A post for D&D and/or language geeks ONLY

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.

Thoughts?

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18 responses to “A post for D&D and/or language geeks ONLY

  1. Dolar

    Very interesting:)

  2. I think that common is assumed to be the “universal language”, much as English was considered to be the “universal language” (usually only by speakers of English), particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I’m willing to bet that if you spent a good deal of time in the Underdark, you’d discover that Common wasn’t nearly so common as you’d thought. Or, for that matter, in any of the Northern Realms cut off from “the rest of the world” by mountains, cold, and liches. In that order.

    So then the other languages of the world(s) I think can be classed into various language groups. Perhaps Common is the most ‘common’ derivation of the D&D verion of ‘proto-indo-european’, or maybe even what our dreamers thought “Esperanto” would become. Huh. Those dreamers.

    Anyhow; so if Common (pardon my tangents here) is the latest and most common descendent of the D&D version of PIE (heh), then it stands to reason that many other language groups are also branches of the same language and therefore have common ancestors and derivatives.

    Sylvan, for example, would be related to all the other Elven languages (think of the Manx group), and while certainly there would be regional dialects of each parent group, there would also be separate linguistic *branches* of Elven. Similar, the Dwarven languages, and even the Orcish tongues. Iew. Orc tongues.

    So I don’t think it’s a question of pidgin or concatenated language; I think it’s more a question of linguistic groups and I’ve probably done waaaay more thinking about this than anybody who doesn’t have a working knowledge of Klingon should have.

    The reason why Everyone Speaks Common (even though Everyone Doesn’t) is that it just makes it Easier on your DM if Everyone At Least Understands It.

  3. First off, there’s no way I can top a post that references both ork tongues and elven branches.

    I’m definitely partial to language groups for races and sub-races, but I’m not sure it’s the best way to explain Common. How well does your butcher read Chaucer? When will the EU mandate PIE as an international standard for commerce? Given what seems like the artificially long histories of game worlds, as well as very common factors such as dimensional migrations (on a racial level), perhaps there’s no hope in bringing this up.

    Ease for the DM is the most convincing argument of all, but I still think there is merit to be found in adding complications.

  4. Actually, my butcher reads Chaucer quite well, but I think he has a degree in English Lit, so maybe that’s not a good example.

    No, your points are well taken, and ones I had thought of as well. I think my point was that I don’t think Common actually *is* as common as it is perceived to be. So, f’rinstance, if you are playing in one of my games, and you want to play a Halfling from the Northern Reaches, you don’t have Common. You just don’t know it. Why would you? Common is a tongue of commerce; it is a language spoken in large centres, and understood in the ‘common’ areas of travel. If you get too far off the beaten path, you’re up a creek without a language.

    I think it really absoultely depends on the GM. In my game universes, Common is the language of travel, of commerce – it’d be like travelling through Europe in the middle ages. Chances are good that if you spoke Latin, you’d be understood *somewhere*.

    Unfortunately, because the game is based on Tolkien, everything has that ‘British’ feel to it, in which there *is* a universal language (English) that everyone who’s anyone understands and speaks from birth.

  5. Allow me to add the “uncommonness of Common” to my List of Reasons Why I’d Really Like to Play in One of cenobyte’s Games.

    On the topic of Tolkien and Britain, I found myself wondering for the first time about the application of (post-)colonial theory in bringing to life game worlds, specifically as applied to our understanding of fantasy races. Perhaps this ties into the “artificially-deep” histories that I referenced in the previous post, but most conflict and power relations within game campaigns seem to have boiled down into a sort of steady-state that very seldom echoes the complications observed in our world.

  6. Crisco

    I am not an expert in linguistics by any means (but I intend to major in it!), but allow me to add my own thoughts.

    It is possible that Common could be the primary tongue of a dead empire in a game of D&D, much like Latin. If the nation collapsed quite recently, say, in the last century or so, there could still be a large population of native speakers in the game world. Or Common could have been a language created by this old empire to act as a language of commerce to simplify trade. If that is the case, it would have no native speakers, but it would still have a great use, and so would likely have survived.

