A discussion of why John Wick is not as smart as he wants you to believe…

I have returned from Gen Con.  The republic still stands.

Much consumerism was engaged in.  Many bank accounts were logically plundered.  And when you go with a crew of doctors, you begin to experience certain pangs of jealousy at their comparative wealth for such endeavors.  Alas.

I won’t bitch too much.  There wasn’t actually much that I would have liked to have purchased that I did not.  And most of what I bought was either at a steep discount or for someone else.  All in all, it was good.

Last time I posted (and no, I cannot immediately declare the hiatus over; there’s just stuff I want to talk about before it withers away to memory), I devoted the better part of 4,000 words to a tear down of John Wick’s Wicked Fantasy book.  The (tl;dr) version of this is that the book is neither dark nor dangerous, despite the cover assuring us that this was just such a revision.  The game implies that it is searching for the adult aspects of the fantasy for the grown-up gamer, when in fact, it largely fails to capture any such thing.  The “dark lens” that Wick views the world through seems to merely be smudged.

Again, I want to point out that I was a huge fan of the stuff Wick was responsible for during his tenure at Alderac.  Legend of the Five Rings and 7th Sea are both some of the finest games on the market.  This is one of the worst, if you judge it on the basis of what it promises versus what it actually delivers.  It is my disappointment brought on by this disparity of quality that has pushed me to rag on this product as I have.  (In fact, I still hold enough regard for L5R that I bought several books of the new edition to help round out my collection.  Thankfully, Wick no longer has anything to do with that line.)

In response to my previous post, Gregory wanted some further discussion of what Wick did wrong with the language in this book, something I railed at for a little while.  Apparently, I was wrong about my contention that no one wanted to hear me go into depth about what idiocy Wick’s ideas on linguistics are.

There are two parts to this discussion.

First, the chapter on Gnolls opens with a sidebar talking about how the mouths of Gnolls is particularly canine in nature and they cannot easily form the words required of other languages.  I see where he’s going with this, but in all honesty, this is the dumbest idea to attach to a fantasy race.  For one thing, D&D and Pathfinder knock the idea of language acquisition so far down the scale of importance that such things are mere skill adds, and every character would be able to learn a new language in the time it takes to level up the next time.  For another, it’s a magical world, not one of physics or biology, so this is one of those things that should generally be hand-waved out of existence.

Here’s why:  While it is possible to learn a language without ever being able to speak it, it’s one of the most unlikely things to happen.  In terms of realism, this is a lot harder to make sense of than the old saw of spending a month in the desert and learning French.  (i.e. Going out to adventure for a month and gaining a language when you return to town, as tends to be the way in D&D and Pathfinder.)  Language learning requires four main areas of focus – listening, reading, writing and speaking.  Reading and listening are the input methods for this, where writing and speaking are the output that’s necessary to make everything gel.  And the difference between speaking and writing is that writing is done without immediate feedback, placing it well below speaking in terms of language acquisition.  Over and over, this is something that I have encountered in my various linguistic studies and time as a teacher.  If you don’t speak, you don’t learn.  And to fully cement a language, you need to be immersed in it, where everything around you uses the language and you have to speak it to accomplish basic survival tasks.  For my own notations, I have studied a lot of French, but since I never visited a French-speaking country, I’ve managed to forget quite a bit of it.

So, there it is.  I have a huge problem with making it so Gnolls can only really speak Gnoll.  This is amazingly harmful for the species overall, since it stunts their development of linguistics to an amazing degree.  (There’s more about this, where the act of speaking moves a language from one type of memory to another and how it serves to motivate second language learners by the process of communication, but I think I’ve covered enough for my first point.)

Secondly, Wick seems to be utterly unaware of how few words a mere 250 actually is.

Let’s consider for a moment, shall we?  250 words is roughly the range for an average three year old child (meaning that more precocious children are like to know far more), and there are noted cases of Shetland Sheep Dogs (Shelties, for the layman) that know upwards of 500 words in English.  Already, we’re seeing a bit of a problem going into this.  Here you have an entire race that has access to less words than a real world dog.  Sure, Shelties can’t speak all the words they know, but there is communication already going on.  (And with time and research, I would probably go on about how hard it would be for a creature to acquire a language that has orders of magnitude more words, but that’s well outside of my range of interest on this.)

In comparison, the created language of Klingon has over 3,000 words in its vocabulary, and it has been proven to be inadequate for actual communication.  Reference the somewhat informal study by d’Armon Speers, a linguist that tried to make his son a native speaker of Klingon.  While he was in the process of teaching his son this language, Speers made certain that he was simultaneously learning English so his cognitive development wouldn’t suffer.  The kid stopped speaking Klingon at around three years old, simply because it was too difficult to communicate basic ideas and allow him access to his world.  And this is a language with over twelve times as many words.  Not only does this not make sense, it implies that Gnolls are functionally retarded as a species, since language development is tied heavily to cognitive development.  (This goes back to my notation of how difficult it would be to learn a language other than your own.  It’s already made very difficult by not being able to speak; throw in some learning disabilities, and it becomes outright impossible.)

Then there’s the corollary that, by obviating adjectives of all kinds, Gnolls are unable to rationally recite any form of direction or history to another.  The implication is that there is no method of differentiation, rendering all trees and rocks and opponents as being a single concept for each.  In doing so, there’s no ability to return to a place that they have been, since without such nuance, all things blur together.  Hells, at this point, they rank behind honey bees in most cognitive areas, since colors are also apparently off this list as well.  Past and present cease to exist without notational modifiers, and so on.  (And Wick also makes a point to note that Gnolls don’t really keep track of time.  Ugh.)  It gets stupid real fast.

Looking through the entry on Gnolls, it seems that about a third of the non-food language has already been defined by Wick in the process of yammering on about Gnoll Linguistics.  Further, another 10% of the non-food language just goes to talking about the moons.  As such, we’re up to about forty of our one hundred words, and honestly, we’re running out of any ability to actually interact with the world.  (It also should be noted that he defines many of the words using the verboten adjectives, which I find fascinating.  Why state such a stupid rule, only to immediately break it?  Or are we going to hide behind ‘running’ and ‘slow running’ as completely separate words, like the oft-repeated saw about Inuit and their extensive vocabulary about snow?)

Then there’s the notation that Gnolls are Charismatic, to the point that they gain a +2 to the Attribute at character creation.  This is such amazing idiocy, given the rest of the text and the noisome short story.  When he says that other races term them as dirty and unclean, I must immediately take issue.  I would accept that they have a bonus of some sort amongst their own kind, as Gnolls would be better disposed to dealing with other Gnolls, but how in six hells does a scavenger race that has clear analogues to hyenas get a bonus to deal with other races that view them as filthy or accursed?  It boggles the mind.

So, there you go.  Wick’s all caught up on defining these races according to their racial linguistics, and he doesn’t grasp the basic parts of how stupid his contentions truly are.  It’s one thing to take an interesting idea like a race guide and make it dreadfully dull treatise on language in the process.  It’s quite another to fuck it up this badly.

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Posted on August 19, 2014, in Gaming Philosophy, Review, Systems Discussion and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Fascinating read, thank you for posting it. I did not realize how language usage and language acquisition would affect intellectual or cultural development. I’ve got a three-year old in my house and she uses over 250 words in her conversations and using her as my auditory aid, I can see how pitiful a gnoll vocabulary would be. This post was entertaining and helpful. I hope my conlang endeavors are better, after your enlightening critique. Thanks again.

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