The Jinn of June

Ya know the feeling when you’ve been chasing something for a long time? Following clues, hitting dead ends and leaving breadcrumbs to find your way back. Wishing and hoping it all leads somewhere. Well, oh boy, IT HAS. June has been the month that two of our longheld wishes came true. (And let it not be misunderstood, “wishing” has involved an embarrassing number of emails, phone calls and face-to-face meetings, but all the same). This is going to be a linguistics-filled update, so Chomsky up. 

Dialect and Language Vitality

Dialect is about language loss and what that means for culture and identity. Players spend most of the game building language, it’s true, but in the end, people leave the table as the only speakers of their invented dialect. That’s meant to create a morsel of empathy of what it’s like for many around the world whose heritage language is fading.

Rewind a few updates and you might recall we committed to a rulebook chapter about language vitality; covering what can and is being done to fight against language loss and the slide to sameness. Given how important this is to us, we’ve been carefully considering who should author this chapter. Enter Steven Bird: linguist, academic, community organizer and champion for language vitality around the world.

Steven Bird is a pretty amazing guy; when we first tried to reach out, he had been away from internet while living with an aboriginal tribe in a remote area of Australia and learning their language. Steven cares deeply about language vitality and fighting for the treasure languages of the world. He has dedicated a large part of his storied career to it. He is a fantastic combo of academic rigor, on-the-ground experience, along with genuine curiosity and playfulness.

We’re thrilled to share that we’ll be working with Steven to include specific actions players of Dialect can take to fight language loss both across the world and within their own community. He'll be writing a standalone chapter for the book.

This means Dialect will come with two contributed chapters from world-class language experts; David Peterson on language invention and Steven Bird on treasure languages and language maintenance.

Along with the backdrops from so many neat perspectives, we’re so happy with how this has come together. Take a look at an art piece-in-progress that speaks to the themes of rebirth and vitality in language.


Sign and Native Speakers

For Sign, we’ve long wanted to involve the perspective of native speakers of Nicaraguan Sign Language into the game as well as the voices of those who originally studied the language. The work felt incomplete without it.

We’ve now been in contact with folks who run the Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects and the first group of people to study ISN as a new language. James and Judy Shepard-Kegl helped arrange a wonderful opportunity for us to meet two native speakers of Nicaraguan Sign Language, allowing their perspectives to be part of the game.

Through an English/ASL/ISN interpreter, we had a long conversation where they gave us feedback on game art, writing, and a bunch of other tidbits to make the game’s voice true-to-life. In our conversation, we also learned a few ISN signs and we were floored. We all knew the story of Nicaraguan Sign Language well by this point, but to actually see the signs and their ties to their origin was quite moving.

Some favorite signs:

California. When we mentioned where we were from California, one of the native speakers, Yuri, signed it by making interlocking circles with thumb and index finger over and over like a chain. We were so curious about the origin! Well, if you remember, Nicaraguan Sign Language first emerged over the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Right around this time, California was in the news for a very particular reason. The chain was the Olympic rings!

Vaccination. During our conversation we asked everyone for their favorite signs. Many were fascinating, but here’s one that really caught our attention. Yuri did a sign for vaccination by indicating an injection on her arm with three fingers and then, as someone later explained, made a motion with her right hand harkening to the marching of army soldiers. We asked why army soldiers were part of the sign for vaccination. They told us that the children had all learned about vaccination from the same picture book, “Louis Pasteur and the Rabies Vaccine”. In it, the first time vaccines are introduced, it includes a cartoon closeup of soldiers marching through the bloodstream. This illustration in a children’s book gave life to a new piece of language all on its own! From a single book in a single schoolroom to part of a whole language! Folks who have never seen that book now know this as their word for vaccination across the country.

Tldr: Lots of language goodness in June. Now onwards with game making.


Play what you think is good,

K&H (and the Thorny cats)


P.S. We’ll be at GoPlay NW in Seattle this coming weekend running games and hanging out with our gamer kin. Say hi if you’re there! We’ll be running both Dialect and Sign!