    However, again in the latter case, the status of Common could change with the political climate of the world. If the territories where Common was used as a trade language lost most of their commercial traffic due to an epic-scale war, plague, etc, Common could fall out of use and die quickly.

  7. TheFriendlyGod

    As far as a lingua franca, I think a good comparison is probably Koine Greek back in the Hellenistic days and even through the Roman Republican era… a language used for trade, with much regional variation, but also standardized by some official use.

  8. Seth

    I’m going to chime in here on this thread as well. I think it’s useful to make ‘common’ the common root language of the majority of the humans in the game world (or dominant commercial/political entity if humans aren’t). I think it is useful to make it a mother language (such as indo-european language family), with various sound shifts throughout its history.

    There would be a number of different mother languages, and they would have branched out into the languages of the intelligent races. For D&D 3.5 I use the alphabet rules to determine the mother language, as such: Infernal, Elven, Draconic, Celestial, Common, Druidic, Dwarven. These languages then went through their own shifts over time.

    In my game, these original languages all have their own magical properties and are either dead and lost or closely guarded by their creators. I use some supplemental rules and house rules to accomplish this.

    Infernal split into abyssal, infernal, and various languages of evil outsiders who have been enslaved by or allied with the fiends. Its original language is still spoken by the demon princes and other overlords and uses the Dark Speech rules from the Book of Vile Darkness and Fiendish Codex.

    Elven split into aquan, elven, sylvan, and undercommon, as well as any other fey, magical beasts, or other similarly themed creatures. The original elven tongue has been lost to all but the purest strain of the ancient elves. It is said that there was a silent version of the elven tongue, a kind of dance, which is the basis for somatic magic. Somatic gestures used in spells are all that is left of the language, in broken fragments. The sign language of the drow is based upon the elven language, but it is corrupted and twisted and has lost its magic. When the drow split from the elves, their language was shifted by the underdark and its denizens into a mad language that only echoes the original elven tongue.

    Draconic split into the various kobold and lizard dialects. The language, however, still exists in its pure form as spoken by dragons and is the language of magic. Whenever a spell is cast that uses a verbal component, it uses words in the ancient draconic language. Occasionally powerful artifacts and lost relics are discovered to expand knowledge of this language, and the spell Read Magic allows the user to understand ancient draconic.

    Celestial is the only language that has not been corrupted, and it is the language of the good outsiders. It is called the song of the stars, and is sung or chanted, for it is the root of all music. Bardic music draws its power from the celestial language, and it has been said that the world itself was formed by music.

    Common has split into literally dozens of languages and hundreds of dialects, with gnoll representing a unique early derivation. Halfling is very similar to a prominent early human language shift from common. The origin of common is a contentious debate among seers. Many of the sounds of the various tongues that are derived from common share characteristics with elven and dwarven, but there are also sounds that appear to be drawn from another source. There are several camps, often divided along racial lines. Some argue that the language of humans and other young races was drawn from elven or dwarven, while some humans assert that the language at its core was its own tongue, and that the various elven and dwarven languages were later incorporated into the language. Though the original language — if it even existed — has been long-lost, certain ancient True Names are known to grant power over those named. It has been speculated that these ancient names are words from the original language.

    Druidic is a unique language that is known only to druids, regardless of race or culture. It is the language of the earth itself, of nature, and it can hadly even be interpreted as a language. It is more a kind of communication on a very basic level with nature and others who have these powers. The language is deeply magical, and is the core basis for all druidic magic, as it creates the conduit between druids and the nature that they draw their power from.

    Dwarven split into the most commonly spoken languages, encompasing dwarven, giant, gnomish, the goblin tongues, orcish, and terran. The original language is said to have sounded like the earth itself, with the power of the avalanche and earthquake. The sound of the spoken language has been lost for all time, but the ancient runes of the original language still remain in the closely guarded glyphs of dwarven rune magic.

