How do other people on this board handle spoken and written languages?
The RAW say each language is a single skill, and (in the BGB) each written language is a different instance of the Literacy skill. One GM I respect gave all of us a single "Languages" skill; a skill check determined whether we understand whatever is being spoken. IIRC we only rolled when encountering someone from/in another country. Lamentations of the Flame Princess (Old School D&D) goes a step further; a check of their Languages skill determines whether you speak a specific language or not; players maintain a list of languages they can speak and another list of languages they definitively can't, but you clear the latter list when you gain a level.
For that matter, how often do you make a language check? I remember one Murphy's Rules mocked RQ3 for giving beginning characters a low chance to say anything in their mother tongue. (The caption was something like "Grbsh Smrzl, Mom and Dad!") Do you check every time someone begins speaking? Every statement? And what about dialects which are somewhat intelligible?
And then there's the rules on reading and writing. Is literacy in Spanish so different from literacy in Italian? It's the same Roman letters, with a few extra diacritical marks and slightly different pronunciation rules? For that matter I learned the Greek alphabet in about a week in high school; I sucked at grammar and vocabulary, but given a Classical Greek text at least I knew what sounds to make.
FWIW, my own readings on linguistics have led me to the following semi-realistic approach:
- Somewhat unrealistically, we'll categorize each form of speech as either a dialect or a language. This is distinct from the "official" designation; Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish are mutually intelligible "languages" while the "dialects" of Chinese are related only by the writing system (which is essentially a transcription of Mandarin).
- Each language is a distinct skill, as in the RAW. Each dialect defaults to half a related dialect/language (maybe more or less if we want to quantify relationships), but characters can train them up just like any other skill.
- Literacy may be a single skill or a simple yes/no question (as in modern times). Literate characters can usually read any language they can speak, using the lower of the Literacy skill (if any) and the spoken language skill.
- The written language counts as a separate skill from the spoken language if it's not a straightforward phonetic transcription, e.g. Chinese characters or English spelling. The written language may count as a completely separate language (e.g. Japanese) or a "dialect" (e.g. English, French, or any other language where spelling and pronunciation have drifted apart.)
Certain languages may have unique rules. For example, some languages have no written form, or at least none used by native speakers. If they later encounter a written form invented by another culture they may have to take it as a separate skill; alternatively, if (say) someone invents a way of writing Cimmerian in Elvish letters someone who already knows (written) Elvish would pick it up for free.
A similar situation occurs if the same language switches alphabets, e.g. Turkish switching from Arabic to Roman letters. Anyone who writes/speaks Arabic and speaks Turkish could read older documents using Turkish-in-Arabic-Letters. Or perhaps the new written form is straightforward enough to anyone who groks the concept of reading, like Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics apparently were to the Native American tribes they were invented for.
In medieval Japan, women and other minimally-educated people could write Japanese phonetically using hiragana characters. Truly educated men, on the other hand, used the more complicated mixture of Chinese characters (kanji) and hiragana in use today. In our system, then, literate Japanese speakers get hiragana writing for free, but need to learn Kanji with a different skill.
Maybe the language is dead, so that all we have is the written form. The spoken language is a scholar's reconstruction. Should a native speaker return from death, the stars, or an alternate world, he might hear the conventional spoken form as an incredibly bizarre dialect.
Other fantasy languages might have a logographic written form that normally counts as a second skill, but (as in the myth about Chinese) a whole group of languages use the exact same written form. Anyone writing in one of those languages can be read by anyone who speaks one of those languages and knows how to read the logograms. In a fantasy world I'm working on, Aklo has separate skills for speaking and writing, but since it's the language of sorcery all characters who start as sorcerers receive Aklo Logograms at the same skill level as the spoken language. Other non-human creatures write Aklo the same way but speak Aklo according to their vocal apparatus, so there's different skills for Human Spoken Aklo, Ghoul Howled Aklo, Elder Thing Piping Aklo, Mi-Go Colour-Change-and-Buzz Aklo ...