In mythical worlds (such as, but not limited to, D&D) languages are a thing.
People often speak two or more of them.

Yet, for the sake of simplicity, players and DMs tend to speak and play in their own native language.

I've witnessed a recent argument between a NPC and a fellow player character and the conversation was going nowhere because they each had a different understanding of a given word (from the real world, a french word, we are french).

I, then, thought that the etymology of the word would have helped them understand each other (and advance the plot) but explaining greek etymology to a dwarf and an elf would simply make no sense on a role play standpoint.

Is there a method commonly used method or plot-trick to allow the explaining the etymology of a greek word in D&D without breaking character ?


3 Answers 3


There are, broadly, three options for dealing with real-world etymology in-universe. Which one works best depends on the table and the specific circumstances.

Forget translation: everything is interpreted, including this very conversation!

Just because you're talking about a real-world word's etymology from Greek through German by way of Latin on the way to being absorbed by French doesn't mean that your character is. In-world, your character is giving a similar description of how the word started in Draconic then found its way into High Dwarvish then into Low Dwarvish (which is the form used for commerce, of course) and thus into the common tongue.

Everything is translated; etymology is out the window.

Everything that the players say and hear is translated. Translations almost of necessity strip the benefits of knowing a word's etymology (and of knowing related/root languages).

In this scenario, the GM should generally make sure that all (relevant) players are using the same meaning of the word, to avoid confusion, but the etymology is irrelevant except insofar as it can help the player understand something.

If in-game etymology is needed (eg., to solve a puzzle), the GM needs to provide it to the players (at least, the players who would reasonably know it).

Etymology is (magically) preserved.

"Because magic", it happens to be the case that etymology matches well enough between worlds that it's relevant.

Languages map.

It could be that fantasy languages map one-to-one with real-world languages (eg., Elvish is French, Dwarvish is German, and Common is English), and thus etymology comes along for the ride.

While the exact quirks of history that brought this specific word from Primordial through Dwarven into Elvish and then Common (ie., Latin through German into French and then English), something close enough happened that the etymology lines up.

Proper nouns getting de-proper-noun-ized (eg., the "romance" in "romance languages" seems ultimately to derive from Rome) just implies that a similarly-important person/place/thing existed (or event happened).

So, your character isn't explaining the word's Greek etymology, but how it got from its Draconic roots to Common.

Languages don't map.

If that strains credulity, then consider that the translator between the fantasy languages and your native tongue considered etymology when choosing how to translate.

It's rare for two languages to have a perfect one-to-one mapping of words, doubly so for those words to have the exact same shades of meaning. Sure, it's almost a certainty that every language has a way of referring to "the person currently speaking" (that is, "I" or "me" in English), but it needn't be a single word - in fact, there's no particular reason that it has to be a simple concept to relay! So, when translating, the translator takes cultural information into account when selecting the right word or phrase. This translator also takes etymology into account, adding just the right shading to the translation.

Consider the difference between "I ate a sandwich earlier" and "at some unknown point in the past, though likely since the sun crested the horizon, the person who was going to become the one who is currently speaking happened to be in proximity to a loaf of bread, some sliced meats and cheese, and a tomato; they, being hungry, assembled the aforementioned ingredients such that two slices of bread contained the others then ingested the resulting meal". Technically, both sentences convey the same information. The latter sentence is, generously, a bit unwieldy, but it's not such a stretch to think that a non-human mind would see its precision as worth the extra words and time. But, we're humans and such circumlocutions are typically employed to obfuscate the speaker's intended message. A canny translator, then, would recognize that the Fey princess was speaking as plainly as possible, so the best interpretation for the human listener is "I ate a sandwich earlier".

My experience

My experience is that the first option - interpretation over translation - is almost always preferable. Trying to keep track of which real languages map to which in-game languages is an exercise in frustration and can bring unforeseen and undesirable connotations (not to mention uncomfortable attempts at faking an accent). And, as Glazius mentioned, the list of eponyms is surprisingly long; assuming that any world will have a history compatible with Earth's historical quirks so that etymology remains even remotely consistent is ... well, let's just say that suspension of disbelief has its limits.

Really, though, it's usually best, IME, to ignore linguistic quirks, etymology, and even the logic of wordplay, rhyme, and meter, when translating between in-world and real-world languages. Riddles should rarely translate neatly, and poetry almost never (puns are right out). Just accept that you're playing a game, and that it's more fun when you can - on occasion - reason out a riddle in the real world rather than simply throwing a die roll at some gibberish to see if your character can figure it out.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for this quite complete vademecum, not only does it offer me nice options to help advance the conversation in this game but it brought new perspectives on past situations (and possibly future ones) to pick from in case of need. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ar3s
    Commented Sep 28, 2023 at 8:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer is comprehensive and good, but does bury the lede. Clearly stating the main point of the answer (that the important thing is to sort out the confusion between the players, and that in-setting etymological concerns are secondary) near the top would improve its clarity and ease of comprehension for future readers. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Commented Sep 28, 2023 at 21:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ Not everything is interpreted, some languages are compiled. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 15:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GMJoe no it's not, this is not a confuision between players because that is a discussion players don't have and wouldn't ware to have. This is about characters that started an actual philosophical debate that every one was passionate about and that the players played it as best they could while not knowing how to play when greek or latin etymology would have helped their characters without breaking imersion, adressing etymology in-game is the sole purpose of that question \$\endgroup\$
    – Ar3s
    Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 16:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Ar3s Then whoever runs the setting should have been able to tell the players what their characters knew about in-game etymology. Which still would have been player-side. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jason_c_o
    Commented Sep 30, 2023 at 10:14

Don't solve out-of-game problems in-game.

