11
\$\begingroup\$

The Sending spell says:

You send a short message of twenty-five words or less to a creature with which you are familiar.

(Note: this question ignores the actual practicality of using Sending in the following ways, or whether the DM would overrule it. It's just about what is theoretically possible RAW)

There is no definition of "word" in the spell description. If a word is simply a chain of letters without spaces:

Do onomatopoeia such as "pstpstpstpstpstpstpst" and "aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa" count as words ? Do made up words such as "shkarliek" or "wekhbda" count ? If made up words are allowed, then what prevents the caster from saying that "iwanttoorderacustardcupcake" is a single, made up word ? (obviously, this is abuse and would be shut down by the DM, but as I have said already, this questions is about what is theoretically possible)

Do abbreviations made of initials count as a single word or several ? For example, is MIA (missing in action) a single word or 3 ?

The creature hears the message in its mind

indicates that the message has to be "hearable" so something completely unpronounceable like "dfjvwdnkjwnljcnqekjfbkjeqnk" is not valid.

The spell enables creatures with Intelligence scores of at least 1 to understand the meaning of your message.

I believe the intention of this is so that the caster can say the message in any language, and the recipient will understand regardless. But there is nothing (as far as I can tell) preventing the caster from assigning a meaning to a made up word.

Since it is not worded as "the meaning of your message, if it has one", I suppose the message must be meaningful ? Meaning, as defined by Merriam-Webster is

the thing one intends to convey especially by language

(emphasis mine)

Especially, not only. So meaning can be the thing one intends to convey by made up words.

Even if we rule it as only by language, as far as I can tell, there is nothing preventing the caster from making a constructed language that is extremely word efficient and using Sending to send something in that language that is under 25 words, but is a lot more than that in Common.

The only other limit I can find in the spell description is the duration of the spell (1 round which is 6 seconds) meaning that the message must be said in a maximum of 6 seconds.

\$\endgroup\$
5
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Related: Tom Scott's video, What Counts as a Word? \$\endgroup\$ Jun 26 at 0:54
  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ Sending is stronger for speakers of synthetic languages than analytic ones. Sending (heh) a strongly worded email to the balance team now. \$\endgroup\$
    – A_S00
    Jun 26 at 4:17
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ N.B. All words are made up words. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 27 at 9:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ "Egg West Worse Green" \$\endgroup\$
    – Mindwin
    Jun 27 at 15:28
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Bwahahaha! You can use it as a dumbed-down, one-way "speak with animals." \$\endgroup\$
    – Perkins
    Jun 27 at 23:52

6 Answers 6

28
\$\begingroup\$

"Word" isn't defined as a D&D game term.

"Word" isn't defined as a game term in D&D 5th edition. As such, it's interpreted as the common English meaning of the word, as adjudicated by the DM in case of uncertainty. It's not something you can find a D&D rules answer for.

However, there's nothing stopping you from setting up a code phrase in advance, which would allow you to convey a large amount of information in a single word. "If I ever use sending to deliver the word 'minotaur', it means we've been captured and need you to send a ship to rescue us," for example. You can even set up a codebook containing many code phrases.

\$\endgroup\$
3
  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ Telegrams being a real world situation with word limits, code books for use with telegrams are good inspiration. Also warning about the limits. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mary
    Jun 26 at 17:37
  • 5
    \$\begingroup\$ I recall years ago hearing that telegrams charged by the word, so there was an effort to say more with less words. One example is cabalese. Another is using phonetics, such as saying "Canoe" instead of "Can you". \$\endgroup\$
    – MivaScott
    Jun 26 at 21:04
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @MivaScott ...and then people got creative with what a "word" is, and then the telegraph companies charged extra for non-standard words like "quavvaa", etc. (because the actual message is sent via something more like an IRC channel than anything else, weird neologisms and all) \$\endgroup\$
    – fectin
    Jun 27 at 12:01
12
\$\begingroup\$

Whatever the definition of "word" it's well established that Sending works much better if you're playing in German, or Deutschsendingverbesserung as they say.

Flippancy aside, your characters are not - in the game fiction - speaking English. They're speaking Common, or Sylvan, or Elvish, or Dwarvish, or whatever. Therefore, there is no justification for being overly pernickety about your definition. You have a pretty good idea about what a word is, your DM (or players, depending on side of the screen) has a pretty good idea too, so just use that normal day to day usage of "word" and if there's some edge case just let it slide. The number of words isn't going to be the same for your characters as your players anyway.

\$\endgroup\$
2
  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ +1 good point about the actual words not being in English (or German) anyways \$\endgroup\$ Jun 26 at 16:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ The issues in the question aren't specific to English. Some of them assume things like "the language has a writing system with letters", but others don't even assume that much. The issues exist within the fiction as well as at the table, so pointing out the language mismatch doesn't resolve things - what if the characters try making up words that don't exist in Common? \$\endgroup\$ Jun 28 at 9:13
8
\$\begingroup\$

Depends which definition you use

There isn’t one in the rules.

The common usage in English is a string of letters that has a dictionary definition (or will have one - new words get created all the time) or is a proper noun. Even if you can write it down, if it lacks a meaning beyond the sound it makes, it’s not a word.

However, linguists use the term word to mean a lexical unit - a sequence of letters which can include spaces whose meaning is both complete and cannot have letters taken away (except in abbreviation).

So Kuala Lumpur, San Francisco and United Kingdom are all two words by the general definition but one by the specialist.

Similarly, in Henry V, Act III, Scene 1, when Shakespeare wrote “Once more unto the breach”, he, and the common usage, would consider it 5 words. However, in modern usage (often substituting into for unto) it means to try again with the overtones that trying will be fruitless or at least hard - that makes it a lexical unit and, to a linguist, a word.

TL;DR

Ask your DM.

\$\endgroup\$
1
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ This answer is correct, but would be slightly clearer if it prefaced the information about there being no consistent definition of the word "word" in English with the fact that there's also no definition of the word "word" in the rules. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Jun 26 at 0:57
4
\$\begingroup\$

Use the dictionary definition

Since word is not a defined game term, you use the common English meaning of the term. Merriam Webster defines word as:

a unit of language, consisting of one or more spoken sounds or their written representation, that functions as a principal carrier of meaning. Words are composed of one or more morphemes and are either the smallest units susceptible of independent use or consist of two or three such units combined under certain linking conditions, as with the loss of primary accent that distinguishes the one-word blackbird (primary stress on “black”, and secondary stress on “bird”) from black bird (primary stress on both words). Words are usually separated by spaces in writing, and are distinguished phonologically, as by accent, in many languages.

From this you can infer:

  • a word is not simply "a chain of letters without spaces"

  • onomatopoeia are not words, as they carry no meaning

  • made-up words are not words, as they carry no meaning

  • abbreviations are not words as they are not the smallest unit of independent use (e.g. in MIA, each separate word "missing", "in", "action" is a unit that can be used), and it is the written representation of an entire phrase consisting of three such units, not of one.

\$\endgroup\$
4
\$\begingroup\$

D&D was written by English speakers. The Shannon entropy (information) of an English word is about 10 bits; so a 25 word message carries about 250 bits of information.

This is almost certainly the ballpark design expectations the the person writing the spell had.

In D&D 5e, it is intended that the rules cover plain, common cases. Whenever you do something uncommon, creative or strange, you are supposed to rely on the DM's ruling, not the text.

Inventing a new language to compress data better in Sending is not a common, plain case.

So if you want to determine how far away from the design expectations your chosen system, simply compare how many bits your chosen system lets you transmit.

Myself, I'd permit someone to research a more efficient way to communicate than Common. In fact, I might have the "true language" of Sending be something like native Celestial (as opposed to pidgin Celestial mortals can learn) -- the language of creation -- and wizards use of Common or other languages results in transcription data bandwidth loss.

So an academic could spend time finding mortal-conceptual languages that are less loss compared to most mortal language and increase the data transfer of sending. In one of my settings, this is the kind of thing "Spiretop University" would be working on. Someone managing to transmit the information equivalent of 25+1d4 words might be the thesis of one of the professors.

\$\endgroup\$
3
\$\begingroup\$

The DM rules

Since "word" is not defined in the spell, it means what it means in standard English: "a single unit of language that has meaning and can be spoken or written"

The DM decides what happens with all borderline cases. (And attempts to game, which no doubt there would be. Sending telegrams was so full of attempts to game the word limits that the companies had fixed dictionaries and refused any "word" not in one, and also were not liable for typos, very dangerous in codes. At least since the receiving being understands the meaning, there's no danger of mispronouncing things.)

\$\endgroup\$

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .