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So the project that's been absorbing my time and attention recently has been creating conlangs for the fantasy world-building I do. Conlang is shorthand for "constructed language," examples of which run the gamut from Klingon and Elvish to Esperanto. It's a hobby for people who go hopelessly geeky over linguistics, like me apparently. (And like Tolkien, who complained that no one ever believed him when he said that the whole reason he wrote LotR was to provide a context for his conlangs.)

However, it's not just linguistics nerds who should know a thing or two about conlangs. Brace yourself, italics for emphasis: Anyone who writes fantasy set in a non-Earth world should know about creating a naming language.

A naming language is like Conlangs Lite, where you don't have to bother with creating a grammar or a complete vocabulary for your language. All you have to do is decide what sounds and sound combinations the language allows (English permits "thr" for example, but not "sxr") and come up with a limited list of words, which can be combined to produce a pretty much infinite number of possible names. Then, no matter how crazy or how mundane your phonology is, the names will sound like they belong together. I don't mean that everyone's names will start with K or all end with -enna, but they'll share a phonology. They'll sound like they came from the same culture, which is what we're going for, and have an internal consistency that you can't get from throwing random names into a pot.

Examples of naming in fantasy, done well and also not so well:

(Note: when I say western fantasy, here and in the following parts, I mean western Europe, not the wild west -- I'm talking about the type of fantasy culture that readers are extremely familiar with, castles and knights and lords and ladies and serfs, etc, in a time period that could be alternate medieval era or alternate renaissance.)

Some books are great with their naming. George RR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series is set in a (brutal) medieval fantasy, and accordingly, his characters have names that you're unlikely to run into on the street. They're not English names, but they could be, because this is a western fantasy society. They use English phonology and the pronunciation is easy to guess, and moreover, they're often reminiscent of more familiar names -- Eddard (nicknamed Ned), Joffrey, Catelyn, Tommen. (The one indulgence that it seems he couldn't pass up was naming the primary villainess Cersei -- strikingly similar to Circe, but you could defend it, because it does still fit the phonology.)

Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series also does names very well. It's a fantasy set in a rarefied version of Renaissance France, and mixes real names with invented names that fit seamlessly into the same phonology. Even the main character's name, Phedrè, is acknowledged to be Greek in origin but has been adapted to French pronunciation, which is exactly the way that many a name has spread from language to language. Anthony/Antonio/Antoine, anyone?

Buuut there are many, many more books that do it badly. Bad fantasy is notorious for making up names based on the "rule of cool" instead of any coherent phonology, or paying any attention to the cultures they're appropriating names from. The result is Grijdhongrebon, son of Kenichi, or Princess Sapphyre Chrystalynna and her evil rival Sue. If you're tossing in real names from randomly-chosen Earth cultures, even ones that you think are suitably obscure, I assure you that someone will notice, and they will think you're an idiot.

Unfortunately, Grijdhongrebon-son-of-Kenichi is only a slight exaggeration, and it's not just bad books that don't pay as much attention to names as they should. My favorite books of 2009 were Havemercy and its sequel Shadow Magic, by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett, but the names were all over the map. The main characters in Havemercy are Royston, Hal, Thom and Rook. (And Rook is actually a nickname, since he and his posse are essentially Top Gun on dragons, with macho nicknames and everything, hah.) So far so good -- they all sound comfortable in an England-flavored fantasy.

But then you've got Caius, which is less Roman-flavored than outright Roman, and I'm like, wait what, when did the Romans get here? That one could be defended, because the Roman Empire did occupy England for centuries and some of their names survived (Anglicized), but he's the only one with a Roman name and then... Alcibiades? Where did the Greeks come from? His name in particular stands out because it's about three syllables longer than anyone else's.

But what drove me crazy was in the second book, when Caius, Alcibiades, & company head over for a diplomatic mission in the neighboring country of Japan, I mean, Ke-Han. (I have mixed feelings about the way the authors handled "Ke-Han," because I think they have a very good feel for Japan and they wrote Japan very well, but it's just that -- Japan. Initially I was trying to read it as an Eastern-flavored fantasy culture, but I kept being thrown out of the story every time something cropped up that was unmistakably, idiosyncratically Japanese. Finally I was just like, "Okay, fuck it, they're in Japan!" and stopped being bothered by it, but that also influenced my read on the names.)

