Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Name-building --
What's in a Name?

by  
Ellen Wright
©2003, Ellen Wright 

 

pen up many fantasy or science fiction books, and you will find names that are nonsensical, unpronounceable, or just plain silly. From the reader's perspective, this is carelessness on the author's part. But from the writer's perspective, how can such names be prevented?

There are generally two directions for names to go. The first is vaguely disguised -- or not at all disguised -- variations on names that exist in our world. These are all well and good in science fiction that takes place in our own world with only human characters, or in contemporary/urban fantasy, starring characters who were born in modern hospitals and named by modern men and women, or even in historical fantasy. However, why should names on worlds that are entirely unrelated to our own resemble those we're familiar with or conform to English spelling patterns? The other common method of dealing with this situation is to string more or less random combinations of letters together to produce names that are, on the whole, either largely unpronounceable or internally inconsistent. It must be pointed out that aliens, assuming they are configured significantly differently from humans, would have the capability of producing sounds that we are not, and that we have no way of representing in our language. But to say "His name was in the alien language, and it is impossible to render it in human writing" smacks of laziness. Alien names the same as any others must be rendered in our own writing system if they're going to be included in a book written in it.

Internally inconsistent can mean a lot of things. One of them is using too many letters -- English 'c' is more or less useless, since 's' or 'k' can replace it in every context; likewise 'q' is nothing more than a 'k' that's followed by 'w.' There's nothing wrong with deciding that all of your 's's will be spelled with 'c's, but why have both? A name like Sicak that is pronounced "sick-ak" is unrealistic. Another way in which writers follow English spelling conventions is by using double letters where the sound is pronounced exactly the same as it would be were it spelled with a single letter. Is the 's' in "Essan" pronounced like the 's' in "kiss" or the 's's in "kiss Sam"? If it's the first, you may as well spell it "Esan." A good rule of thumb is to have a regular correspondence between a sound and the way it is represented in writing. A sound could be represented by two letters, like our 'th' (which actually can represent more than one sound, but I digress), but those two letters should always represent the same sound, and that sound should only be represented by those two letters.

How, then, does the writer avoid clichéd or unbelievable names? An understanding of some of the basic principles of linguistics, and careful attention to detail, easily prevent these problems and give the author consistently believable -- and pronounceable -- names. As a group, your names will become as familiar to the reader as those of any extant language do after some study.

One of the most important things for the English writer to realize is that the English spelling system is significantly more idiosyncratic than most. If you've ever studied Spanish, you know that by looking at a written word you immediately know how to say it. For example, stress in words with two or more syllables is always on the second to last syllable unless it is marked elsewhere. Even French has far more predictable rules than English. And we've developed ways to write words from just about any language in the English script. No matter how complicated the sound system you come up with, there's probably a way to transcribe it regularly, if not easily, in English letters -- necessary from the start when you're writing a book that will be published in English.

All names start, ultimately, from the language of the culture that is doing the naming. This means that if you're going to have consistent, realistic names, you need to know something about the language your characters speak. This doesn't need to be in-depth knowledge -- just the sound system and a few words.

The first thing to do is to decide on the sounds that are possible in this language and the way you will represent them. There are a large number of sounds that are not present in English but could be used by other languages. Though all languages use a finite number of sounds, some do use more than others. English has one of the most complicated vowel systems. German has a combination of sounds that is impossible in English -- "pf" -- and also the "ch" in "Bach," which is not an English "k" as it is generally pronounced.

The three most important ways in which sounds are distinguished are point of articulation -- across the top of the chart -- or the place in which the sound is made, manner of articulation -- down the left -- or the way in which it is made, and voicing -- whether or not the vocal cords vibrate as you make the sound. The five manners of articulation refer to the amount of air that is allowed to pass through the mouth to make the sound. A stop is made when the airflow is blocked completely at the beginning of the sound; a fricative lets a small amount of air through, and a resonant allows more than a fricative. An affricate is a stop followed immediately by a fricative, and a nasal is made by letting some air out through the nose.

Another dimension is aspiration, a short puff of air that can follow a sound, though it is not used in distinguishing English sounds. Linguists sometimes use apostrophes to denote aspiration; this is one of the few reasons one can legitimately use apostrophes in names. (Another is the glottal stop, the catch in the middle of "uh-oh," which is an independent sound in some languages, such as Hebrew.)

Vowels are considerably more complicated than consonants. They have  three general dimensions -- height, frontness, and tenseness or laxness. You can feel height and frontness for yourself. Say "ee," "eh," "ah" in succession ('i', 'e', 'a') and you'll feel the downward movement; then say "ee" and "oo" ('i', 'u') and you should feel backwards movement.  Most languages have fewer vowels than English does; the five letters we have for them in fact represent many sounds.

