Fine-Tuning Languages

House rule articles contain a short intro, a rambling section on how to come up with a solution to a problem called “Cooking It up“, just the plain rules in a section called “The Finished Dish” and some musings about what else you could do with that in the final section: The Leftovers“.

In GURPS problems with languages go two ways: how to handle having many languages and how to handle not being completely proficient. I’ve yet to deal with the former problem. I usually tell my players beforehand what languages might be useful and throw the occasional bone in the direction of players who took one that wasn’t usually cropping up. But proficiency was a problem we often had to deal with. Even having broken proficiency lets you communicate rather freely. Only in stressful situations does it require an IQ roll to understand someone or get your meaning across. Everybody who has ever visited Paris with nothing but their rusty school French can attest that this is overly optimistic – though admittedly most situations will become rather stressful fast.

Cooking It up

What’s needed are more finely-grained levels of proficiency and better rules for operating at that proficiency. Now, it makes little sense to inflate the price of languages any further. They’re already pricier than having decent skills. So, the intermediate levels could either use half-points (I know I start sounding like a half-trick-pony) or link spoken and written comprehension levels together. I am going to present both options below.

Now, there’s nothing really difficult about coming up with the rest of the rules, but I’d like to throw in a couple thoughts about language defaults. For most languages these should realistically be at a level below broken, but there are some exceptions concerning bona fide languages (e.g. Norwegian and Swedish). Having a smoother progression of proficiency levels helps in this regard.

The Finished Dish

Instead of the three comprehension levels for spoken and written language in Basic Set, there are six (not counting None).
All IQ rolls are modified by how stressful the situation is and how well the participants can perceive the statements made. The modifiers given on B24 for broken comprehension apply for spoken conversation. Written conversation seldom takes penalties here, though online chats can be stressful and writing can be defaced, smeared or hard to read. Also you won’t get immediate feedback during most written communication. Time Spent modifiers (B346) apply.If you are making use of half-points, use the rules as written. If not, either make sure the total sum of points invested into a language is not a fraction or pay another half point to round it up.

Spoken Comprehension Levels

Rudimentary (0.5 points): You are only able to express the most basic concepts (“I need food”, “I surrender”, “I have money” etc.) and even these require an IQ by both participants to get across.
Using skills dependent on language is mostly impossible or at least takes a -12 penalty (doubled for skills dependent on the beauty of the language).
Those predisposed to dislike the character react at an additional -5. Those intolerant towards the character’s nationality won’t react at a better level than bad.
This level is mainly useful for travellers who have a tiny chance of encountering native speakers, but a large chance of those being hostile. On the discworld Rincewind was known for being able to beg for mercy in dozens of languages.

Broken (1 point): You are able to express slightly more complex concepts (e.g. “I need medicine for my sick daughter. I have the money to pay for it.”), but your grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation are very bad. Communicating all but the simplest concepts requires you to make an IQ roll.
Using skills dependent on language takes a -6 penalty (doubled for skills dependent on the beauty of the language).
Those predisposed to dislike you react at an additional -3. Those intolerant towards your nationality won’t react at a better level than poor.
This is the level most pupils manage to reach after three years of foreign language education.

Limited (1.5 points): You are able to express moderately complex concepts in fields he is familiar with (e.g. “If you want to remove the blockage, you need to open the outflow valve an increase water pressure”). Treat everyday knowledge and the subject of every skill in which you have invested at least two points as a familiar field. Your grammar is simple, but correct more often than not. Your pronunciation is still moderately bad, but generally comprehensibly. Vocabulary varies according to subject matter. There is normally no IQ roll for communicating, but in stressful situations the GM might require one.
Using skills dependent on language takes a -3 penalty (doubled for skills dependent on the beauty of the language).
Those predisposed to dislike you react at an additional -2. Those intolerant towards your nationality won’t react at a better level than poor.
All but the worst pupils should reach the level after six years of being taught the language at school.

Fluent (2 points): You are able to express complex concepts and you generally use correct grammar, vocabulary and more-or-less correct pronunciation. False cognates are still a source of problems as is using words of the wrong register or with the wrong connotation. The GM might assess a penalty of -1 or (in extreme cases) of -2 to a skill roll where applicable.
Using skills dependent on language generally takes a -1 penalty (doubled for skills dependent on the beauty of the language).
Only those intolerant towards your nationality react at an additional -1.
This is the level usually expected of students who want to enrol for a major – at least in countries where this language is commonly taught in school.

Near-native (2.5 points): You are able to express even the most complex concepts. You make very few mistakes in grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation, but are usually not quite good enough to pass as a native speaker when talking to actual native speakers.
There is only a penalty of -1 for using skills dependent on the beauty of the language.
Even those intolerant towards your nationality won’t react worse than their intolerance dictates.
This level is acceptable for somebody who has completed a major degree in the language.

