*Update* I published this early because of a discussion on Facebook, and to get it out quickly, I didn’t do my usual check through the “primary source” – the published books. Preparing this for recording, I have now added references in.
Zeni is uncommon on Sadaal. The language is growing slowly on Bahram, but the indigenous tongues still dominate in Alburz. Priests and diplomats claim not to understand a word of Zeni and use translators in all meetings with foreigners. (Atlas Compendium page 17)
I am not generally a fan of language skills (or lack of them) getting in the way of fun roleplaying. But I appreciate the point of view of players who might be inspired by the cultural history of the Third Horizon to play with language difficulties. The core rulebook makes a number of references to the diverse languages of the Third Horizon, but apart from providing a couple of technological workarounds (such as the Language Unit on Page 109 and the cybernetic Language Modulator on Page 75), doesn’t offer much mechanically to emulate the complexity of communication. If I had a group of players eager to be explorers, traders in exotic goods, or missionaries, and turned on by the difficulties of communicating in the Third Horizon, I’d house rule it like this:
Zeni is the common tongue
“The language of the Zenithians, Zeni, has grown into the lingua franca of the Horizon today, as trade and commerce are dominated by the Zenithians. Most travelers (and PCs) speak Zeni in addition to their native tongues” (page 223). A closed community traveling for generations to the Horizon, would have a strong shared language. The work the Zenithians did in opening up the portals and bringing together Firstcome communities who had cut themselves off from one-another puts them in the place of colonial Britain, spreading English around the world and replacing French as the Lingua Franca. Even if what results in some places is a Patois like Singlish in Singapore, there will be enough Zenithian words in the dialect that even the least educated Plebeian can make themselves understood.
I am not ruling out the idea that different Zenithian families might have preserved their own language, or that the sleepers on the Zenith might have struggled to learn the Zenithian that evolved during the centuries of the voyage. But those are complexities that I am not going to get into here. Maybe in the future sometime, if I have a campaign based around the politics within the Zenithian Hegemony, there will be an opportunity to get into the nitty gritty. Speaking of the Hegemony, you just know they have a Language Institute defining Zeni grammar and vocabulary, and ineffectively banning words borrowed from Firstcome languages.
How many languages are there?
All Zenithians speak Zeni, and all Firstcome speak their native language and Zenithian. These are the base languages for every PC. Yes, this puts Firstcome characters at a slight advantage, but I don’t care. If you really do care, how about this? Only Privileged Firstcome speak Zeni like a Zenithian, Stationaries take a -1 modifier when rolling to, for example, manipulate a Zenithian of equal reputation, and plebeians a -2.
What IS their native language? Whatever the player thinks fits their character. A number are mention in book, including: Dabari; Miri; Kuan; Algolan; and, Zalosi. And we know that the Nomad tribes have enough different languages to make presenting themselves as a single faction to the political structures of the Third Horizon very … confusing.
One imagines that the Order of the Pariah have ensured there is only one Zalosi language, and everything else spoken in that system is heresy, but you can also imagine the heretics of Zalos B have also stamped out every language other than their TruZalosi. I like to think the planets of the Third Horizon are not monocultures, and that each has developed a variety of linguistic communities. But just how detailed your players want to go is up to each table to decide. If your native community is a particular forest of Labuan you could say that tribe’s dialect is your native language, but you might prefer to say you speak “Labuanese”. And let’s not forget the languages of the semi-intelligent – the ekilibri and the nekatra on Kua and the skavara on Amedo.
“Ameda from Amedo is perhaps the most popular artist in [Tattoo] alley. She is well traveled, [and] speaks several languages” (page 256). In a multilingual Horizon, your PCs will have the opportunity to speak more than one language, but how many? A simple house rule I’d use to manage this would be that you can speak as many exotic languages fluently as you have points in Culture. Thus a Zenithian with three points in culture can speak a total of four languages: Zeni and three others. A Firstcome with three points can speak five: their native language; Zeni and three others.
I would recommend that players don’t pick which Languages they speak at character creation (though a Zenithian player character choosing to speak TruZalosi at creation is that player lobbying the GM for an adventure set on Zalos B, surely). Rather, when the party encounter an exotic language, any player with an unassigned culture point and a decent reason why they might speak it should claim to right to be translator for the party.
If none of the party have unassigned languages, or a technological solution, then it’s up to those with Culture to make a roll with any modification the GM chooses, every time they need to make themselves understood.