    *A few notes: since I run an Eberron game, the dwarven language is at its core the language of the giants. The infernal language has been changed to Khyber. Undercommon has been altered to Daelkyr, the mad language of the aberrations. Drow is a derivation of the elven language that is unrelated to undercommon. The celestial language is Syberis. Common was the common trade language of Galifar, but has since split into the languages of Aundairian, Cyran, Brelish, Thranish, and Karrnathi. Orcish is the common language in the Shadow Marches and Droaam. Druidic is the language of Eberron herself. Many in Q’barra use a pidgin language that melds the languages of the lizardfolk and common. Many monstrous underwater races speak a language derived from both the giant/dwarven and elven languages.

    draconic; khyber/fiendish (infernal,abyssal); giant; celestial (coatl)

    Abyssal Demons, chaotic evil outsiders Infernal
    Aquan Water-based creatures Elven
    Auran Air-based creatures Draconic
    Celestial Good outsiders Celestial
    Common Humans, halflings, half-elves, half-orcs Common
    Draconic Kobolds, troglodytes, lizardfolk, dragons Draconic
    Druidic Druids (only) Druidic
    Dwarven Dwarves Dwarven
    Elven Elves Elven
    Giant Ogres, giants Dwarven
    Gnome Gnomes Dwarven
    Goblin Goblins, hobgoblins, bugbears Dwarven
    Gnoll Gnolls Common
    Halfling Halflings Common
    Ignan Fire-based creatures Draconic
    Infernal Devils, lawful evil outsiders Infernal
    Orc Orcs Dwarven
    Sylvan Dryads, brownies, leprechauns Elven
    Terran Xorns and other earth-based creatures Dwarven
    Undercommon Drow Elven

    Aboleth: Aboleth’s
    Abyssal: Demons
    Armandish: Armands
    Asherati: Asherati
    Auran: air creatures
    Aquan: water creatures
    Avolakia: Avolakias
    Beholder: Beholders
    Bhuka: Bhukas
    Blink dog: Blink dogs
    Boggle: Boggles
    Buommi: Buommans
    Busos: Busos – OA
    Celestial: celestial creatures
    Common: everyone else
    Darfellan: Darfellans
    Dark One: Dark ones
    Desmodu: Desmodus
    Diabolan: Diaboli -DM
    Diopsid: Diopsids -DM******
    Draconic: dragons
    Drow sign language: Drow
    Druidic: druids
    Dvati: Dvati -DM*******
    Dwarven: Dwarves
    Elven: elves
    Feline: Catfolk
    Formian: Formians
    Ghost Elven: Ghost Elves -DM
    Gnome: Gnomes
    Gnoll: Gnolls
    Gol-Kaa: Goliaths
    Giant: Giants
    Githyanki: Githyanki*
    Githzerai: githzerai*
    Goblin: Goblins
    Grimlock: grimlocks
    Kappa: Kappas – OA
    Hadozee: Hadozee’s
    Halfling: Halflings
    Hengeyokai: Hengeyokai -OA
    Howler: Howlers **
    Ibixian: goatfolk
    Ignan: fire creatures
    Illumian: Illumians
    Infernal: Devils
    Jermlaine: Jermalines
    Kaorti: Kaortis
    Kenku: Kenkus
    Khen-Zai: Ethergaunts
    Kobold: Spriggans *****
    Kuo-Toan: Kuo-Toa
    Loxo: Loxos
    Lumi:lumi
    Lupin: Lupins -DM
    Neraph: Neraphim
    Nerra: Nerras
    Nezumi: Nezumi -OA
    Nycter: Nycters
    Odopis: Odopis
    Orc: orcs
    Phiuhl: Phiuhl ***
    Rhek: Rheks
    Rokugani- OA
    Sahuagin: Sahuagins
    Slaad: Slaadi
    Shadowlands- OA
    Shadowswyft: shadowswyft’s
    Sphinx: Sphinxs
    Spirit Tongue -OA
    Sporebat: sporebats ****
    Stonesinger: stonesinger
    Susurrus: susurrus
    Sylvan: fey
    Tako: Tako’s -OA
    Tasloi: Tasloi’s -OA
    Tengu- OA
    Terran: earth creatures
    Tirbana: Tirbanese insects
    Treant: Treants
    Tusk Terror: tusk terrors
    Tuilvilanuue: Raptorans
    Undercommon: drow, mindflayers
    Vanara: Vanara -OA
    Windsong: windblades
    Worg: worgs
    Yuan-ti: Yuan-Ti
    Zern: Zerns

