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While reading this answer to whether or not a druid knows the languages of his/her chosen form, I began to wonder, "What is a language exactly?" Please allow me to walk you through my thought process. I hope these aren't considered as separate questions so much as things that help clarify my problem.

Is it a skill? I can't find anything in the PHB or DMG that relates skills and proficiencies to language. In fact, when both are mentioned in a given header, they are never mentioned together as the same thing. I can't seem to find out how you learn a language, though I'm sure rules exist that might shed light on the issue.

Is it part of the stat block? When creating monsters in the DMG, there is a table for statistics, which doesn't include ability scores. So I don't think language is part of the statistics, which would contest the idea that a druid only knows the languages his Wild Shape form knows (see the linked answer above). True Polymorph has similar language to Wild Shape (where this question stems from), and makes no mention of language other than to say you can't speak unless your new form is capable of speaking. Otherwise, language is either omitted or assumed to be part of creature statistics, ability scores, and/or skills.

Is it related to attribute scores? I've heard that things with low intelligence don't know languages, but I can't find any proof to back it up. If that were true, perhaps language can be considered to be tied directly to an ability score and therefore not part of the stat block. This would also mean that modifying ability scores could potentially affect language speaking ability as a RAW effect, but might not make sense to change the languages you do know.

Is it part of personality? Feeblemind mentions "Shattering its intellect and personality" by reducing intelligence and charisma scores to 1. Personality is also mentioned in True Polymorph and Wild Shape, which might lend credence to the idea that language is tied to personality OR it might mean it's tied to ability scores. Feeblemind also specifically mentions that the target can't understand or speak any language, presumably as a result of intelligence and/or charisma being 1. If language were tied to personality, changing your form wouldn't affect language as long as you retained your personality.

Is it it's own thing? Perhaps languages aren't related to anything and this might mean there is no hard and fast rule regarding what languages are and how they are related to the technical aspects of the game.

So what is a language? Perhaps to get behind this question is to ask "What are the implications of changing your ability scores, statistics, and skills for language?"

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Languages don't come from stats, ability scores, or skills. They come from race, and possibly from class or background.

Languages

By virtue of your race, your character can speak, read, and write certain languages. (PHB p.17)

From their first mention languages are set out as a racial benefit. Two exceptions arise--Druidic and Thieves' Cant--as class benefits. Later, we see that knowledge of a language may arise from a background (p.125) or from extensive training (p.187). Which gets us to my interpretation:

Languages are part of your deep background.

Language acquisition as a racial feature arises from assumptions about segregated communities; the DMG (pp.20-21) discusses ways in which one might adjust these assumptions and how that might impact language acquisition. (They give the example of a racially-blind kingdom-dependent language system as an alternative.)

Language acquisition as a class or background feature is more-explicitly based on long times spent in the relevant community/diverse settings/life of study. Note the acolyte and sage gain two languages; guild artisan, hermit, noble, outlander each gain one. Alternately, you can pay to train for 250 days and 250 GP. This also constitutes a large amount of time, effort, and investment on the part of the character.

Thus, changing your ability scores, statistics, or skills have no effect on your languages. Because those changes haven't changed your experience, by which you acquired language. (Admittedly, those changes might impact your ability to hear, speak, read and/or write, however.)


Languages aren't a skill. They aren't tied to an ability modifier and your broficiency bonus in that way because they're binary: you can't (RAW) be more- or less-skilled in a language.

Languages aren't pegged to attributes. But they used to be. Originally PCs were guaranteed two languages: common and alignment. INT>10 made it possible to know more languages. In 1e your intelligence capped the number of languages beyond your base (racial/class) languages that you could know. In 2e your intelligence capped the total number of languages that you could know, all the way down to INT=1 capping you at zero languages: "while unable to speak a language, the character can still communicate by grunts and gestures." (PHB1e p.10, PHB2e p.16)

[ed.: I'm working off of retroclone material for the Original cite: if anyone's got a good cite to edit in I'd appreciate it.]

