Pretty straightforward question, in a world of elves, dragons, and dwarves, how come they all use an alphabet system with direct equivalence to English? Did all races base their writing system off of one race that invented the first alphabet? Something else?
This might not even really be a thing in-character
The books show things written in “Common” in English—or, more accurately, in the language of the book itself. When the books are translated, so is “Common.” They aren’t speaking English, or any other real-world language, they’re speaking Common, which we don’t have. The books never show us what Common looks like, though—our own language just replaces it.
Odds are very good that the scripts we’re given fall in the same boat—something for our usage, not necessarily an accurate in-character representation of how these scripts look. After all, if examples of Common aren’t, why should we expect that the examples of Elven are?
To my knowledge, and to the knowledge of another expert (who goes by afroakuma here and elsewhere) I consulted, no book has ever claimed that this is (or isn’t) actually an in-character thing.
But even assuming it is...
There is no in-character explanation
At least no good ones. There cannot be good explanations for this, because the reality of the situation is that languages change dramatically over far shorter time-scales than are described in D&D products (note that the time-scales in most products are rather immense compared to the real-world history of civilization).
At times there’s been allusions to the idea that one language was first, other languages flowed from that, and that might explain why they use the same letters just with alternative glyphs... But first of all, that isn’t a claim that the books ever make. They talk about a first language, and other languages all descending from that, but it’s not explicitly used to justify the similarity in the alphabets. The similarity in the alphabets simply isn’t discussed—which is more evidence that it probably isn’t even really a thing.
More importantly, statements like that have been uncommon throughout D&D’s lifetime, and they haven’t really been consistent. It’s hard to ascribe any of them “canonical” status because they’re really half-hearted and don’t get picked up by future writers. For what it’s worth, the “first language” is usually either Draconic or Elven.
Regardless, that explanation just doesn’t explain the consistent alphabet. Real-life writing systems are wildly varied, even when one is directly descended from another. The Phoenician, Greek, Roman, and Cyrillic alphabets all more-or-less directly morphed into one another, but they don’t have the same number of letters, or letters with the same sounds. Even more recently, plenty of languages using the “Roman alphabet” add new letters not found in the Roman’s, such as Spanish’s ñ and Danish’s ø (which are both considered separate letters in those languages and not simply existing letters with diacritics—note that other languages do use ø as an o with a diacritic).
And that’s not even getting into the complexity of writing systems outside this family.
Magic and the influence of deities could act to limit changes to languages, but then we kind of run into the other problem—it’s not as though D&D languages don’t change. They just always retain the same set of letters, with the same sounds, even though they differ wildly in their actual appearance. That’s just not something that jives with the idea of languages or writing systems being fixed by divine intervention. We know languages are born, change, and die, because dead languages and deciphering them are a major part of a lot of D&D adventures.
The long and short of it is that there just isn’t any good way to explain the way languages work in the games—so the books just don’t, it’s just hand-waved or ignored, just an acceptable quirk for the sake of production and gameplay. It can’t be any other way, it can’t be adequately explained, so why draw attention to it?
Reality: because it was easy to implement
Creating writing systems is hard. Creating languages is harder. Prof. Tolkien might have been happy to spend a few decades of his spare time doing so, and highly-trained specialists might be paid to do so for Star Trek or Avatar or Game of Thrones, but RPG publishers don’t have that kind of money and don’t have time for someone to do it in their spare time even if they’ve got someone who’d be ready, willing, and able—which in most cases they probably don’t. “Laziness” doesn’t enter into it—creating a new language from scratch is just a complete impossibility given the realities of what it takes to accomplish that and what the RPG industry is like; I’ve worked in it. I haven’t worked for Wizards of the Coast, but I know people who have, roughly the requirements they were working under—they did not remotely include the resources necessary to do this. Again, most importantly, time. Each of 3.5e, 4e, and 5e came out just 3 years after they announced they were starting to think about a new edition. That’s not enough time to develop a whole language.¹ It’s not “we could do that, but we don’t want to,” it’s “we certainly can’t do that, so what’s the next best thing?”
But just inventing 26 or 52 new glyphs, mapped onto the letters we already know? That’s pretty easy, and not only is it easy to produce, it’s easy to use. Just create a font file, and go to town, no special skills needed. Artists can easily make up their own things to put in images, quest writers can trivially use the font in the handouts they make for players, if someone throws together a table of vocabulary, again, easy to use, just have two columns with the same text, just in different fonts.
Also, not for nothing, but that ease of use? That matters a whole lot more for RPGs than it does for any other form of media: because we expect DMs to make their own material that works with the existing world. The way things are, all DMs need to do to include some “Elvish” text in their game is just use the appropriate font. If they actually created an entirely separate alphabet, or worse, a full language? Doing it “right” suddenly becomes a massive undertaking, cuz learning a language is a ton of work. Even a writing system—vastly simpler to learn—is quite a lot of overhead for someone who is already doing a lot of work to make this game go. I know—roughly—how Tolkien’s tengwar work, how to sound out text. Even if I just put English text in tengwar—which is something I have done, and for the record is also most of Tolkien’s usage of the tengwar—that takes quite a bit of effort. For game prep? No thanks; I’ll just use the font.
This is the answer, and it’s really the only answer. There have been some half-hearted attempts over the years to describe the relationships among the languages, but even those are rare and inconsistent, and not really intended to justify this particular part of things.
- Really, not even major Hollywood, television, or streaming productions create whole languages in so short a time, not even with massive budgets and large teams of specialists. They create some of the basics of the language—basic grammar and syntax, basic morphological rules and some sense of what sounds are found in what places in the language, and then they work very hard to come up with just enough internally-consistent text to fill in the relevant portions of the script. It’s a massive undertaking, and it’s done with a very clear, finite, fixed goal in mind. An actual language—with all its variety and infinite expand-ability, is so much more involved than that.