  9. In our Mystara-based campaigns, we don’t have the Common problem. There is no such thing, and I love it! In the Known World, the area where adventures often take place, it happened that Thyatis, quite like Imperial Rome, had conquered half of the lands and seas. After the fall of the great Thyatian empire few decades ago, Thyatian language is used for trade and administration in many places. It is still far from universal Common, and the area of the empire did not cover even a half of Known World, which itself is a small piece of a much bigger continent.

    I as a player and as a GM, fail to see the problem in the lack of a communication provided by a spoken language, which both parties are able to communicate in. In D&D, using roleplaying or Sense Motive -skill, characters should be able to change thoughts with people speaking unknown language. Asking for food, shelter, directions, old stories and so on, these things should be possible for a group of players to manage in a foreign culture. And to not even mention about all the D&D spells that can make you speak and/or understand any language in existence.

    I don’t like the idea of having a universal language, except for arcane symbols (which we consider to be closer to mathematics than any language). It just doesn’t make any sense that all creatures from aberrations to undead and all magical beasts and peoples in between could share a common language with humans and other nice races “just in case”.

    @Crisco In Greyhawk, there is no place in Flanaess history for an ancient empire to exist. All peoples in Flanaess have different roots and centuries old own languages, with most of them never been conquered under the same culture.

    M

    Just for fun for science freaks, http://www.pandius.com/ethno.html, Ethnographic History of Mystara.

  10. Tiberius

    Common refers to the language the players speak. It is an easy way to communicate without worrying about translations or with what language you’re trying to speak with.

  11. Bykov

    4th edition is even worse. 1 feat will give you 3 languages (IIRC).

  12. Spirithound

    Qualifications: MA in linguistics (but clearly some of my opinions don’t call on that…;) )

    I think I’ve always, at least subconsciously thought of Common as the language of the Humans. All the other races have their own languages, which logically, Humans would not be natively privy to (really, a Human growing up speaking Dwarven as a first language??).

    Given this, it would seem that Common is more accurately simply a dominant language/lingua franca, rather than a proper creole. (but of course it may have some borrowings from other languages if you or your DM have the skill to code-switch).

    Regarding the in-game acquisition of a language, I recently brought this up to my Dungeon Mistress, and she just shook her head sadly and said “shut up linguist!”

    I agree there must be a better way than simply know/don’t know. Perhaps it would involve giving the players more skill points to work with? And the DM would have to make a point of making it an important point of the game so players would figure out, “oh, maybe I don’t need 10 points of jump…”

  13. Juvela Obi

    These are all interesting points. I’m both a language geek and a D&D geek, so I find this dilemma intriguing. (Excuse me if I spell stuff wrong; English is not my first language. Or my second.)

    This is how my DM handles Common and other languages: 1) by geography, 2) by time period, 3) by species/culture, 4) teachers.