Is it related to personality? Personality isn't really a defined term in D&D, so this gets sticky, fast. For our intents I think it's easy enough to say "no," but recognize that language and personality formation are interwoven in real life in a way our game just isn't trying to simulate.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ One thing I have noticed in this game and am working on "correcting" for my world is spreading out race and background more... where Race is with what you are born and nothing more. Exampe: An orphaned Dwarf raised as an infant by human farmers would likely never have learned Dwarven. Used to be that Race was your background. Proving difficult with the way this stuff is written and balanced though. \$\endgroup\$ – Slagmoth Oct 3 '16 at 15:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ If language is part of your race, how do you reconcile the fact that monsters don't have a race yet may know one or more languages? \$\endgroup\$ – LegendaryDude Oct 3 '16 at 19:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ @LegendaryDude sorry to be unclear; I'm interpreting this question as asking about PCs. Monsters, having a completely different description scheme (statistics described at MM pp.6-11), would seem to me to need a completely different treatment/analysis. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Oct 3 '16 at 20:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't really understand your point about language and statistics. Aren't many class features and other things also obtained by "experience" (eg wizards gain their spells through extensive study, ASI come from experience training, etc.)? Can you maybe elaborate a bit on how language is different in a way that makes it not part of a stat block? \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Jul 15 at 15:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Rubiksmoose you are comparing apples and oranges mechanically. Spells and their use, and learning, and being able to cast, vary with character level. Languages do not so vary with character level. Miniman's "languages are their own thing" sums that up nicel in his answer. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jul 15 at 15:50
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Languages are their own thing.

They're not proficiencies, as the rules often refer to skill and tool proficiencies together, but never include languages. Additionally, the proficiency keyword is never used with languages.

The rules for learning new languages are the last section of the Adventuring chapter, so they can't be inherent to a creature or anything like that.

Languages can't be tied to ability scores - a player character who rolls for ability scores can potentially have a 3 in any ability score, and this doesn't affect their languages known in any way.

Personality is incredibly loosely defined within the rules. The only things we know that make up a character's personality are their traits, bond, ideal, and flaw.

Language has its own section in the chapter on Personality and Background, and really does seem to be its own thing, unrelated to any other thing.

If I had to define language as something, I'd call it a proficiency, since every background gives either 2 languages, 2 tool proficiencies, or 1 language and 1 tool proficiency, and you learn new languages and tool proficiencies the same way, but there's no strong support for languages actually being language proficiencies.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "If I had to define language as something, I'd call it a proficiency". This is exactly how I rule it on my table. I don't call it a skill/tool/armor/weapon proficiency, it is just a language proficiency. Makes it easier for my players to understand and predict how I rule on Wild Shape and similar effects. ^_^ \$\endgroup\$ – Pitzy Nov 16 '15 at 5:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Pitzy Yeah, if it ever comes up in practice I'll probably rule the same way. Shame it's not RAW, it'd make life easier. \$\endgroup\$ – Miniman Nov 16 '15 at 5:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ I suspect they didn't call it a proficiency because — unlike tools and skills — it's not something to which you add your proficiency bonus. \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Jul 17 at 1:42
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Is it a skill?

No, it is not a skill and there is no indication of such in the PHB and DMG at this point in time. From a perspective it can be said that is closer to tools than to skills since language can be trained in a similar fashion (PHB 187) and skills cannot.

You can spend time between adventures learning a new language or training with a set of tools

Is it part of the stat block?

Yes, they are part of the stat block. They form a part of your race (PHB 17), and the race part of the stat block of a creature. Also, any feats like Linguistic and skills, if any, are also part of the stat block. Bear in mind that monsters in the MM are simplified and streamlined creatures which stat blocks compressed to a minimum for the case of backgrounds and such.

Languages

By virtue of your race, your character can speak, read, and write certain languages.

One point to consider: not everything that changes your stat block affects your languages. For example, the druid Wild Shape (PHB 66-67) is clear in what change and what not, in particular class features, race features (as language) and feats (as Linguistic).

