Three Steps to Creating Fantasy Names
By Lena Hoppe
Copyright © 2010, Lena Hoppe, All Rights Reserved
Language construction for fantasy writers who don't like constructing languages
Here's the dilemma: You want original character and place names for you fantasy novel, but linguistics isn't your cup of tea and you'd much rather write than try to figure out what 'derivational morphology' means or get your head around the concept of case inflections.
Or perhaps you have to meet a deadline and simply don't have the time to venture into the mysterious realms of syntax and suffixation - as curious as you might be about what awaits you there - just to be able to name your protagonist and her hometown.
Fair enough. That doesn't mean you have to give your hero a name that looks like you stole it from Tolkien or string a bunch of consonants together to make something unpronounceable and alien-looking.
You can easily make a skeleton language purely for putting together names and single words, whenever you need them. It doesn't take very long and you don't need to know anything about linguistics.
You can leave the intricacies of grammar to those of us who actually enjoy it. And most of your readers are not going to be disappointed if they don't have to deal with entire sentences in an invented language either.
With my quick and easy recipe you can make just enough language to create names in three simple steps:
Make a list of sounds you want to use and how you will spell them.
It is important to remember two things.
1) The relationship between a letter and a sound is completely random.
A letter is merely a symbol standing for a sound. The same letter can stand for different sounds in different languages. For example the English word "see" and the German word "See" (meaning lake or sea) are spelled the same way, but they sound very different. In German the letter S stands for the sound that in English would be written Z. And the EE sounds similar to what in English would be spelled AY.
2) English spelling is notoriously chaotic.
Even within a language the same letter can stand for completely different sounds. English is the best example for this. Consider the words "through", "tough", and "trough" - they all end in "-ough", and they all sound very different.
All this isn't bad news. It just means that you have to assign letters to sounds.
It's best to think of the sounds first and then decide on the spelling.
Let's say you want a sound like the "c" in "cat" (or the "k" in "kit", or the "ck" in "attack"). You simply have to decide which letter to use to represent this sound. You could take "k" or "c" or, if you really want to, "f". Assuming, however, that you would like your readers to have at least some idea of how to pronounce your names, I would advise going with "k".
If you want, you can assign more than one sound to a letter (just like the letter "c" in English is sometimes pronounced like an "s" and sometimes like a "k") or more than one letter to a sound (just like in English "s" and "c" can sound the same). If you want to keep things simple, however, I would suggest assigning only one sound to one letter and vice versa.
When it comes to deciding on a set of vowels, remember that there is a kind of vowel called a diphthong. That's a vowel that consists of two sounds, like the "oy" in "boy" or the "i" in "I". These count as one sound - as opposed to two separate vowels that just happen to be next to each other, like the "e" and the "a" in "theatrical". The two sounds of a diphthong are always part of the same syllable, and they can be spelled with one or more letters.
If you have trouble figuring out whether you are dealing with a diphthong or a simple vowel, say the sound out loud to yourself. If there is a movement in your mouth mid-sound it is a diphthong. For the diphthong in the word "eye", for example, your mouth should go from an open position to a more closed one and your tongue should move from back to front a little.
When making your list, one good trick to make the result look coherent and unique is by omitting sounds - in particular sounds that are common in English. If you leave out the "a" or the "e", this will give your words a certain flavour that makes them look original.
Let's make an example list, shall we? We'll keep it short - you might want to make it a bit longer.
E - pronounced like "ee" in "see"
O - pronounced like "o" in "pot"
U - pronounced like "oo" in "loom"
I - pronounced like "i" in "kite"
B - pronounced like "b" in "bye"
D - pronounced like "d" in "day"
K - pronounced like "k" in "kit"
L - pronounced like "l" in "light"
N - pronounced like "n" in "night"
S - pronounced like "s" in "sight"
Now you have to decide on a few rules for putting your letters together to make words. In particular, you need to decide whether you want to allow two or more consonants next to each other in the same syllable, like "cl" in "click" or "ld" in "bold". You can, of course, decide that your language does not have any consonant clusters, but let's pick a couple for our example language.
Beginning of a syllable:
KL - pronounced like "cl" in "cluster"
End of a syllable:
ND - pronounced like "nd" in "land"
LB - pronounced like "lb" in "bulb"
Now decide what makes a syllable. For example:
(2) Vowel - Consonant(s)
(3) Consonant(s) - Vowel
(4) Consonant(s) - Vowel - Consonant(s)
With these rules and our sound lists, you can make syllables such as:
(1) o, a, i
(2) ol, ek, is, and
(3) ki, lo, da, klu
(4) sun, nek, nolb, klend
You are now ready to make some words. Make syllables and put two or three together to form a word (you can, of course, also have words that consist only of one syllable). Play around with the syllables until you come up with words that you like.
With our sounds and syllable rules you could make the following words:
le - sin: Lesin - pronounced lee-sign
klun - solb: Klunsolb - pronounced kloon-solb
de - lo - ni: Deloni - pronounced dee-lonn-eye
And you're done! With your sound/letter list and your syllable rules you can now make as many names for characters and places as you need. And if you make a mistake or really, really want one character to have a name with a different sound in it, that's fine, too. All language rules have exceptions and the odd one out will just make your language more realistic.
You can take all the sounds and letters you want and make the syllable rules as simple or complicated as you want. If you're in a hurry, you can put something together in about thirty minutes and very easily avoid calling your hero Ildarion or your villain K'tkcha.