Speaking in Tongues

I’ve been thinking about foreign language in LARPs recently. This comes from a conversation I had about how mechanics abstractly representing the same thing can vary wildly from LARP to LARP, depending on the intentions of the LARP writers, and the needs of the LARP itself. (Which in turn sprang out of a conversation about how LARPing is developing as its own subculture, recognizable by its own dialect of unique terminology both verbal and gestural, but I digress.) It’s a topic I find rather interesting. I studied linguistics and several languages in college.

There seem to be a few standard ways to deal with characters who speak foreign languages in LARPs. (And by foreign, I mean foreign to the setting of the LARP, not the necessarily foreign to the players).

One method is to do away with them altogether, even if characters aren’t all from the same country. Easily explained in any non-real setting- all of the countries happen to have the same national language- at most, they might have different dialects (all mutually intelligible). Alternately, everyone is multilingual, so what language anyone is speaking at any given time is largely moot (though this ignores the flavor of being able to speak different languages.) In my experience, it’s almost always just left unsaid- particularly live languages. Dead languages that require translating- i.e. the ancient manuscript containing secret spells to learn- are often labeled “only readable if you have the skill Read Language X.”

It’s a bit more hand-wave-ish if characters are from different real countries. (Though, I suppose, not an issue if there are no two people from the same foreign country and everyone is just speaking the lingua franca.) Logically, if two French diplomats are present at an American meeting, they should be able to hold a (relatively) private conversation anywhere by speaking French, without worrying about eavesdropping. (At NELCO, we discussed eavesdropping at one of the panels- people seemed to agree that ideally, a LARP creates the illusion of privacy to encourage people to have conversations that provide opportunities for eavesdropping- people can behave secretly while secrets still get out.) Not providing a means for the two French diplomats to speak French might beg the question, why can’t they have a private conversation anywhere, at any volume, by speaking French? But LARPers seem willing to suspend their disbelief in this regard.

The methods of dealing with foreign languages that don’t involve simply ignoring them generally require some level of trusting players not to metagame. There’s the holding a hand symbol over your forehead  (I’ve seen the ASL sign for the letter F used) to indicate “I am now speaking a foreign language.” (Actually, the only time I saw this used was in a LARP that hadn’t included this in the rules- someone was just using it for flavor, to indicate their character was well traveled and well read. Interesting how some LARP rules become universal, like covering your character badge in a theater LARP to indicate you’re speaking out of character. Or using the term “forsooth” to indicate that what you’re saying is now true in-game.) This method is good if you don’t want to interfere with the flow of speech, but it will indicate to anyone within sight that a foreign language is being spoken, instead of just those within hearing range. It also still requires the particular language being used to either be clear from context or clarified out of character. (In the case mentioned above, the player said to me, in-character, something to the effect of, “as you can see, I speak French as well as you.”)

Another method, which I’ve heard of but never seen in use, is to sandwich speech between the name of the language being spoken. “Italian Good Morning, how are you? Italian.” Seems highly awkward to me, though it does ensure that only those who would be aware of the foreign language being spoken. It gives some amount of warning to people listening in as to whether or not they should pay attention. If I hear the name of a language my character can speak, I might lean closer. If I hear the name of a language I can’t speak, I might move on or direct my attention elsewhere.

I’ve also heard of people using index cards, though I imagine it’s not very common- having to hold up a card to indicate you’re speaking another language is sort of the worst of all worlds- awkward, doesn’t allow for someone within ear shot to know what’s going on unless they can also read the card.

One method that I’ve never heard of people using, but I wonder if it could be used effectively… allowing people to speak the languages they speak in real life. Making a language a “hard skill” (something you need to be able to actually do out of character) strays from the theater LARPing value of letting players experience things they can’t in real life (and from the value of “fairness” which frowns on allowing players advantages from out-of-game skills)… though you’d think boffer LARPing might be a bit more keen on it, since boffer LARPs tend to place more emphasis on simulation (as requiring players who want to pick locks to actually pick locks, instead of just possessing a skill that says they can.)

I think the biggest detriment is the logistical nightmare this presents to theater LARPing- you’d have to find out what languages people can speak, and how well, prior to casting and cast accordingly. It would probably require writing the LARP around the cast of players somewhat… instead of completing the writing and then casting… but I think it could be a worthwhile experiment.

Does anyone know of any other methods for representing foreign languages in LARPing? Would you consider them successful or not? Please share!

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About Fair Escape

I've been LARPing for years in all different styles, including both boffer and theater. I love classic LARP but I'm always happy to try something new. I have a sort of "gotta catch 'em all" attitude towards experiencing LARPs. I'm currently serve as a board member of NEIL, a member of proposal com for Intercon, the largest all LARP convention in the US, and as en editor for Game Wrap, a publication about the art and craft of LARP. I was also con chair of Festival of the LARPs 2017, and I'm on staff for NELCO, the first all LARP conference in the US. I'm
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