Thursday, March 29, 2012

Alignment Languages

Н.К.Рерих "Победа (Змей Горыныч)".

There is so much to dislike about alignment in AD&D, your humble host cannot contain it all within a single post.  Here then is the first in a projected, irregular series about how bogus alignment really is.  Today's topic is the bizzare concept of 'alignment languages.'  Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from page 24 of the 1E Dungeon Masters Guide.

Gygax claims that alignment languages are “not unjustifiable” by making reference to thieves' cant, coded communications by secret societies, and the use of Latin by the Catholic Church. That's all fine and dandy, but these are examples of organizations. The suggestion that all intelligent beings of sympathetic moral outlook can communicate with one another via a special language is simply bizarre. Oh wait, not all intelligent beings...Although Blink Dogs are intelligent and lawful good (and have their own language), they do not understand “lawful good” language because they are instinctively lawful good – they “do not intellectually embrace the ethos of lawful good.” Huh? On the other hand, an intelligent dragon does understand the tongue of his or her alignment. Why the difference? Are mythological reptiles more linguistically inclined than magic canines? Do they have a better grasp of philosophical nuances?

Alignment languages are not spoken openly. “Any character foolish enough to announce his or her alignment by publicly crying out in that alignment tongue will incur considerable social sanctions” from persons of that same alignment as well as persons of other alignments. This leads to some interesting questions. If alignment languages are kept so secret, how would anyone recognize an alignment tongue not their own? I mean, I don't understand Russian, but I can recognize spoken Russian as Russian. If Russian was an alignment language and therefore kept confidential, I wouldn't be able to recognize it as a language and I certainly wouldn't associate it with 'Slavic Neutral' or whatever ethical paradigm it represented. Also, how are alignment languages taught? Are children assigned an alignment based on the results of a moral aptitude test? Do they go to alignment language summer camp? (“Chaotic good camp is way better than neutral good camp...They don't supervise you at all.” “My parents threatened to send me to lawful evil camp if my grades don't improve...I hear the counselors are real hobgoblins.”) Don't tell me that everyone in a family is the same alignment and that alignment tongues are propagated that way.

According to page 34 of the 1E Players Handbook, “If a character changes alignment, the previously known language is no longer able to be spoken by him or her” and, one supposes, no longer understood. Also, from the same page, “only one alignment dialect can be used by a character.” Are the neural mechanisms for comprehending an alignment language disrupted by an alteration of ethical motive? I could almost buy that but for the alignment language abilities of intelligent, high level assassins. Realistically, how do they learn additional alignment languages?

Alignment languages “are not used as salutations or interrogatives if the speaker is uncertain of the alignment of those addressed”(emphasis in original) and they are “used to establish credentials only after initial communications have been established by other means.” However, “Each alignment language is constructed to allow recognition of like-aligned creatures...” If you have to be certain of someone's alignment before conversing with them in an alignment language, how can you use alignment languages for purposes of recognition?

Lastly, alignment languages consist of a “special set of signs, signals, gestures, and words.” Regardless, certain magic swords can somehow communicate via alignment language. How does that work?


  1. Agreed.

    A global/universal "Alignment" language is: a) silly b) indefensible.

    A congregation of an organised religion *may* have it of course, but what happens to those who struggle to pick up extra languages?

    Most people can pick up a few dozen words/phrases without too much difficulty (tourist quality as we'd call it), but they'd forget them over time if they weren't in use on a semi-regular basis.

    I think alignment in D&D was OK for 1974-1979 but should have been redone a lone time ago.

  2. It sounds like a comic-level thing. That is, the nine-languages was established by the gods or a higher power to better segregate the alignments, and as such, you will never be taught your own alignment language--you will know it by heart. (by this logic, everyone should have "Know Alignment" as an unquestioned sixth sense)

    It was always an usual thing to have and to analyze, so that is why folks ignore it. I like to play in genres where alignments are out of place, so I rarely use Alignments, much less "Alignment" language when I do use them.

  3. IMHO Alignment Languages work only if you consider alignment itself as an allegiance to a Group/Nation (like Poul Anderson did in Three Hearts and Three Lions).

  4. An excellent analysis of one of AD&D's more bone-headed aspects. Yeah, you could consider Alignment Tongue to be a religious/group/nation language as mentioned above and by Gygax in his rationalization of them, but the silly "innate" mechanics of the languages totally undercuts this argument. I remember reading that line about how changing alignment means you suddenly cannot understand the language you have been able to speak for (presumably) most of your life, and it made no sense at all.

    Another thoughtful, well-researched and referenced post.