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In a Forgotten Realms scenario I'm running, an elven maiden was rescued, but in critical condition, by a dwarven party who happened upon her as her tribe was slaughtered by orcs. She gave birth to her child, but the trauma was too great and she passed away during childbirth. Before she did, she warned the dwarves that she was in exile, but died before she could tell them why. So the dwarves raised the child as best they could, teaching her the dwarven tongue and the ways of a tunnel fighter. But I got confused as to whether the elf should know Elvish (what the rulebook would say) or Dwarvish as her language.

From a background and backstory perspective, not simple race by RAW perspective, wouldn't the default language for a [race] be whatever they were raised into? Or in the Forgotten Realms is there any precedent for these languages being genetically/magically hardcoded somehow?

A good answer will provide lore examples that are from Forgotten Realms books (any version, novels are fine too) rather than the core rules.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Reopened as a Forgotten Realms lore question. Apologies to answerers who answered the previous question that wasn't clear on that account. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Jun 14 '16 at 13:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MarshallTigerus Comments aren't for answering questions or chatting about answers. (See “When should I comment?” and “When shouldn't I comment?” in the Help Center's article about comments.) If you're feeling chatty today, consider visiting Role-playing Games Chat instead. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jun 20 '16 at 17:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ If the elf has forward thinking dwarven parents who realize elvish would be very useful for an elf they would. \$\endgroup\$ – John Jan 31 at 14:52
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From what I see about 5e Elves and Dwarves it seems like it depends but let's assume this situation:

Typical Tolkien-like structure of languages. What we have first is Dwarven and Elfish are alien. Those languages have no correlation to each other - Elfish borrowed some things from Welsh and Finnish, Dwarven - closer to Semitic family of languages.

To learn a language you need a lot time and it must be relevant to be ingrained in one's brain. Here are points that serve a foundation for it:

  1. Children are flexible.

  2. Any creature with human-like intelligence is interested in learning practical and useful things.

Kid would not learn obscure language if he has no mentor and practical need to learn it*. Also, consider case of feral childs - children who learn 'language' of their beastial 'parents'. I mean - if you give kid to be raised by wolves - when he grows, he will know Wolven (or die), you give kid to be raised by Dwarves - when he grows, he will know Dwarven. As a sidenote, feral children have major problem learning human language because concept of real spoken language is too alien for them when they passed flexible stage (it ends about 6years old if I'm not wrong...)

Special cases: Elf risen by dwarves will speak Elfish if:

  1. This is a land of Dwarves occupied by Elven invaders and stripped from their native language and culture.

  2. Dwarves and Elves have similar language in your setting.

  3. Elves in your setting has something like 'genetic memory'.

  4. Elves in your setting share global telepathic link.

  5. Small Elven child has an intelligent item that speaks Elfish.

  6. One of stepparents of young Elf is translator and/or diplomat who has to maintain contact with other elves.

  7. There is a small community of Elves living alongside Dwarves.

P.S. After reading quiestion, I wondered: would male Elf raised by Dwarves develop facial hair due to cosmic laws of chaos and order. I have no answer to that, alas...

'* I lied here - actually kid can learn obscure language if he perceives it as something 'useful' (or abusable ^ ^) for a loooong time it takes you to learn that language. Bear in mind that kid's perception of 'useful' can be misguided or manipulated by his social environment and culture he was raised in. Also, in our age there is a complex system of strong forces that constantly try to attack perception and take it under control - marketing professionals, informational wars, propaganda, con artists, religious fanatics. I feel that in more 'natural' older times there would be less of those forces - for something like Europe Medieval there would be only be religion, shamanistic rituals, local beliefs about outerworld; othervise 'useful' mostly corresponds to 'survive' - get shelter, get warmth, get water, get food, stay sane and somewhat healthy. For a Forgotten Realm Dwarves hold I don't see any major forces that manipulates little elf to start to percieve Elvish as 'useful' so I shortcuted that to 'practical', if you pardon me ^ ^

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    \$\begingroup\$ I laughed at the last bit here. I'd have to say no as that's a genetic thing not a matter of being raised. Whereas language is a learned thing. \$\endgroup\$ – Lino Frank Ciaralli Jun 13 '16 at 18:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ If you laughed, then it worked as intended. ^ ^ But beware of the gods: if some of trickster gods for your setting have a sense of humor... \$\endgroup\$ – Jaiden Snow Jun 13 '16 at 18:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Kid would not learn obscure language if he has no mentor and practical need to learn it. " this seems like it needs a qualifier on either "would not" or on "practical." I had a friend in middle school who taught herself klingon. \$\endgroup\$ – Blue Footed Booby Jun 15 '16 at 13:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ Honestly adding the word "most" to the start of the sentence would be sufficient. :) \$\endgroup\$ – Blue Footed Booby Jun 17 '16 at 17:13
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The character would know a culturally-taught language unless the background accounted for it.

Although the PHB indicates that it is the physical race, that's really nonsensical given the character concept. This falls well within the expected tweaking of character background encouraged by the rule set. I cannot imagine it causing a problem.

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Do whatever you like; humanity is not a precedent for fantasy races in a fantasy world.

That is, just because humans must learn to speak doesn't mean that elves etc. can't sprout Elvish etc. as soon as they are born. Human development does not have to serve as an analogue of Elf development. Unless you want it to of course.

The same is true of all racial traits. It's up to you to decide what is "nurture" and what is "nature".

For example, the Uruk-hai in the film version of the Lord of the Rings, while they didn't talk much, could clearly understand Saruman immediately after their "birth".

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