And here, I was not helped by knowing Japanese, because when I opened it up and saw that one of the viewpoint characters was named Mamoru, it stopped me cold. 守. Meaning "to protect," a conspicuously Japanese name that also feels jarringly modern. Samurai were named things like Jiro and Saburo. Mamoru is TUXEDO MASK. Other names that are supposed to have come from the same culture are Kouje (distracting! "je" is not a legitimate phoneme in Japanese!), Temur (syllables can't end with consonants), and Iseul -- which really made me go, wut? Because that name sounded Biblical to me when I was reading, and upon closer inspection turned out to be straight-up Korean. WHY??

(Incidentally, don't let me turn you off these books. They're fabulous -- I just think they could have been better with a little more attention paid to language. Oh, and did I mention they've got adorable gay romance? The other leading offender in terms of inconsistent naming is Storm Constantine's Wraeththu books. Again, a spectacular series, but with names that include Cobweb, Wraxilan, Panthera, Caeru, Darquiel, Loki, Diablo, Moon, Snake, Orien, Flick, Seel, Terzian, Ulaume, etc etc, with no rhyme or reason to it. Seriously? This is a post-apocalyptic version of a world that was never ours to start with and you've got a dude named Diablo?)

Anyway, I hope that establishes the need for paying attention to language. Either that or you're going, Wow, Gabriel, I hadn't realized you were so anal retentive. Whatever -- if you're writing alternate world fantasy, please, please think of the anal-retentive linguists who are going to be tearing their hair at your inexplicably multi-ethnic cast, or wondering why the main character is Xiakoralassi and his neighbor is Tim.

So you know why you need a naming language -- on to Part II for the nuts and bolts of making one.


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 2nd, 2010 09:45 am (UTC)
The trope name for this sort of problem is Aerith and Bob.


Just thought I'd mention it.
Dec. 2nd, 2010 09:59 am (UTC)
Yep, that would be the one. Love TV tropes -- have wasted many an hour there. o_o
Dec. 2nd, 2010 02:37 pm (UTC)
I wasted a few hours there myself after going looking for that trope. So. Many. Tabs.
May. 1st, 2011 10:11 pm (UTC)

Ugh, nothing will take me out of a book quicker than incorrectly applied linguistics, and names is the #1 error I'll find in just about anything.

Futuristic stories won't bother me as much, provided there's a backstory that either shows or implies a heavily assimilated culture. Lowachee's Warchild-verse is a great example of that, with a woman named Song-Liau giving birth to a child she names Ryan. And apparently Jos is supposed to be half Japanese? But hey, everything's space age, and living in deep space is more about humans versus aliens, rather than nationalities.

But that's only one example of mixed names that can actually work, and even then, I'd have to pull myself out of the story in order to remind myself, "Oh yeah. No one cares about that shit anymore. But then why do they still use such obviously national names like Song-Liau? Is that the new Jennifer?"

And Wraethu, omfg, I hated that. I would actually stop reading for days, just to try to rationalize wth was going on there. Maybe it wouldn't have bothered me so much if there'd been an explanation. Or even applied the differences in names to the different tribes or Wraethu countries. And the only possible reasoning I could come up with behind the random word names is that the parents were just ridiculously uncreative and used the word for the first thing they saw.

And this is just coming from me, but then, I'm one of those people that tends to spend fifty hours researching just to write three paragraphs of fanfic.
May. 1st, 2011 10:39 pm (UTC)
::grim fistbump::

Yeah, it's usually not a problem in sci-fi because most everyone extrapolates a future with much greater cultural assimilation. (I didn't read Jos as half-Japanese, it was just the name of his ship that was ethnic, yeah?) Not that they can't fuck up, mind you -- I was reading Greg Egan's Teranesia in which there's a scientific expedition with a member named Mayumi, and I was like, yup, that's fine--WAIT, DID YOU SAY "HE"? NO, GO DIRECTLY TO JAIL. DO NOT PASS GO.