    Like someone said, in a very remote place, someone is highly unlikely to know Common, especially if this place has been isolated for a very long time. Perhaps they only became isolated a century ago; in this case, they understand the basic jist of things, but they would have a hard time with newer phrases and pronunciation. For someone who is from a different plane altogether, they don’t know any Common at all. For example, my Ranger Tempest got put into a time-stopping prison cell (meaning I was in suspended animation) for almost 1000 years. So, we use Common for me and others like me as “modern English” versus “rell’ olde Englishe”. So I roll percentiles to see how well someone can work out what I say, and others roll percentiles to work out how well I understand them. The percentage of chance for different levels of understanding depend on when and where they are from. Heh, common phrases for different time periods cause plenty of confusion. Over the past nine months (real time) my party members have been teaching me modern Common, so the chances of success have become much better. For us, it’s like an ever-changing lingua-franca. I find this both fair and interesting.

    Some species naturally have a dislike for humans and humanoids, or don’t really care for civil interraction (aka, non-violent interraction) and so either don’t know/learn Common, or have such rusty skills they make as many mistakes as I did in the first few weeks (game time) of being with my party.

    We also can’t learn new languages without either magical items (such as Boots of Dwarvenkind) that automatically give full fluency in a given language, or a teacher who is native or at least very fluent in said language. Basically, our skills in language and related skills, feats, and abilities rely on experience. We can even organize experience points into different categories to specialize in certain things more than others.

    Sound okay?

  14. Juvela Obi

    Oh, and the geography also has an influence in different versions of “modern Common” in a similar way to the British call french fries chips and stuff. Different terms for the same things. The farther you go, and the more isolated the civilisation, the more different the developement of the language.

  15. Erik

    I’ve got to admit that I’ve not thought about the ‘universal language problem’ much.
    There is one thing it did come up in though.

    A half year ago I have started to develop an addition to my campaign world, named Eldralönd (basically Iceland, only named ‘Firelands’ and with some magic added)

    I wanted to have the ‘new’ continent to have a different language, but communication to still be possible. So I decided that the original continent had one language that was kept constant and widespread by the meddling of the long-lived dragons, who ruled it for 1000’s of years.

    In Eldralönd, where dragons were not as prominent, this language only survived as a ‘superior’ language, sort of like latin right now, with only scholars understanding more than a few words.

    The ‘Eldralönd Common’ has changed so much as to be unrecognizable. It is one language, but, much like Icelandic, that is because of a centralized rule and a vastly smaller landmass.

    …Whew, this became a lot more wordy than I planned for…

  16. Pingback: English is a complicated language, get over it. – Flashing Blade

  17. Wes Prosser

    Hmm… only 5 to 10 years behind the pace…
    I “recently” (ok – it began in 2003 and only stopped in 2011 when I was forced to move house) ran a campaign roughly based on 5th Century Britain. Rome had come and retreated (but still going strong in Italy), and the Angles and Saxons had only been around for a hundred years. Beginning characters were humans, dwarves, halflings, half-orcs or half-ogres, living in Dyfed (south-west Wales). Dwarves had Dwarven, Halflings had Halfling, but Humans had… Brythonic. Other languages that could be chosen were Goidelic (spoken by Irish and Scots), Pictish (spoken in northern Scotland), Orcish (Where else? the Orkneys – but shared with ogres), Anglic, Saxon and Jute (i’ve since found out the Angles, Saxons and Jutes are more likely to have spoken different dialects of a single language, but hey!). There was also Elven (although all elves disappeared around 50 years ago), Latin and Greek.
    The closest thing to “common” was Latin – it was forced upon conquered peoples from Britain to Persia to Egypt. Greek was a scholar’s language, in the same way Latin is to us now (all *educated* Romans knew how to speak Greek).
    As the campaign progressed, the group travelled to new locations, and were exposed to new races and languages. Indeed, as characters died, they were sometimes replaced with natives of the area they happened to be in (so, the party ended up with a few Saxons, a Roman and a Greek in it). It caused me no end of enjoyment when there were big “party pow-wows”, where some members had to translate to other members because there was no common language between them all (I’d make them repeat stuff to each other – all in English, of course – but on the understanding that *this* was Brythonic, and *that* was Saxon… and sure enough, odd people did take short cuts and occasionally messed up the message. Chinese whispers being played out in front of all).
    Anywho – there are some historical points I’d like to raise:
    * In the thread kick-off, it says a lingua-franca is a “previously spoken language”. This can be misleading. Latin was a lingua-franca in the 1C AD – it was spoken across most of “the known world”. It was a living native language of Italy, and a (admittedly forced-on) second language for a great many other people. It’s effects have been far-reaching: modern French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese have all evolved from it, and it continued to be a common language of theocracy and scolarship into the 19th century. Similarly, French was the lingua-franca of the 19th century, hence the phrase “lingua-franca” (I had to learn French at school… here in Australia! How many French people are there in Australia?!?), and English is of course the lingua-franca of the 21st Century, thanks to the all-encompassing media bludgeoning of Hollywood and Internet.
    * Pidgins act as trade languages between people without a common language. They are kinda “made-up” languages. They were important during the colonial era in Australia, New Guinea and North America. Europeans encountered heaps of different people who didn’t speak any recognised languages. Those first explorers would then teach a few words of their language (be it English, French, Spanish, or whatever), and they would learn a few words of the local language (be it Iroquois, Maori, Wauthaurong, or whatever). With regular contact, a pidgin specific to that location would develop (for example, an Algonquian–Basque pidgin between native Algonquian speakers of Newfoundland and the Basque (French) whalers that used to fish near there. The pidgin wasn’t spoken “at home” – you’d speak your own language (Algonquian or French) – it was only spoken when trading with those “crazy foreigners”.
    * Creoles developed out of pidgins when the children or grandchildren of a people stop learning the language of their heritage, and start learning the pidgin as a primary language. Louisiana Creole began as a pidgin of French, several African languages (Bambara, Wolof, Fon) and Native American (Choctaw, Mobilian). Within a couple of generations, a stable language had developed, being spoken as the primary language of a mixed-heritage population.
    In short: pidgins tend to be highly localised, and creoles were “banged together” from two or more languages over very short time spans. Modern English has developed from a wide variety of languages (Saxon, Brythonic, Goidelic, Latin, Greek, Old Norse, Old Danish, Old French, with words nicked from modern French, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, and many others). It isn’t a pidgin or a creole, because each change was incremental from the last one, and the changes took many generations.
    Some final points:
    Factors that enhance language stability:
    * The longevity of the people speaking it (Elven is a *very* stable language);
    * The level of literacy of the people (writing things down tends to slow down change);
    * Cultural power (the Eddas kept the Vikings together, even though most couldn’t read… and look what that got us – Ikea!);
    * The *practical* distance between diverse speakers (Rome built roads… and used them! There was a lot of traffic between Italia and the provinces). Roads, ships, magic portals, plane shift, and the Internet all make the “distance” between disparate speakers smaller. Compare to New Guinea, where steep mountains made travel very difficult, and people in adjacent valleys actually spoke (and still speak) different complete languages. Similarly, French, Italian and Spanish only started to become separate languages *after* the unifying force of Rome collapsed.

  18. Wes Prosser

    P.S. What brought me here in the first place was that I was looking to see if anyone had split “Celestial” into LG “Celestial” and CG “Arboreal” (or somesuch), in much the same way as the evil languages are “Infernal” and “Abyssal”. I can’t believe the uptight “cross the street only at the zebra crossing” LGers speak the same language as the free and easy, pot-smoking CGers.

    A copy/paste from BossSmiley from Giants In The Playground (http://www.giantitp.com/forums/archive/index.php/t-103072.html):
    Celestial: Speakers cannot directly lie. It’s just grammatically impossible.
    Infernal: Speakers cannot speak the plain truth. You can hedge about things like an uncommitted lawyer, but if you try to speak the plain truth you end up sounding like Sir Humphrey from “Yes, Minister”.
    Abyssal: It sounds like Death Metal ‘Cookie Monster’ vocals. You can make sense of it eventually, but it’ll give you a headache, a sore neck and a hangover doing so.

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