What are methods for clearly representing different languages (e.g. Elven, Dwarven, Deep Speech) in text-based online play?

We have tried footnotes and are using colored text (green for Elven, brown for Dwarven, blue for Deep), but ran into trouble choosing a wide set of colors that are not confusing.


7 Answers 7


There are many options, and as always which one works for your group will largely depend on the system and the players. So long as everyone agrees to abide by the chosen convention, whichever your group likes is great.


You're already experimenting with colored text, and @JonathanHobbs pointed out the excellent Is there an optimum set of colors for 10 players? thread to help you pick good colors. I'd just like to mention that you run the risk of alienating any colorblind players with this option.

HTML-type tagging

@p.marino covered this in more detail, and I'd like to propose a further simplification:

Dae'eravin: ELV A star shines on the hour of our meeting.

Jack: CMN What? I don't speak Fancy.


In some interfaces it's possible to use a different font for each language. I don't recommend this as it leads to illegible fonts and is easy to confuse unless the fonts are chosen perfectly. You'll also have to use a method that ensures everyone can load all the fonts properly.


A lesser form of the font option is to use italics, underlines, and other formatting options. This probably doesn't offer enough variation to cover your needs, and it places limits on the use of formatting for other purposes.


Bracketing phrases with symbols is another choice:

Dae'eravin: ~ A star shines on the hour of our meeting. ~

Jack: | What? I don't speak Fancy. |

Though you'll want to avoid symbols that are too similar, and cross-platform compatibility problems may crop up if you pick unusual ones.

  • \$\begingroup\$ For what it's worth, the bracketing with symbols idea is similar to what Robert L. Forward used to represent Flouwen speech in his hard-sf novel Rocheworld. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 27 at 19:19

I'm not sure I fully understand the problem you want to solve, but I'd take a stab anyway.

Suppose you are the DM textually describing a scene and want to remark if something is said (or written) in a specific language:

Seeing your party approaching the man at the gate raises a hand and says: < Common>"Hail, travellers"< /Common>

Of course you could use a shorter convention, as long as it is understandable by all players - or dispense with/shorten the closing tag:

Seeing your party approaching the man at the gate raises a hand and says: < Cmn>"Hail, travellers"< />

This should work for players, too, and can easily be added to descriptions of written words, too:

The sigil represents an eagle, and underneath the words : < Elvish>"Dark feathered"< /> are still barely legible, despite being almost completely worn out by use.


Use actual alternate languages, via automated translation software.

Here is a chart I put together for a game I was in, based on what people had already chosen to use at various points. (The chart shows the same sentence translated into each language.)

example of languages

Except for Dwarven, which was based on Skyrim's Dragon Language, everyone just plugged what they wanted into Google translate, and copied the result into their post (with some note as to what in-character language they were speaking). Then the people who could speak that language could copy it back into google translate and get a close approximation of what was said.

Some of these languages only work if your play software supports unicode, but there's plenty of real languages which use standard characters to support a wide range of options (even if French looks much less esoteric than Kannada)

  • \$\begingroup\$ This seems really awkward, but also really fun. +1 from me! \$\endgroup\$
    – Joe
    Jul 9, 2016 at 3:32

I once played an IRC game featuring one channel for each of in character and out of character chat. To simulate multiple languages, we just used more channels, one for each. Any character who knew a language would join the side channel. This helped RP because players literally couldn't understand languages they didn't know.

Unfortunately, they also didn't understand when the game was moving forward in a side channel. So, a programmer/player updated the bot to echo back the foreign language channels to the main one with some modified text. Elvish had more L's and vowels with accents; Orcish and Dwarvish had harder K's and T's. Non-dictionary words went through unchanged, so place/character names worked nicely. Since the translation was deterministic (if simplistic), you got a reasonable power law distribution of phonemes.

After a while, you could start to half-recognize common words in the entirely made-up language. Between that and clues like names, you could take a guess at the conversation just like in real life. Hilarity ensues.


Represent your languages with a visually distinct set of colours.

As a group, create a shared set of colours you'll apply from then on. Agree what colour represents, say, Dwarven, and have everyone use that colour when speaking Dwarven, always when speaking Dwarven, and only when speaking Dwarven.

The difficulty in this is creating that visually distinct set of colours. Over on GameDev.SE Sam Hocevar describes how to do this, specifically in the context of creating 10 distinct colours for player teams. The same logic may extend for a few more than 10 units whilst still being visually distinct.

If you have colour blind players, though, this isn't going to work as the sole means of distinguishing languages from each other.


I've seen this addressed with specific software (a .php chat) allowing people to use tags to encase the spoken part.

The result of someone writing between [elven]TEXT[/elven] would be something on the lines of (Elven) "TEXT". Using a different color to make the (Elven) part strike out from the rest of the description would be nice.

One advantage of this method (instead of just writing the desired output) is that you can have a database of known languages for each player and have the unknown language messages not showing for those players or written in a wingdings font (so that they can read it by pasting it in a .txt editor but it's immediately clear that it's something their character does not understand.


You could use flags. For example, see this dialogue:

enter image description here I speak English. No need for the text to be in a different color.

enter image description here Mo, you speak a derivative of English called American. And it's spelled colour!

enter image description here Err, what are you on about? It's pronounce "couleur"!

Clearly, using some smaller flags would be better but I could not find tiny ones. Most Emoji sets have all the flags as tiny icons that would read better.

This is taken from Stand Still, Stay Silent comic where the author uses flags to designate language: enter image description here


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