In Tribal & Error you play as a robot sent back in time to help cavemen survive the ice age. In order to do that you need to learn their language first.
Besides being a time traveler the player is also a tape recorder robot. This allows them to record words the cavemen speak. These words are represented as little speech bubbles with strange symbols. Once recorded the player can play them back. The response of the cavemen give an idea of what these words might mean. Through the process of collecting words the player starts to build a vocabulary and can then form simple sentences and use that to explain things to the cavemen in their language. Things such as how to make fire, thereby helping them survive.
For the development of Tribal & Error we needed to design a prehistoric language from the ground up. Being a game with a historical setting, a subject that naturally comes up during development is that of authenticity. Our goal was not to recreate what an actual prehistoric language might have been, but rather to simulate the experience of learning a language. To do this we needed to design a language that goes further than swapping English words with fantasy words. It also needed to be primitive and basic enough to be accessible for an enjoyable play experience.
To begin the language’s construction we started with words that had a cultural relevance to a caveman tribe. Words such as: fire, sun or beast. When designing the sound of the language we looked for words of which the sounds are derived from their meaning, also known as an onomatopoeia. Words like cough, fiz or flutter. Some examples of the use of the linguistic principle of an onomatopoeia is our cavemen word for cold: ’’ronko’’. With this we wanted to mimic the sound we make when shivering, namely ’’brrr brrronko’’. Or the word ’’lommamo’’, unique to the cavemen language, meaning something similar to “It’s okay”. As it is used as a comforting act we wanted to express something softer and gentler in its sound.
Careful with the ‘Olastik’!
Another method of designing words was combining them to form new meaning. When the cavemen discover fire they obviously don’t have a word for it yet. So to be able to communicate this new discovery they compare it with things familiar to them. The only other shining source of warmth known to them being the sun, so they describe fire as a small sun. Their word for small being ‘’tik’’ and sun ’’olas’’, this results in the word ’’olastik’’ for the word fire.
These are just a few examples of the system behind the language design. Through the use of our language mechanic we aim to present some of these linguistic principles in an accessible way. As many of these same principles apply to modern languages, we hope to provide a lens with which players can achieve a greater understanding of the evolution of languages through the ages.
For those interested in some serious next level language design, please check out the Language Construction Kit