In Real Life
, there are more languages than there are cultures speaking them. There are dead languages, sign languages, dialects, slang, and a thousand other variations. People ten miles away from each other might not understand a word each other says.
This makes communication difficult
. So, many speculative fiction writers use a shortcut: Everyone speaks the same language.
Usually called Common
, this is a baseline language that is used by the vast majority of the setting. Oftentimes, it is the human language, since humans are almost always the most wide-spread race, and other races will have their own "Common" language that all their members speak. All dwarves will speak Dwarven, all elves Elven (or Elvish) and so on.
If it is never stated explicitly that everyone is speaking the same language, it might be a case of Translation Convention
or even Translator Microbes
instead. See also Aliens Speaking English
and Animal Talk
This is Truth in Television
, most notably with Spanish
and Portugese in Latin America; German
in mainland Europe; French in Africa; Russian in Central Asia; Arabic
(and, to a lesser extent, Farsi) in the Middle East; Mandarin Chinese
, and Hindi in East Asia, and English everywhere else. Oh yeah,
used to be one.
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- The Basalt City Chronicles averts this; in the Empire of Smilodons, it's said that there's a language for every island and a dialect for every village. Some cultures even have more than one language, for example the Deltharians (most of whom are deaf) have a spoken language used by the few who can hear.
- Star Wars uses Basic, the language of the Galactic Republic. Nearly everyone understands it, even aliens that lack the ability to speak it. Likewise, most aliens have one language that they speak constantly. Interestingly, multilinguism is quite common—Han, for example, speaks Huttese, Wookie (though he sounds really stupid when he tries), and Rodian.
Live Action TV
- Dungeons & Dragons, being heavily based on The Lord of the Rings, uses this extensively. But tries to not give in completely as it has language-related magic. Specific settings are likely to have a "Lingua Franca" and a handful of specific languages.
- Forgotten Realms subverts this by having several "trade languages" even on Faerûn. Usually people can talk to each other, but on the larger scale there are Common "common" (Heartlands' dialect of Planecommon), Kara-Tur "common", Undercommon (mix of Dwarven, Gnomish, Low Drow, Upper Common etc), Auld Wyrmish ("common" across dragon subspecies). Other continents may have their own "common" languages, like Midani of Zakhara. While many specific cultures retain their own tongues still, though some reduced to dialects of "common". So learning all half a hundred or so present tongues (like Wemic or Gnomish speech) is unnecessary, but doesn't 'Comprehend Languages' spell look worth learning now?
- Some other D&D settings have a named language (usually human) that serves the in-game function of a Common tongue, such as Thyatian in Mystara (the language of the Known World region's dominant empire) or Balok in Ravenloft (language of its oldest domain, favored by merchants).
- Simplified in 4th edition, (no surprise there) for the most part there are only ten languages, with Common being the trade language. There are however 7 other languages for different regions.
- Of particular note is the Supernal language, the language of the Gods, the very first language. When the speaker speaks in Supernal, everyone would understand what the speaker says as if in their own native tongue. In fact, all other languages are variants of the Supernal, in how the various races perceived the Supernal language. While you can learn the Supernal language, ultimately subverted because mortals lack the necessary power to fully speak in Supernal, thus losing its capability as universal language.
- One old 1E article on AD&D languages proposed that Orcish, Goblin, Kobold, Gnoll and similar tongues weren't separate racial languages, but dialects of a monsters' version of this trope. This would explain why such races, never renowned as intellectuals, automatically knew each others' languages in the 1E era.
- Traveller. Galanglic was the official language of the Third Imperium.
- In the Spacemaster setting Privateers, the language Species Standard is spoken by all of the known intelligent races.
- Shadow World setting supplement Star Crown Empire and the Sea of Fates. Across the Central Basin the most commonly spoken language is Trade Common, AKA Imperial Common. It is even spoken outside the Star Crown Empire.
- The "Gothic" language in Warhammer 40000 serves this purpose for the Imperium, acting as a way for cultures from different worlds to communicate. There is also High Gothic, which is used for official purposes and has a role similar to Latin in medieval Europe in that no-one actually uses it as a first language but scholars and those of high rank are expected to know it.
- Dark Dungeon RPG, supplement Samaris, Island of Adventure. In the world of Yaddrin, the Common Tongue is spoken by most merchants and travelers.
- Mythus/Dangerous Journeys. The common tongue of the Aerth was Trade Phoenician.
- Mass Effect makes heavy use of Translator Microbes in the form of computers that need to be regularly updated for new languages, as practically every species in the setting is as linguistically diverse as humans. There is, however, a "trade tongue", which Shepard refers to as "Galactic" at one point — a simplified artificial interspecies language, essentially Space Esperanto.
- The Longest Journey gave us Na'ven or Alltongue, a magical language spoken in all of Arcadia (a parallel universe). Its omnipresence is justified with the fact that you can become a fluid speaker after listening to it for just a few minutes, as April does upon her first visit to Arcadia. It's magic.
- Interestingly, Zoë from the sequel doesn't appear to need to listen for several minutes before learning the language. Perhaps it's because she's not really there and is only dreaming.