Native (3 points): Even if you aren’t a native speaker, a regular native speaker won’t be able to glean that fact just from hearing you talk. A master linguist might be able to tell after talking to you at length and making a PER-based Linguistics roll.
You can converse in the standard language and a dialect of your choice (free of charge). This can be a dialect that is very far from the standard language. If you choose such a dialect, be aware that others will treat you as if that were your native dialect – unless you keep it completely secret. They might congratulate you on learning the standard language or despise you for giving up your roots.
This level isn’t very common among mere students of a language. You normally need full-time immersion to get there and even then many non-native speakers never reach this level.

Written Comprehension Levels

Written comprehension levels work exactly as spoken ones, though your handwriting does not necessarily give you away if you have a higher proficiency in another language that uses the same script (e.g. Latin or Cyrillic Script). Self-study by using books works as follows.

Rudimentary (0.5 points): Self-study using books is impossible.

Broken (1 point): Self-study using books takes triple the usual amount of time (1200 hours for exclusively book-taught skills)  if it is possible at all.

Limited (1.5 points): Self-study using books takes double the usual amount of time (800 hours for exclusively book-taught skills) .

Fluent (2 points): Self-study using books takes 1.5 times the usual amount of time (600 hours for exclusively book-taught skills) .

Near-native (2.5 points): Self-study using books takes no penalty.

Native (3 points): As above, in addition you may acquire a handwriting style uniquely associated with this language at no extra cost.

Language Talent

With these rules Language Talent works slightly different. Instead of giving you comprehension one level higher it gives you comprehension two levels higher than what you pay for, e.g. Limited spoken proficiency at 0.5 points and Native spoken proficiency at 2 points.

Default Use of Languages

In most cases it’s convenient to treat most languages that show differences, but are still for the largest part mutually intelligible as dialects – especially when they share the same written form. That does not necessarily reflect a reality where Chinese speakers from the north cannot understand the southern speakers and East Frisians cannot make sense of speakers of Swizerdüütsch, but the line has to be drawn somewhere.

Genuinely different languages might, however, be closely enough related like German and Dutch, Swedish and Norwegian or Ukranian und Russian. These give a character proficient in one language an automatic default in the related language without having to pay points for that. Quite often conversations between two such speakers do take quite a while longer, though. The GM can require an IQ roll when time is of the essence and rule that the information takes up to thrice as long to convey if that roll fails.
They can then buy up their proficiency from that default without having to pay the points needed to reach that level (similar to skill defaults). Should a character buy the language without having the other one at a sufficiently high level to get a default, they still get points back if they ever reach the level needed to get that default. The following table gives the levels needed for defaults and the defaults provided:

Mutual Intelligibility Proficiency Level Needed Default Provided
Significant Fluent 2 levels lower
Partial Near-Native 3 levels lower
Limited Near-Native 4 levels lower

Examples: Norwegian and Swedish are significantly mutually intelligible. Native speakers of one language can converse with native speaker of the other as if they both had fluent comprehension. Mutual intelligibility of German and Dutch is limited. A near-native speaker of German will have only a rudimentary comprehension of Dutch and even a native speaker won’t have better than Broken comprehension.

Instead of listing all the languages with relevant levels of mutual intelligibility, I just link to the relevant wikipedia article, which completely incidentally uses the same terms for the three levels above. Unfortunately, it doesn’t give the direction of intelligibility when it is asymmetrical. You’ll have to do a bit more research in these cases.

The Leftovers

I haven’t yet touched on the subject of pidgins and creoles. The former are simplified languages often used as a means of communications between members of different languages. They don’t as a rule have any speakers who use them as their first language. The latter are complete languages that developed from a mixing of languages. Most creoles should be treated as regular languages, although the might have a rate of mutual intelligibility.

Pidgins are most often used as a means for facilitating communication. They don’t have a written language of their own (but can usually make use of one of the parent languages’ written system) and often cannot express all the concepts available in a complete language. The GM sets the highest proficiency level that exists in the spoken and written form of the pidgin. Often this is the fluent level for the spoken form and none for the written form. It is however perfectly possible for a pidgin to go up to near-native or end with broken – the latter will probably develop further if they remain in use.

Pidgins are easy to use and have a simplified structure. Whenever there’s the question of an IQ roll the GM assigns a bonus to that for every comprehension level missing at the top. For example a pidgin that goes up to fluent gives +2 to to all IQ rolls for comprehension at lower levels. Skill penalties are even reduced by twice that number. There are normally no reaction penalties associated with a low proficiency in a pidgin as it is nobody’s mother tongue. They may however be called for in special situations, e.g. when a person sent for important negotiations shows low proficiency in the pidgin that would be commonly used.

The GM should also keep in mind that pidgins might develop into full-blown creole languages and that might even happen within the space of a character’s life.


The material presented here is my original creation, intended for use with the GURPS system from Steve Jackson Games. This material is not official and is not endorsed by Steve Jackson Games.

GURPS is a registered trademark of Steve Jackson Games, and the art here is copyrighted by Steve Jackson Games. All rights are reserved by SJ Games. This material is used here in accordance with the SJ Games online policy

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