"Is Song-Liao the new Jennifer?", hah. And yet every language, no matter how seemingly exotic (which is all a matter of perspective anyway) has some names that are the blah and boring ones. Yoko. Maria. Pausanias. In that sense, fiction is usually unrealistic for the lack of duplicate names. (One Hundred Years of Solitude excepted, and not really in the good way.) Part of the problem with history books, after all, is that everyone is named Anne, Mary, or John. I'm rather amused when fantasy books label a particular name as "common," one that we wouldn't consider so, because it shows a nifty bit of world-building.

(The story of Alexander the Great's father's assassination features two dudes, both named Pausanias, both of whom Philip was fucking. Apparently Pausanias was the ancient Macedonian Bob.)

As for Wraeththu... the world-building there has bigger problems than just the names. It's like she wanted/needed to show the transition as human civilization was overrun by the Wraeththu, but then she wanted to treat Wraeththu civilization like it had been around forever. So suddenly you've got these vast cities with unique, deeply entrenched values and customs, and I'm like, THIS IS NOT FIVE YEARS OLD. There is no way that Wraeththu could so comprehensively reinvent themselves, not on that scale, and not with such a total break with everything that came before it.

But hey, crazy Calanthe. Thumbs up!
May. 1st, 2011 10:56 pm (UTC)
Dude... *laughing into her fists* Seriously? Mayumi... THERE'S someone that's gotta have some gender confusion. Like that apparent vogue in Japan right now about women sending their sons to school with girl backpacks and accessories.

(Also, awesome bit of history factoid there; I had no idea. And DYING @ the Macedonian Bob. XD)

I loved Wraethu, but I think you kind of have to take everything with a grain of salt. Or, in some situations, turn off your brain (I hate having to say it, because I really DID love them, but Constantine just hadn't fully grasped how to make fantasy realistic). The Tribes part was my biggest problem. WHERE THE HELL DID THEY COME FROM? She says most of them came over in response to Pellaz's people homogenizing the world. But how'd they manage to have these completely unique cultures (all right next to each other, with no apparent overlap) in what must have occured over the space of about twenty years? And the Wraethu are supposed to be immortal, but everyone's apparently a new Wraethu in comparison to Cal or Seel. Where'd all the old ones go?

Dude, Storm should have just made the books totally about Cal. Loved Swift and everything, but Cal's was the ONLY book where I didn't actually stop for months before picking it up again.
May. 1st, 2011 11:08 pm (UTC)
Oh, the Philip story is fantastic. Here it goes --

So King Philip's banging this dude, let's call him Pausanias 1 -- then he gets bored and starts banging someone else too, also named Pausanias. Pausanias 1 goes to Pausanias 2 and says, "YOU WHORE." Pausanias 2 says, "OMG HE CALLED ME A WHORE" and goes off and kills himself.

Pausanias 2's family is like, "wtf. Our son just killed himself thanks to you, asshat." So they -- no joke -- hire a bunch of stableboys to go gang-rape Pausanias 1.

Full of righteous fury, Pausanias 1 goes to Philip and demands that he punish Pausanias 2's family. Philip is like, "Hmmm.... you know, I don't think I can do that, they're sort of powerful. How about I give you a spot in my honor guard instead?"

And Pausanias 1 is like, That'll do. Then at the next big ceremonial event, he jumps rank and stabs Philip in the face, in front of everyone. The end!
May. 2nd, 2011 07:39 am (UTC)
Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha- *takes a deep breath* -hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!

Ooooooh, that was fantastic. *wipes tears from her eyes* Exactly what I needed to start my day. New favorite history story, hands down. XD
May. 2nd, 2011 10:31 am (UTC)
If you enjoy irreverent historical retellings, might I recommend this dude? You might know of him already, I seem to have been the last person on the internet to stumble on his site.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )