I mean that genuinely. If you’re not big on Dungeons & Dragons, save us both the embarrassment and just stop reading here.
Some gaming friends and I got around to discussing the nature of Common as a language within D&D fantasy settings. This was my take:
From what I understand, a lingua-franca is a previously spoken language that (through trade or perhaps diplomacy) comes into prominent use by non-native speakers. A pidgin is a language created from other languages to facilitate communication between speakers of the source languages. If a pidgin is then in turn passed on to another generation as their first language, taking on unique aspects of its own, it then becomes a creole language.
Given that Common in most campaign settings has been around for a while, it should be ruled out as a pidgin. Both lingua-francas and creole languages have or had native speakers at one time, which might be said for at least some interpretations of Common. I’m personally partial to conceiving of Common as a dead (or mostly dead) creole language that has become preserved as a lingua-franca. This way, it can have genesis in culture contact, still be a language unto itself, but be spoken by most characters as a second or third language. If Common still has native speakers, they would likely be clustered in areas of previous culture contact. Alternatively, they might be the current or just-previously “dominant” culture of the land, though this might lead to the ever-present danger of ECASiC (Everybody in the Campaign Always Speaking in Common).
I definitely like the notion of a “regional” language (Solamnic, Chondathan, etc.) being most characters’ first language, with their Common (and other spoken languages) affected with an accent indicative of that first language. I’m pretty sure that this how languages are described in the Forgotten Realms, though whether or not such an approach enters play is another issue entirely.
What I do not like is the binary approach to “knowing” or “not-knowing” a language inherent in every edition of D&D. Shadowrun does a much better job, treating languages as rated skills. I just thought of this, but if I were running a campaign, I’d swap “number of bonus languages” for “language points” that could be used to purchase levels of fluency. Functional fluency would be around, what, three? If a character wished to be able to pass as a native speaker, that would then require say, at least five points. (Even this is generous, provided skill points could be used tp purchase language points on a 1:1 basis through the Speak Language skill.) Diplomacy checks might then be subject to +/- based on the relative fluencies of the interlocutors.