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It seems to indicate that Primordial is actually the language of elementals in 5E, but the Monster Manual seems to suggest otherwise by listing Auran as the language of Air Elementals, Aquan for Water Elementals, etc.

If Primordial is a starting choice, why aren't those other related languages? For that matter, would a speaker with knowledge of Primordial be able to understand the specific elemental tongues?

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The PHB explains it on page 123:

Some of these languages are actually families of languages with many dialects. For example, the Primordial language includes the Auran, Aquan, Ignan, and Terran dialects, one for each of the four elemental planes. Creatures that speak different dialects of the same language can communicate with one another.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Just to make sure - if I see "Ignan" on character sheet, then it is just as valid as Primordial and means exactly the same in game mechanics, only fluff changes a bit? \$\endgroup\$ – Mołot Nov 13 '17 at 11:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Mołot Strictly yes. As part of "fluff" your GM might impose some differences, like if you speak in Ignan to a djinn, they might take offense. \$\endgroup\$ – Szega Nov 13 '17 at 11:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Szega, I have required a INT check (+prof) to allow you to communicate to others of a similar language (like the above case), and then have a sliding scale of success. DC10 means there is some information lost in translation, and you risk saying something wrong (like accidentally insulting their mother, when intending to ask for directions), DC15 has same loss of info, but no negative consequences of your words, DC20 mitigates most information loss but gives you a penalty on persuasion checks, etc... \$\endgroup\$ – Shem Nov 13 '17 at 18:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Shem The book is straightforward on this: there is no problem with communication. I meant that a djinn might be miffed by the fact that you are using the dialect of the efreet they hate, not that he would misunderstand you. \$\endgroup\$ – Szega Nov 13 '17 at 18:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ You can think of stuff like Ignan and Aquan as dialects/accents. As an American, I can have a conversation with a Brit, Australian, or Canadian with no issue, but there will still be quite a lot of variation in how we talk. \$\endgroup\$ – Ethan Nov 13 '17 at 23:54

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