As I've mentioned before, you want to choose a straightforward writing system, once you've picked out your sounds. Give yourself a key -- write down a list of your letters and sounds so that when you see 'i'  you know that it's pronounced like the vowel in "feet." Most languages have direct relationships between sounds and the characters that represent them.

There is a correlation between certain sounds and certain meanings, and you can manipulate these to give your readers specific reactions to your names. As easy example is the word "mother"; in many languages it tends to have the consonants 'm' or 'b' and the vowel 'a', since these are among the first sounds a baby learns to make. Tends is a key word here, though. The fact that there is a pattern does not mean that it must always apply. Also, some sounds and groups of sounds tend to have a feel to them that others do not. Vowels, being the most open sounds, can be considered more melodious; stops and affricates are often said to be harsh; fricatives such as 's' and 'sh' are hissing, like the sound of a snake. Obviously these impressions are colored by a person's native language and are strongly subjective, but this is still a factor to consider.

After you've decided on your sounds, and how you're going to represent them, you need to decide which combinations of sounds are possible and which aren't. Most languages have limits on how many consonants there are in a row -- the maximum in English is three, and that's assuming the first is an 'r' or an 'l'. You could go beyond that -- "altpra" is pronounceable, and it has four consonants in a row -- but too many consonants in a row can be troublesome. If you're designing names and words for human mouths to pronounce, you ought to be able to pronounce it, or come close. So pick a number of consonants, and write it down in your key along with the vowel sounds. Never go beyond that.

Make more specific rules about what sounds can go together, too. Are there no words that have more than five sounds total? Write that down somewhere. Does a certain sound always come after or before another -- say, 'y' only comes before 'i' or 'e'? Write that down, too. Keep a detailed list of the sound rules of your names, and use it so that you will not violate them.

Where do our names come from? In English the process is not as transparent as it may be in some other languages and cultures, but still  many people have looked their name up and found a meaning associated with it. You may have tried translating your name into another language based on the meaning. Creating a list of words and their associated meanings will give you fodder for creating names, and you'll also know something about the characters -- or at least about their parents and family -- based on the meaning of the name you choose. You'll have very different impressions of someone named "beauty," someone named "fifth child," and someone named "mistake." Your readers might not know the meanings of their names -- though they might, if another character makes a reference to them -- but you will, and that can make your characters' personalities richer --  and give you ideas for stories. What reaction does the child named "mistake" have to hearing his or her name? What could have prompted the parents to choose it? Just from that one word there are many stories bubbling up. And the child named "beauty" -- what if she turns out to be quite plain? Or perhaps her parents thought of beauty as the most important thing for a girl to have, and tried to bring her up believing that premise -- but even though she is pretty, she wants something else from life.

Also, languages often have particular endings that are associated with names, or with a particular gender. 'Y'/'i' and 'a' are common endings for our female names (coming in this case from when nouns had gender, and so the names had the gender associated with the words they came from) -- Sally, Mary, Teri, Nancy, Pamela, Gabriella, Tina, Laura. 'M' is a common ending for male names -- Tom, Sam, Jim. Names that have a male or female feel will sound more realistic, and readers will have the reassurance of an idea when they first meet a character of the person's gender. Fantasy writers often make use of English name endings to give readers this feeling -- you expect that Thalorina will be a woman, and Patim will be a man. But if you train the readers to expect the same sorts of patterns in your world, the same reactions can be provoked with names that are consistent with your culture. (And, of course, once they've learned the patterns, you can trick them and use violations of the patterns as another way to deepen your characters.)

Creating your wordlist, or creating the roots you're going to use in your wordlist, is largely a matter of random chance. Pick sounds you like, or close your eyes and point, and then alter the word if you don't like how it turns out. But when you start combining them with name endings or other words, they become fully formed names.

Like any worldbuilding, little of this will go directly into your story.  There will be no place where you say "But 'l's can never go after 'd's in our language, Fred!" However, the detail will be appreciated by anyone who notices it, and you'll rarely be stuck looking for a name.

It is a frequent complaint of critics of fantasy -- and its readers, as well -- that the scene never changes; it is usually a society based on medieval Europe, with knights saving princesses, and dragons and mages trying to prevent them. European names support the stereotypical fantasy setting. If this is not the case for your story, using these rules to generate names will reassure your readers that you are introducing them to a new, authentic world.  They'll quickly realize that this is not just another clone, but an original place and an original culture for them to learn about.