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In early D&D, there was the concept of an "alignment language."

The original "little brown book" D&D says only:

Law, Chaos and Neutrality also have common languages spoken by each respectively.

The Holmes basic rules, which come between "brown book" and Moldvay say:

Lawful good, lawful evil, chaotic good, chaotic evil, and neutrality also have common languages spoken by each respectively. One can attempt to communicate through the common tongue, language particular to a creature class, or one of the divisional languages (lawful good, etc.). While not understanding the language, creatures who speak a divisional tongue will recognize a hostile one and attack.

Moldvay D&D says:

Dungeons & Dragons, Basic Rules, page B11

Alignment Languages

Each alignment has a secret language of passwords, hand signals, and other body motions. Player characters and intelligent monsters will always know their alignment languages. They will also recognize when another alignment language is being spoken, but will not understand it. Alignment languages are not written down, nor may they be learned unless a character changes alignment. When this happens, the character forgets the old alignment language and starts using the new one immediately.


So much of Dungeons and Dragons was very generic "sword and sorcery" fantasy that these rules always stuck out to me as an extremely sore thumb, or like one of those snails that has been infected by a fungus and begins to pulsate in random colors. What the heck is going on here?

So, alignment languages show up pretty early in D&D's history. Every intelligent being that is on the side of Law can communicate. Every intelligent being that has no particular feelings about Law can, too. If they experience a profound change in their feelings about this, they can no longer communicate with the people they used to. It isn't clear how much communication is possible in an alignment language, since Moldvay describes it as "passwords, hand signals, and other body motions."

In AD&D 1E, though, there is no such limitation:

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, page 34

Character Languages

In addition to the common tongue, all intelligent creatures able to converse in speech use special languages particular to their alignment. These alignment languages are: Chaotic Evil, Chaotic Good, Chaotic Neutral, lawful Evil, Lawful Good, Lawful Neutral, Neutral Evil, Neutral Good, and Neutrality. The alignment of your character will dictate which language he or she speaks, for only one alignment dialect can be used by a character (cf. CHARACTER CLASSES, The Assassin). If a character changes alignment, the previously known longuage is no longer able to be spoken by him or her.

That cross-reference to the assassin class is there because assassins alone can learn the languages of other alignments. Probably not all of them, though, because now there are nine instead of three.

In AD&D 2E, the alignment language seems to have been silently dropped, and never spoken of again as far as I know.

When I was ten and played AD&D, the idea of alignment languages struck me as incomprehensible, and today even though I have come to love almost everything about basic and early-Advanced D&D, alignment languages still seem incomprehensible, weird, and unexplained.

What I want to know is this: how were (or are) alignment languages put to use, described, and conceived of in actual play ? So far, my use of them has always been "pretend they do not exist." I am curious as to how others view and address them.

Also: where did this bizarre idea come from? It smacks of being lifted from some fantasy book, but I can't recall ever reading anything like it.

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6 Answers 6

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In general in play they were ignored or just treated as an abstract language with no further comment.

As to where they came from, here's an answer from Gary Gygax on Dragonsfoot!

As D&D was being quantified and qualified by the publication of the supplemental rules booklets. I decided that Thieves' cant should not be the only secret language. Thus alignment languages come into play, the rational being they were akin to Hebrew for Jewish and Latin for Roman Catholic persons.

I have since regretted the addition, as the non-cleric user would have only a limited vocabulary, and little cound [sic] be conveyed or understoon [sic] by the use of an alignment language between non-clerical users.

If the DMs would have restricted the use of alignment languages--done mainly because I insisted on that as I should have--then the concept is vaible [sic]. In my view the secret societies of alignment would be pantheonic, known to the clerics of that belief system and special orders of laity only. The ordinary faithful would know only a few words, more or less for recognition.

In other words, it was supposed to be more like religious languages, but wasn't really well thought through. It disappeared in Second Edition and was not missed.

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I always thought it was because of this one line: "the language is that of Mordor, which I will not utter here" - but I guess I was wrong! –  gomad Sep 16 '11 at 18:14
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My group got into a similar discussion about Thieves Cant. Like Alignment language, it an interesting idea, but realistically improbable unless you're playing in a very restricted game setting. Its imaginable that there could be a "secret codified language" amongst almost any tight knit group or subculture in a civilization, but to allude to it being a global cross-cutural world spanning phenomenon would be ridiculous!

It is reasonable to say that the Thieves Guild of a certain city, or even geographic region could support its own secret language, but to imply that all Thieves Guilds in all settings have this language in common is to imply some connection between all Thieves Guild members on the same level as an International Union mixed with an International Society akin to the Teamsters and Masonic Lodge melding together.

It matters not what setting you use or home brew you create, it's still goes beyond the suspension of disbelief that this "Universal Secret Language" would, or for that matter, could, exist.

So... having said that, the old rules state that any sentient beings who have a like minded worldview are born with the innate ability to communicate is ludicrous.

But it is a fantasy game, and being such... use what you want, and discard what you don't.

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AFAIK, Thieves' Cant doesn't show up until AD&D 2nd Edition. Although I can't remember if the lore is in the core books before 3rd edition, it is at least later made clear that the Thieves' Cant is a modification on Common. It is basically the first introduction of the concept of a dialect and it is also a concept frequently found among theives' guilds in fantasy settings. Those using Thieves' Cant are still speaking Common but a version designed to disguise the topic of conversation; such as saying "bread" instead of "money" in Cockney Rhyming Slang. –  Wesley Obenshain Jun 30 at 5:13
Personal memory: The one time I saw Thieves Cant used in actual play, it was handled as slang within an established language (Common tongue). This makes sense to me -- two thieves with no common language shouldn't be able to communicate through the prescribed words of the Interplanar Guild of Rogues & Thieves. –  Codes with Hammer Jun 30 at 13:22
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They are, if used as written in Moldvay/Cook and/or AD&D 1E, a magical function of a magical world.

By one's alignment, a being capable of speaking becomes aligned to certain fundamental aspects of the multiverse, and becomes able to speak their alignment language. It also explains why a basically good party might bring a lawful evil member along - to interrogate the LE bad guys.

While this approach to alignment languages is unsuited for many campaigns, it works quite well in deflecting the "I'll listen in and learn it" approach. Assassins are granted it by some god of assassins, so they are in fact very special. The universe normally protects alignment tongues from being overheard.

This also helps to explain the hefty 1E penalties for change of alignment... the Universe is truly unhappy with you.

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Is this how you actually used them? –  rjbs Sep 18 '11 at 12:06
When I did use them, yes. –  aramis Sep 18 '11 at 17:51
So it's a magical function but isn't magical (doesn't detect as nor radiate magic, nor produce magical results)? –  ExTSR Sep 22 '11 at 14:53
It's a function of the universe itself; universe level magics have never, in D&D/AD&D rules, been discernable using detect magic spells. You can't, for example, tell that on the plane of fire the solid fire is solid by virtue of the magic of the plane itself using detect magic upon it. –  aramis Sep 22 '11 at 23:10
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Looking at this from a somewhat different angle... Alignment languages make sense in a world with strict alignments, fundamental idea-forces that actually exist and influence the reality. When every creature without exception belongs to one of these camps, which can be definitively verified with magic, accepting that they magically grant their adherents knowledge of their language is not such a stretch. In such a world, alignment shift is not a gradual drift across the shades of gray. It is a momentous singular action that changes the very nature of the person - and his or her natural language with it. You can not learn the language of a different alignment because it is alien to your very being (unless you're a shifty assassin, apparently).

Taking this a step further, imagine a world where such languages were not "riders" on Common, but rather their own complete forms of communication. Every living thing is born with this knowledge. When the gods first create races (as is the standard assumption of D&D settings), they most likely are uniform, of the alignment of their creator, and thus speaking one language. When someone's alignment changes, or they're born with a different one*, everyone in the tribe knows it: they suddenly can't communicate anymore. Even in a Good society this is likely to cause them being exiled, with much worse fate in an Evil one.

