elvish it´s a natural languaje from thelanis as Sylvan It´s and however the elves come to Eberron they brought it and they keep it until slaved by gigants.

    For my eberron Gigant language it´s Quechua (Incan Languaje) since they have lot of cultural affinity, now they speak a degenerated version of it.

    Elvish spoken by Elves and Drow, closer to their former gigant masters sounds like elven with peruvian/bolivian accent (more andine accent that we could do since we live in south america) giving lots of color to the interpretation since feels close to aboriginal roots

    Modern Elvish it´s tied to Valenar and Aerenal elves with root on the other, people from thelanis could feel centuries of change in the languages as we could be for example an american english understanding British accent or even Scottish.

    So Elvish you could understand as a portuguese could understand spanish or italian; since one it´s derivation of the other subject to historical and cultural changes.

    If your players are too thick about, that´s a good explanation that thelanian FEY origin gives your brain affinity, like all chinese speak chinese languaje.

  18. I just read the section on Gnomes in the article. I am now convinced that were Prof. Tolkien reincarnated on Eberron, he’d be a Gnome philologist at Korranberg University, who makes frequent expeditions through the Feyspire into Thelanis in search of Stories!

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