In this question, it is established that Thieves' Cant is more of an encoding system built on top of a language than a language in its own right.

According to the Basic Rules, Thieves' Cant is:

...a secret mix of dialect, jargon and code allows you to hide messages in seemingly normal conversation. Only another creature that knows thieves' cant understands such messages. It takes four times longer to convey such a message than it does to speak the same idea plainly.

In addition, you understand a set of secret signs and symbols used to convey short, simple messages, such as whether an area is dangerous or the territory of a thieves' guild, whether loot is nearby, or whether the people in an area are easy marks or will provide a safe house for thieves on the run. (PBR, p. 27)

Can two creatures communicate using Thieves' Cant if they do not have a basic spoken language in common, or if they are speaking different basic languages? E.g. if one creature knows Orcish, Goblin, and Thieves' Cant, and another creature knows Elvish, Giant, Common, and Thieves' Cant, can they communicate with each other by embedding Thieves' Cant into their own languages?

Hypothetically speaking, I can see how this could be possible in our own world, if we assume that Thieves' Cant depends on nuances of body language, emphasis, and tempo, e.g., one might say to a non-Spanish speaker:

Tenemos quEEEEEEE ir (wink) a la tieeeeenda de (shuffle left foot) armas para (twirl hair and giggle) comprar una espada (wink twice) para mi herMANO (wag right pinky and nod).

The literal message itself ("We need to go to the weapon store to buy a sword for my brother.") would just be a carrier - the real message might be hidden within the gestures and the accented and extended syllables. Perhaps the drawn-out "E" vowel means "robbery planned", the wink means "bank", shuffling the left foot means "be there at sunset", etc., and these are things that you wouldn't necessarily need to know Spanish to extract.

Is this how Thieves' Cant actually works, or does it require actual comprehension of the literal message transmitted before the "secret" message can be extracted from it?

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    I am interested to see what comes from this question. I got rid of Thieve's Cant entirely as a language for many of the reasons you cite. You might consider also adding to your list that even within the same language two Rogues could have difficulty communicating at least initially as the metaphors and cultural references might be dissimilar, region to region as well as across countries and continents. Star Trek TNG the episode "Darmok" is a good example. – Slagmoth Sep 24 at 2:14
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    FWIW, in AD&D 2e, the rules explicitly stated that two people cannot communicate via the Cant unless they speak the same language. – Angew Sep 24 at 11:53
up vote 27 down vote accepted

RAW is unclear, but Sage intent seems to require a common language

As you've noted, RAW doesn't provide enough detail to answer this by itself.

Sage Advice doesn't have anything specifically answering this, but there are some related questions that illuminate the intention behind Thieves' Cant:

Can Comprehend Languages understand Thieves’ cant?

Crawford: Comprehend languages reveals literal meaning. Thieves' cant is all allusion. Result: misleading translation #DnD

Other Person: darmok and jilad at tenagra. fafhrd and the grey mouser, taking the dogs for a walk.

Crawford: That's exactly it!

Is Eyes of the Rune Keeper intended to let you understand codes, such as numeric ciphers or Thieves’ Cant jargon?

Crawford: Eyes of the Rune Keeper lets you read all writing. That doesn't mean you understand a secret code being delivered by that writing. For example, you might read, "Sunset Dog Potato," and have no idea that's code for something.

Both of these suggest strongly that Thieves' Cant is conveyed via an existing language that the reader and writer both understand.

(That said, there's no mechanical consequence to this; make whatever decision seems most fun for your table.)

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    This obviously addresses the part that "hide[s] messages in seemingly normal conversation", though the part of Thieves' Cant that is "a set of secret signs and symbols used to convey short, simple messages" seems like it'd work across languages since it's just signs and symbols rather than words. – V2Blast Sep 24 at 4:11
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    Depends, I wouldn't expect anything but the most basic universal symbols in thieves guilds for example to be shared. I'd expect each "company of thieves" would have their own cant / symbols. I'd rule that someone with thieves cant could recognize a "foreign cant" but not read it accurately. and factor it into DC checks. – Ryan The Leach Sep 24 at 9:55
  • This is funny... much like other things they say "This is x..." then proceed to contradict what they start to define. This means it is not a language itself, per se. I believe 3.X had it correct where they eliminated it entirely in favor of Bluff/Sense Motive which can be translated to Deception/Insight contests, maybe with advantage for Rogues or disadvantage for non-rogues. – Slagmoth Sep 24 at 12:27
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    @Slagmoth Specifically, in 3.5. In 3.0, it was treated as its own skill (Innuendo). – Geoffrey Brent Sep 25 at 7:52

I think the issue/confusion is that there's two distinct parts of thieves' cant:

...a secret mix of dialect, jargon and code allows you to hide messages in seemingly normal conversation. Only another creature that knows thieves' cant understands such messages. It takes four times longer to convey such a message than it does to speak the same idea plainly.

(copied from OP, emphasis mine), this implies that if you can't have a seemingly normal conversation (i.e. in a shared language), you can't convey messages through thieves' cant. It's not a strong implication, and if the DM decides to let it pass with reasons like the ones you stated (body language etc), there's nothing wrong with that. But I think it's not intended.

In addition, you understand a set of secret signs and symbols used to convey short, simple messages, such as whether an area is dangerous or the territory of a thieves' guild, whether loot is nearby, or whether the people in an area are easy marks or will provide a safe house for thieves on the run. (PBR, p. 27)

These signs & symbols are marking on walls or the like, potentially conveying messages through any kind of language barrier (though they might also be very local, and a thief from the next town over might not understand them).

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    I can easily imagine two thieves without a common language, speaking to each other and embedding a Cant into their "conversation". To someone who understood one of the languages, the conversation might seem a little odd. To someone who undestood both languages it would be obvious that something was going on as the "conversation" would be nonsensical. – aslum Sep 24 at 13:27
  • @MartinBonner agreed, I updated my answer a bit to reflect this, do you agree with my edit? – Joran Dox Sep 25 at 7:06

It may be useful to consider the actual sort of slang that Thieves' Cant is based on.

Say you've got a chance for a ream pull but your regular screwsman's away. You know a guy who might be able to fill in, but if you go up to him and say "Hi, we're planning a robbery and our regular safecracker's in jail; do you want to help us out?", some bystander's likely to overhear and split on you to the cops.

That's where cant comes in. It's not a language in of itself; it's a set of slang terms that can be mixed into regular conversation so casual bystanders don't overhear words like "robbery", "murder", etc. and go to the cops. It's not going to be anything incredibly subtle like drawing out specific vowels or winking at the right time, since nobody would be able to pick up on that reliably. There aren't lessons on how to speak cant; you pick it up like you would any other form of slang.

You can find lists of historical examples online. I assembled the above example using this list of Victorian Era cant. For a much more thorough listing, Project Gutenberg has A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words, published 1860.

There exist more modern examples of cant as well. You've seen crime films where someone sells hot goods to a fence, or hires a hitman? That's cant for those time periods. Presumably, modern criminals have their own slang that isn't in the movies yet, since once the general public knows the terminology, it doesn't do any good anymore.

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    Or, in the 1980's, warez, haxoring, and leet doodz. – Robert Columbia Sep 24 at 17:00
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    Or late 2000s Warchalking, or Hobo Code in general. – cde Sep 24 at 23:42

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