- Common in Warcraft games. It is primarily the language of humans, but nearly everybody can speak either it or Low Common, which sounds like a Hulk Speak version of Common. Now, it makes sense that races allied with humans would learn their language, and the orcs could've picked up how to speak it during the war or while in internment camps, but it makes less sense when tauren in Warcraft 3 can communicate with humans and orcs despite never meeting either one. In World of Warcraft Common is the Alliance universe language (the Horde has Orcish) and is not understood by Horde races. However this is because of game mechanics (blood elves and undead should definitely be able to speak it, as well as many orcs and goblins) and there are still NPCs in game that can be understood by all factions.
- It's implied that the Forsaken lose the ability to speak the languages they knew in life (a tailor in the undead city in World of Warcraft says his former family were speaking a language "I no longer understand".
- However, a later RPG book states that Forsaken can still speak Common, but refuse to do so to distance themselves from their old lives. Instead they speak Gutterspeak, formerly the thieves' cant of Lordaeron.
- In Darkstar One, all alien races use a language called Terra (read: English) in order to make communication between them easy.
- Schlock Mercenary actually has five common languages: Galstandard West, East, Eight, Brown, and Peroxide. Given recent revelations that Galstandard Peroxide is only spoken by ocean-dwelling creatures, it seems as though each language is tailored to a specific voice and vocal type.
- Most units in Erfworld speak Language, but Natural Allies have their own (unnamed) languages, and only a few members of each tribe speak Language.
- Standard English in Pacificators. Moreover, the Pacificators are actively discouraged from speaking in their native languages (hence why the platoon always nag on Larima and Taffe when they speak in French). The fact that Muneca has slipped into Spanish a few times is a significant Character Development.
- English is the common language of the entire universe in Chaos Fighters, as explained here.
- The First Federation of Orion's Arm attempted to standardize "Anglic", but once the Feds lost power Anglic evolved into a family of languages several times more diverse than the current Indo-European family.
- All the various cultures in Avatar The Last Airbender appear to share the same language. From pole to pole and around the world.
- He Man And The Masters Of The Universe and She Ra Princess Of Power: Pretty much all of the countless species and races on Eternia speak or at least understand English. Furthermore the same applies to Etheria, Trolla, Primus... pretty much any planet or dimension the characters encounter, including Earth making this also a case of Aliens Speaking English.
- Applies to the original My Little Pony cartoon. Everyone in Ponyland and the surrounding territories speaks English, which was certainly helpful when Firefly enlisted Megan's aid.
- English is the most universal example of this trope In Real Life, due mostly to the very expansive English speaking British Empire and later the global dominance of the United States in the latter half of the 20th century. Although it is not the most natively spoken language, it is the most often taught as a second language, and thus the most widely spoken. This is confirmed by international treaty, which stipulates English as the official language of aerial and maritime communications, and is considered a working requirement for various scientific fields. They don't call it "The world language" for nothing.
- Previously, French held a similar position due to its widespread use among the aristocracy of Europe. Today, French is still extremely common as a second language.
- While German is still a rather universal language in mainland Europe, it is mostly useful when talking to older people who never learned English in school but learned German for historical reasons (especially World War II). Many younger people can still speak some German, but as a second language English has gotten much more popular (few young Europeans without German as their native language speak it fluently, while many young Europeans without English as their native language do speak it fluently). So when the older, German-proficient generation has died out, it seems that English will be even more universal and German will not be that useful anymore.
- Spanish is the second most widely spoken language in the world after English due to the vast Spanish Empire of the XVI century. Nowadays, it's used in Spain (obviously), most of Latin America, the south of the United States (states like California even are officially bilingual), a couple of African countries and Philippines. Since the Spanish language is supervised by the institution known as the "Real Academia de la Lengua Española" or R.A.E., grammar rules are 99% the same in all of them. However, vocabulary and idioms vary a lot from country to country, and even from region to region. There are around 9 different accents in Spain alone. Nevertheless, when something needs to be written or translated for all Spanish speaking countries equally, there is a convention known as "Neutral Spanish", which consists in using the most plain words in the language so anyone can understand it without major confusions. Not a perfect solution, though, since there are always words or sentences that sound a little bit unnatural to people from one country or another. That without mention that it limits the quality of the writing.
- Esperanto is an attempt at this.
- Transpiranto is a parody of this.
- Further constructed languages attempting this: Interlingua and Ido.
- Also Loglan and its derivation Lojban (short for "logical language" in English and Lojban respectively). The former of which was mentioned in a couple of Robert A. Heinlein's novels for use with AIs.
- As part of the legacy of the conquests of Alexander the Great, Greek used to be pervasive throughout the old Eastern Roman Empire, to the point where even The Bible was translated into it so that it could be understood by Hellenized Israel. Hellenistic Greek is actually the Trope Co-Namer, as its most basic and used variety was known as Koine Dialektos (literally, the Common Tongue).
- Russian, conversely, enjoyed this status in the Communist bloc; learning Russian there was like learning English in Europe. It still works that way in the countries of the former Soviet Union.