While usually pointed at more rancorous at-table interactions, it's a good piece of advice in this case too, where the problem is not two people pretending to misunderstand one another, but a player who can't understand what you're trying to tell them. It's a common fantasy that somehow you can craft an in-game experience that will be effective at making an out-of-game change, but the reality is that when you step in-game you're acting at one remove from yourself - you're restricting yourself, not becoming more capable.

In order to resolve this, just raise a flag, break out of the game talk, and

Remember the purpose of language.

The philosophy goes about like this: language exists for humans to communicate with one another. When humans communicate with one another, it's because they want other humans to take action - go somewhere, do something, or simply just have a certain feeling. You can't see inside someone's head, so it's never absolute, but you know that you're using language correctly, you know that you've communicated properly, when the other human acts the way you expect them to.

So, when you're out of game, don't try and sort out any particulars of the language problem. Skip to the end. Tell them how the NPC was expecting them to act, assuming you didn't intend that to be a puzzle to work out. You didn't, did you?

Etymology is a land mine at the worst of times.

"The etymology of the words the NPC is using" is pretty much at the opposite end of the helpfulness spectrum from "how the NPC expects the PC to act". Because language is judged on its usefulness at getting others to take action rather than its conceptual continuity with its own past, it's very possible that the actual etymological origins of a word can drift very, very far from the meaning they're intended to have in the moment.

Here are some fun word facts that may illustrate this!

  • Timothy grass is so named because a man named Timothy Hanson was responsible for its popularizing it.
  • Does your graveyard have mausoleums? Does your history have a governor named Mausolus whose family sprung for such an elaborate tomb that his name became the watchword against which every other such memorial was measured?
  • When Bugs Bunny calls Elmer Fudd a Nimrod, he's not using some forgotten period-appropriate slang, but sarcastically comparing the dumpy little hunter to a biblical figure famed for his prowess at the hunt. It sure would be weird if that cultural reference faded out until all that remained was its sarcastic opposite. No shit, Sherlock!
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Ar3s It is an out-of-game problem that your players are miscommunicating due to having different definitions of the same word. That problem isn't caused by any aspect of their characters, the setting, or the languages in that setting; it's purely caused by the interaction of the players. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Commented Sep 28, 2023 at 9:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Ar3s can you explain how is this not solvable out of game? Seems very much like it should be. The players probably have a different interpretation of a word in-game but the characters probably shouldn't. Therefore, it's expected that this is addressed out of game by explaining to the players what the interpretation is. I struggle to see how a fictional in-game dwarf would need to be told an etymology of a word which would ultimately only serve the player of said fictional dwarf. \$\endgroup\$
    – VLAZ
    Commented Sep 28, 2023 at 9:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Ar3s This is a solid general answer, but if something is off, giving us the actual problem you encountered will help us understand how to help, bevaise we don’t want to guess wrong. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Commented Sep 28, 2023 at 10:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ @VLAZ: I see this the same way I see puns in dialogue, though. Arguably the characters shouldn't laugh, because in some conlang that pun doesn't exist. It's a purely out-of-character meta-joke, right? It's not even roleplaying! But it is, because like Glazius says, groups can (and do) make linguistically unrealistic assumptions about the fictional language. To the extent you think about it all, you don't "solve it out of game", you just assume some equivalently funny pun happened in game. And in this case you can choose to assume some equivalent argument about meaning is happening. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 17:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ Or even worse: "I refuse to answer this riddle on grounds it doesn't work in the language my character speaks", or "this rhyming prophecy is bobbins, because you said it's in Elvish so my Elf would understand it, but I checked the Lexicon of Elvish Words in the back of the "Tedious Pedantry" supplement, and it just doesn't rhyme" ;-) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 17:14

So you (as a PC) are stepping into a roleplayed argument between another PC and an NPC (played, I assume, by the DM, although it doesn't really matter).

What's the purpose of stepping in?

  • If it's because you, the player, are frustrated by the argument and want to move things on, then I think that's very much worth a brief out-of-character remark, so that everyone knows where you're coming from. Maybe they're loving this argument and want to keep playing the "but it means X", "no it means Y" game for a few more minutes: in which case perhaps it's better for you to sit it out than get involved, or perhaps they'll stop when they realise. Maybe they're just as frustrated as you are. So one of you might be doing the other one a small OOC favour here, and it's worth knowing what everyone wants before doing that. Maybe one or both sides actually wants a fight, in or out of character or both, and the argument is just the pretext. Then why are you trying to stop it? ;-)

  • If you're perfectly happy but your character would love the opportunity to jump in and argue etymology, then you probably need some agreement whether that's part of the game or not. minnmass lists several options, and you need to decide which one you're in before you can tell whether or not your character would even see this opportunity. Since you haven't agreed one in advance, you can pick something and then ask later whether the group wants that to be the general rule.

For example if there's some in-game ancient precursor language to the language you're all speaking, then in almost all groups it'd be within the authority of player improvisation to just decide that this particular word exists as a parallel. Therefore replace "French" with "Common" and "Greek" with "Old Elvish", and say exactly what you would say in French. Again you might want a tiny OOC nod to say you're not just making this up on the spot, it's actually true of real-world Greek. Or that might be obvious in context. But basically you can do the same thing in character you would in the same situation in real life.

Even if etymology is no part of the game, though, you can still intervene, you just have to do it in different terms: "ah, you're using the word this way, but other people understand it in a different way because it has this other meaning. This argument is all just a simple misunderstanding!". Don't appeal to Greek or Old Elvish: just say things that are true about the actual conversation happening in front of you. Since the disputed meaning is really there in the conversation happening at the table, it would be very unfair to you to say that you're not allowed to highlight it because "languages don't map". Clearly they do in fact map enough that this issue has highlighted itself already by occupying game time. Whether languages officially always map is beside the point for this case.


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