A Video Game Decoding Ancient Languages

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Xinyi Ye, who sent this to me, thought the idea of multiple languages and the Tower of Babel in a game would be quite cliché, but this one is actually good.  You will be surprised at what you see and hear.

This is the official trailer:

 This is a full game video (spoiler alert!).  The game is called "Chants of Sennaar", and you can play it on these platforms:  Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows, Xbox One

Players explore a structure inspired by the Tower of Babel – which the titular Sennaar refers to – full of people who speak fictional languages, represented by logographic writing systems: Encountered languages must be translated using clues such as non-verbal communication used by other non-player characters, illustrated signs, or other contextual clues. The player is aided by a notebook that contains the list of graphemes the player has encountered up to that point, and they may type in a word they assume is the meaning for a grapheme, which is then displayed above that grapheme the next time they encounter it. Once the player encounters enough graphemes, the notebook offers tests to see if a player has correctly translated the graphemes by displaying drawings of nouns, verbs or adjectives which the player must match the correct grapheme to; if the player correctly matches all graphemes to meanings on the page, those graphemes will be considered solved, and their real English meaning will be displayed above them – if all graphemes from a sentence are solved, a full English translation is shown. As players progress higher through the tower, they encounter new languages that must be translated.

Different languages have different writing systems and different language characteristics: some languages signify plural as repeating the word (e.g. "doors" is written as "door door"), while others have a separate grapheme for marking the previous or next noun as plural (e.g. "[plural] door" or "door [plural]"). Different languages also can have differing syntax, putting the predicate and subject in different places of a sentence. The graphemes themselves may also provide hints towards the meaning, with languages having determinatives (e.g. verbs, or nouns that involve humans).

"Chants of Sennaar" may be a game, but it is not simplistic or frivolous.  The creators know a thing or two about linguistics, and they have applied their knowledge to their game.

As people say nowadays, "Enjoy" — and think and learn.

Selected readings



  1. Lex said,

    February 27, 2024 @ 10:58 pm

    If anyone wants to watch a partial play-through, here’s one from an Oxford classicist-turned-YouTuber.

  2. Laura Morland said,

    February 28, 2024 @ 12:51 am

    Thank you, Lex –

    I watched the first few minutes: fun! I'd definitely play this game if I had any spare time.

    Can you help me, an American, with the Oxford classicist-turned-YouTuber's accent? Is it a legit British accent? His sentence-final vowels are so exaggerated!

  3. Lasius said,

    February 28, 2024 @ 4:06 am

    Chants of Sennaar is a very good little game, but in the end I was a bit disappointed that most of the languages were too similar to English. There is basically no inflection except for plural forms in any of the languages. I would have preferred a little bit more weirdness in at least some of the languages.

    Another interesting game in that vein that I can strongly recommend is Heaven's Vault, though it has more of a narrative focus. Also this game has more replayability as you can make very different choices the second way through, and you will get new and harder phrases to decipher.

  4. Peter Grubtal said,

    February 28, 2024 @ 7:40 am

    @Laura Morland
    Sounds mainstream english-English to me (I'm from south England), but i'm not sure if I don't detect a bit of west-country coming through at one-or-two points.
    He's in an explaining register which might account for some of the vowels you notice. And I would wish he'd pay a bit more attention to articulation, because I also have trouble catching the odd word first time.
    But this can apply – for me at least – with other stuff in an informal register in youtube or on TV, – particularly that of American provenance.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    February 28, 2024 @ 9:58 am

    To my southern British 76-year-old ear, his accented sounds highly affected — "so-wə", "today-ə", "lingo-wə", … I cannot believe for one second that he speaks like this in normal life, and I find his affected accent highly irritiating (I aborted at 01:01).

  6. bks said,

    February 28, 2024 @ 10:46 am

    "Dune” and the Delicate Art of Making Fictional Languages


  7. bookie said,

    February 28, 2024 @ 12:34 pm

    I played the demo of this during a next fest and enjoyed it more than most games that try to integrate language into gameplay. My one major gripe was that it maintained a clear 1:1 definition approach, so much so that there was an element where you could match the untranslated word to its respective English word as a form of puzzle solve. This took the enjoyment out of it for me when I started looking at the puzzles as "Coded English."

    The devs insisted that it got more complicated as the game goes on, so I still plan to try a full playthrough. Best I could tell from the demo this is largely a baby step in the right direction for interesting language games.

  8. Snatt said,

    February 28, 2024 @ 4:06 pm

    The demo is just a long "tutorial" to help payers to grasp the game's mechanics. It's deliberately very simple and directed, and represents like 30 minutes in a 10-hours-long journey.

  9. Lance said,

    February 28, 2024 @ 8:04 pm

    The game is quite good, in fact. Yes, if you're a professional linguist, you'll be somewhat disappointed that you don't get to work out a fifteen-case system in which the passive is formed by…whatever. But also, speaking as a professional linguist, I very much enjoyed it. The art style is charming, the final payoff is quite good. And, yes, the *first* language you encounter is English-like in its syntax, but there are more languages where things are more unusual.

  10. Francis Deblauwe said,

    February 29, 2024 @ 12:31 am

    There's a great article and interview with the French designers: https://www.gamesindustry.biz/finding-power-in-language-with-chants-of-sennaar

    >>"For example, for the language of The Devotees, whose culture evokes Mediterranean antiquity, we drew inspiration from Latin and Phoenician alphabets, with a touch of cuneiform. For the Bards, the script was created by mixing Arabic Kuffic [sic] and Indian Devanagari."<<

  11. Lex said,

    February 29, 2024 @ 1:19 am

    Peter Grubtal

    I believe he’s originally from the Midlands; went to Oxford, then worked in London. I’d guess there is probably a glaze of ‘YouTube voice’ on top of the Midlands + Southern Posh.

  12. Andreas Johansson said,

    February 29, 2024 @ 2:08 am

    Was I the only one who briefly wondered what Sennar, Sudan, has to do with the tower of Babel?


  13. Lasius said,

    February 29, 2024 @ 3:25 am

    Was I the only one who briefly wondered what Sennar, Sudan, has to do with the tower of Babel?


  14. Andreas Johansson said,

    February 29, 2024 @ 3:53 am


    The link to the WP page on Shinar was in the OP, which is why I *briefly* wondered.

    But I think you'll agree that "Sennaar" looks more like "Sennar" than like "Shinar".

  15. Taylor, Philip said,

    February 29, 2024 @ 8:24 am

    No trace of "Southern Posh" to my ear, Lex — how would "Southern Posh" differ from "High RP" to your mind ?

  16. Rodger C said,

    February 29, 2024 @ 11:01 am

    Andreas: As Wiki saith, "Septuagint Σενναάρ Sennaár"

  17. Philip said,

    March 1, 2024 @ 6:27 am

    Was “payers” a Freudian slip for “players”?

  18. Andreas Johansson said,

    March 1, 2024 @ 7:27 am

    @Rodger C:

    Yes, WP informs us that the Septuagint uses Sennaar for Shinar. But before actually clicking the link and learning this, I, I think understandably, associated the word with the similarly-spelled Sennar.

  19. Rodger C said,

    March 1, 2024 @ 10:45 am

    Andreas: I confess I'm more familiar with the Vulgate and the Douai than with Sudan, whose Sennar I never heard of.

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