- In newer generations, not exactly anymore.
- Russian also functions as a common tongue language in outer space.
- There have been attempts to "reconstruct" the original Sioux language, before the splitting into five dialects. This results in things like a sound not unlike the Japanese r instead of the /l/, /d/, and /n/ that are so famous, though no r-like sound exists in modern-day Sioux languages.
- In past centuries, French was the language of choice for international communication. Many French are still bitter about this.
- The language people know as "Chinese" is actually only Mandarin, which is spoken largely everywhere due to it being taught as part of the official curriculum. Otherwise, people in China speak a large family of languages sufficiently dissimilar that knowing one doesn't help in understanding another.
- However, their common descent (from the Old Chinese language spoken up to about the Warring States Period) means that learning them is easier once you know one of them; ask native English speaker who has taken French and then Spanish (or any other combination of Romance languages) how much easier the second language was than the first for a comparable phenomenon.*
- Chinese linguistic unity is further increased by its logographic (each symbol represents a word) system of writing; the same glyph would be pronounced differently in each language, but usually remains the same. Therefore, a written language independent of speech, known as Classical Chinese, developed, serving as a Common Tongue (or Common Pen?) for the educated not only in China, but also countries under Chinese influence (Japan, Korea, and Vietnam). However, Classical Chinese was based on Late Old Chinese and thus did not reflect several features of more modern Chinese languages, including pronunciation* and grammar. Classical Chinese fell out of use shortly after the Xinhai Revolution of 1911, but the Republic of China (Taiwan) used it well into the 1970s for certain government documents.
- That said, the bit about each character having the same meaning in different languages only bears true for single-character words. Various languages and dialects in Chinese will use different character groupings to describe the same thing, particularly for things that did not exist until recently. This is what was lost with the end of Classical Chinese: it was an exclusively written language which carried the same meanings across dialects but which would be pronounced differently based on who was reading it. When that was abolished, the ability to communicate in writing across linguistic boundaries in a "neutral" manner also disappeared.
- India is in the same boat as China: there are thousands of languages, but almost everybody there speaks Hindi or English.
- After India became independent, there was a movement to purge British influences including English. The return to traditional languages failed because it was far too useful to have a single standard language that most educated people already knew. Economic reforms in The Nineties, which opened India to the wider world economy in which English is a huge advantage, put the final kibosh on any attempts to remove English from the country (and gave rise to the Operator From India trope).
- In even earlier centuries, Latin was the preferred language for scholarly discourse. Latin is still in use by the Roman Catholic Church as its preferred language for edicts and internal documents.
- A working knowledge of Latin was still vitally important for students of zoology, biology and medicine until well into the second half of the 20th century, and has occasionally been used as a lingua franca when scientists from many different cultures lack another common language.
- The Standard Italian language was standardized by Dante Alighieri (author of The Divine Comedy) as a heavily-Latinized variant of the Tuscan dialect of Florence, with a variety of other influences from other dialects (mostly Northern and Central Italian). Various other poets and writers had started writing in the vernacular, but Dante made it an acceptable literary language.
- In general, when a large empire spreads its language around and then dies (either by being conquered or by splitting up into squabbling fiefdoms...or as often happens, both), the language usually starts to diverge into dialects, which dialects eventually become mutually unintelligible. However, that language may persist as a Common Tongue for the educated.
- One of the weirdest cases of this has to be the situation of Arabic. Nationalism and the printing press—factors that tend to stabilize languages—arrived at a time when the dialects of Arabic formed a continuum* with only one significant break (between Western "Maghribi" and Eastern "Mashriqi" dialects,* right about where the border between Egypt and Libya is today), and even that wasn't a complete one. Additionally, everyone in the region used various forms of Classical Arabic (the language of The Qur'an) for educated writing. As a result, Arab scholars developed Modern Standard Arabic, a streamlined form of Classical Arabic that also tends to get flavored with the dialect of the user,* but which is universally understood by anyone who has been to school in an Arab country. However, people still speak their native dialects in all but the most formal circumstances; even in semi-formal situations, people will speak in their native dialect but use a lot of Modern Standard vocabulary. This last bit is the cause of a major fight among the Arab literati—many feel that this "educated colloquial" should form the basis of a new standard, abandoning the Classical entirely. Those who accept this view themselves bicker about whether one "educated colloquial" should be adopted as a single standard for all Arab countries (creating a new Common Tongue) or whether each country or group of countries should adopt their own standards (abandoning the idea of a single Arabic language altogether); those who agree that there should be a single new standard are wont to bicker over whether it should be based on one dialect of the "educated colloquial" (usually Egyptian, because everyone knows it anywaysnote ) or some kind of amalgamation (in which case, how would you do that, etc., etc., etc...).
- Arabic itself could count as a common tongue, since it is widely used in Muslim countries for studying the Quran, though only a fifth of all Muslims use it as everyday speech.
- The Japanese dialects aren't so different that people would have too much trouble communicating with each other (aside from a few cases of Separated by a Common Language and when Okinawan get involved), but they still have hyojungo, or "standard language", that is roughly based on the Kantou dialect.