Regular non-magical languages will eventually arise to facillate communication and trade between different tribes and/or exiles banding together. And as societies grow more complicated, it could become polite, in at least some of them, to only communicate in learned languages, so as not to pry into the personality of one's neighbours. Nevertheless, alignments in such a world are akin to nationalities. They are in-built battle-lines of the world, naturally separating different ideologies. Crimes of alignment hate, alignmentism, "why don't you speak our language, eh?!". Such concepts are definitely not everyone's cup of tea, but if you're willing to explore them, it may make for a fascinating world and a fascinating game.

*Perhaps everyone is born Neutral, speaking that language until at some young age they go through a ritual of choosing or, more likely, proving one's alignment during trials, only after which point they can be considered an actual person.

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+1 for alignmentism –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Sep 18 '11 at 2:58
Is this just an idea, or is this how you have used them in actual play? –  rjbs Sep 18 '11 at 11:32
Just an idea for now, this is the first time I've heard of alignment languages. But the concept is so unusual, I'll probably use them in some fashion in a future game, either building the game and the world around it as described, or fitting them in the backstory of the world I usually run games in, and spotlighting that. –  Magician Sep 18 '11 at 14:45
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This is more "some evidence in support of answers already given," but it won't fit in a comment.

A co-worker said he had some memory of existing books talking about the Roman Catholic Church's use of Latin, and dug it up. Well, it wasn't all that buried...

AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide, page 24

Alignment language is a handy game tool which is not unjustifiable in real terms. […] Consider also the medieval Catholic Church which used Latin as a common recognition and communication base to cut across national boundaries. In AD&D, alignment languages are the special set of signs, signals, gestures, and words which intelligent creatures use to inform other intelligent creatures of the same alignment of their fellowship and common ethos. Alignment languages are NEVER flaunted in public. They are not used as salutations or interrogatives if the speaker is uncertain of the alignment of those addressed. Furthermore, alignment languages are of limited vocabulary and deal with the ethos of the alignment in general, so lengthy discussion of varying subjects cannot be conducted in such tongues.

Re-reading it, I now remember it, too.

This doesn't explain the "you forget your old alignment language" problem, though.

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There are hundreds of languages in daily use throughout the real world, but the syntax, words, and omissions of terms reflect the worldviews of the users. As simple examples, consider the Russian discourtesy toward indefinite articles, use of tonalities in Sinitic tongues, and words denoting relations in various languages (can you say 'brother-in-law' in a single word?).

When certain terms are favored over others, those choices may indicate one's worldview. Similarly certain physical gestures could indicate one's state of mind (orderly, caring, malicious, self-absorbed, etc.). When Gary used the D&D game to introduce alignment concepts of Law/Chaos (and later adding Good/Evil to the mix), Alignment Languages were an early and under-developed side effect.

A logical argument could be made that one's alignment could be revealed to all by these unconscious word choices and gestures, and the end result of that logic is the "Know Alignment" spell, in which a cleric's perceptions are magically boosted to translate all such clues. (For implementation, however, the spell works without requiring such interaction.)

In actual use in the 1970s and early 1980s, Alignment Communications (whether verbal or otherwise) were incidental tools used to supplement communication already in progress. If you were conversing with a stranger in Common, you could 'slip in' a bit of alignment, to either augment or corroborate the usual discourse. Moral extremists (paladins, assassins, et al.) tended to make such attempts more frequently than others. And in any event, this nonmagical information-gathering was always indicative at most, never reached the level of detail gained by the use of the magical spell.

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Thanks! You have reminded me that I've heard the "well, alignment languages were more of a rider atop normal communications in Common" before. It's not quite RAW, but unlike the RAW, it makes some sense. :) –  rjbs Sep 16 '11 at 18:54
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