You retain the benefit of any features from your class, race, or other source and can use them if the new form is physically capable of doing so. However, you can’t use any of your special senses, such as darkvision, unless your new form also has that sense.

But True Polymorph' (PHB 283) change most, if not all, the stats and features to that of the new creature. The only thing that is not changed is the alignment and personality. This mean that feats like Linguistic that change the number of languages that you know are not passed to the new form.

The target’s game statistics, including mental ability scores, are replaced by the statistics of the new form. It retains its alignment and personality.

Is it part of personality?

This is a tricky question, but all evidence points out that it is not part of the personality and, in fact, is tied with the creature as such (for the most part, though). The most prominent example for this are Zombies. Zombies retain any language that they had in previous life but they are husk of their previous selves (PHB 311 and MM 315 respectively). This imply that any personality that they had is lost in the vacuum of their lust for brains and disjoints language and personality altogether.

Languages: understands the languages it knew in life but can’t speak.

Zombies (an extract from the MM)

A zombie retains no vestiges of its former self, its mind devoid of thought and imagination.

Is it related to attribute scores?

It used to be in previous edition related to intelligence. In this edition, though, it is not the case. At most it can be argued that it is loosely related to intelligence because of the Linguistic feat (PHB 167, emphasis mine), but it is not directly affected by intelligence.

Linguistic

  • Increase your Intelligence score by 1, to a maximum of 20.
  • You learn three languages of your choice.
  • You can ably create written ciphers. Others can’t decipher a code you create unless you teach them, they succeed on an Intelligence check (DC equal to your Intelligence score + your proficiency bonus), or they use magic to decipher it.

Is it its own thing?

Yes it is its own thing but as a category in its own. The PHB has its own section for it, the same with tools, skills and so on. But as with those, it does not mean that they cannot be related to other things, checks and so on. For example, an ancient language can be "studied" with an history (intelligence) check and an arcane (intelligence) check to see it if has some remnant of arcane theory.


'- A twit from Crawford True Polymorph state that indeed, the language is changed by True Polymorph. As far as I know it is not in the errata, so take it at your own discretion.

If transformed by the true polymorph spell, the creature would speak what the new form speaks.

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Languages are loosely tied to your race and background, at least at character creation.

Player's Basic Rules: Languages

Your race indicates the languages your character can speak by default, and your background might give you access to one or more additional languages of your choice.

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Language is a proficiency

Is described with tool proficiencies in XGtE and PHB

In the Downtime Activities section of the Players Handbook (PHB), under Training, language is mentioned in the same fashion as learning to use tools which are proficiencies.

You can spend time between adventures learning a new language or training with a set of tools

In the Downtime Revisited section of Xanathar's Guide to Everything (XGtE), learning a language is listed along side tool proficiency.

Give enough free time and the services of an instructor, a character can learn a language or pick up proficiency with a tool.

Aligns with common use of the term.

This also aligns with the common use of term proficiency. E.g "proficient in a language".

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Where does it say it's a proficiency? \$\endgroup\$ – Premier Bromanov Jul 17 at 14:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PremierBromanov there is not explicit rule in the core books that explicitly state what languages are. This is a birds of a feather and duck typing argument. \$\endgroup\$ – GcL Jul 17 at 15:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ But no proficiency bonus is attached to the language proficiency, weakening your point somewhat, but not invalidating it. Tools do accrue the proficiency bonus that goes up by level. No vote either way, but your title is not strictly true. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jul 17 at 16:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast that is a good counterpoint. However, there aren't checks against language. It's largely treated as binary, either you're proficient or you're not. A more nuanced application of language is not addressed in the core rules. \$\endgroup\$ – GcL Jul 17 at 18:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ wouldnt the operator "or" invalidate language being a proficiency? If language was a proficiency, it wouldnt be listed as something separate from proficiency, but rather a separate item within proficiency. ie "proficiency with language or a tool" \$\endgroup\$ – Premier Bromanov Jul 18 at 2:23

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