Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Workshop: Names

Thanks for your patience, everyone. I'm enjoying looking through your work and getting ideas to talk about. I thought I'd start tonight by discussing names, since it's important, but somewhat independent from a lot of other worldbuilding issues. I'm going to try to be in gear on the workshop at this point and say something every day. We'll see how I go - I am traveling to L.A. this weekend for the Nebulas, and I'll try to post about that as well. Let's just say I'll be busy.

So onto names. Some of you have lots of names for people and things, and some have only a few. What I'm looking for is consistency in the sound and feel of the names - if there are to be exceptions, they must have a reason behind them. Here are my thoughts on each piece.

Jeanne: Wrai, Sharista (people), Shelton (place)
Wrai and Sharista feel a bit different from one another, but both are non-English enough that they work just fine. Shelton feels like quite a contrast to this, though - almost too English. The created names establish me as being in a non-Earth setting, but I find myself working hard to counteract a feeling of English-village that I get from the name Shelton. I'll go more into the setting and technology in a forthcoming post.

David: Jasmine Knight, Little Black Riding Hood, Captain Obvious the Masked Wrestler, Cannon Cop, Alaric, Cybergirl (individuals), SoundPod(object), Lingerie Valkyries (band), VoidWatch (group), the Veil
The names Jasmine Knight, Little Black Riding Hood, and Lingerie Valkyries set us in a world that must bear relation to current Earth. Cybergirl makes me think we're probably in some kind of future setting. I get little idea of what the Veil might be (do you the concept of Veils, David? :) ), but I'll ask more about that later. They all fit fine together provided that my assumptions are correct.

Catreona: Cindy, Keith (people), Strlinkmr (aliens), Strlinkmrlad (place)
You've got two types of names, one for humans, and one for aliens (though we don't see any alien individuals). That makes it totally fine for the two to be distinct in their sound systems. Cindy and Keith sound a little too modern-day-Earth to me. Isn't this a far future scenario on a distant planet? I remember you mentioning the Strlinkmr during one of the past workshops, and saying something about how their language was hard to pronounce. Based on these two examples, I'd say they have strange spelling but the language doesn't seem unpronounceable. There are earth languages which use spellings like this where liquids (r, l) take on a syllable value.

Colin: Lanuz, Allen (people)
I found the name Allen normal enough to surprise me when I read your piece. Now, it's possible that Lanuz's home world has different types of names from the world in which he finds himself after the warlock's intervention. I don't think Allen is too totally Earth-normal for a fantasy setting, necessarily, but I don't have much to go on since I have only two examples.

Khajidu: Xodull, Maltur, Tsumw, Tipsy, Zhebvu (individuals), tsu (animal), Orlêzh (place)
There are a lot of names in your piece - maybe more than you need. The ones that work best together sound-wise in my view are Xodull, Maltur, and Orlêzh. Zhebvu could fit into this system, though the "bv" is a surprise. Zhebvu and tsu might work together because of the consonant combinations. Tsumw was hardest for me to pronounce and reconcile with the others. There's also one last issue here: the name Tipsy is what I'd call a translated name - i.e. a name that is a word describing someone/something in English rather than a name that fits into any local language system. You might just want to leave the animal nameless, unless it becomes a critical character later in the story.

I welcome any thoughts you might have. I'll try to take on general setting and technology issues tomorrow.


  1. The names in my story are derived from a language I made (well, I only designed the phonology and phonotactics for the moment) and have meanings in the language. 'Tipsy' in indeed translated, I may change this name to the translation in my language. I don't know yet what will be the exact importance of the animal in my story, but it will be featured.
    Tsumw may be difficult to pronounce because 'w' is the transcription of an unrounded u. Tsumw has ancestors coming from another continent, so his name may sound a little different, although it fits into the phonology of the local language. Moreover, it's derived from 'tsu', the name of the animal species mentioned.

  2. Khajidu,

    I'm glad you're putting some effort into language design. At this point you need to take the next step, which is to say, to consider the point of view of an English-speaking reader who does not have your insights into the language. I noticed the parallel between tsu and Tsumw for example, but had no idea it was intentional because the characters make no reference to it. If the connection is relevant, then build that into the interaction. Have Xodull compare his brother to the creature or something.

    With every created language it's a good idea to consider the English interface, since English is the language of the reader. One of my biggest tasks in writing linguistics stories is making sure I teach the readers the aspects of the alien language that are critical to the progression of the story.

  3. Well, the parallel is half coincidental: the 'brother' (in fact close friend) has been named this way because in his culture children are named after birds (well technically the tsul aren't birds but they're very close to that). But the reference will definitely be brought up during the course of the story: Tsumw thinks as fast as the animals are said to be.

  4. Hi Juliette. I'm glad you started with this topic. It's one that, as you know, I've shown an interest in previously. It's definitely something I struggle with. As you can see from this excerpt I posted, I only have two names.

    In reality, I have around seven distinct names for people and one for a group of people. Lanuz is the main character. Other people from his village are Anara, (a young lady who plays a significant role in Lanuz' (by the way, is it not correct to leave the "s" off here?) development throughout the story) and Davinaw (a small side character that may or may not see much action). Then there is Thrall, the evil warlock, who is also from the same era.

    Allen is from the future time period, and I had actually named the bartender Henry, but decided against it when I realized he wasn't a big enough part of this scene. The reason why they have Current-Era-Earth-Like names is partly because I had named Allen when I first thought of his character. Tell me if this is implausible or not. Basically, Allen is named after the hex key or Allen wrench. I'm playing with the idea of having that be an aspect of his story arc. After a friend mentioned that this made him think that this world was based on Earth, I sort of had to rethink things. It was kind of good because it forced me to look back into the history of my world. What I decided was that this wasn't actually Earth, but was settled in the ancient past by people from Earth. They brought with them their history, and their tools. Obviously, after time, cultures change, and a lot of the Earth culture and technology is lost. Somehow, Allen's culture revives small parts of ancient Earth's culture through names and other small things (There's sort of a Dickens-esque/steampunk-like thing going on).

    And finally, something you get no knowledge of in this excerpt, is the Reijak (This is the only "language" stuff I've ever dealt with, but Reijak is from Reij which translates as "stone".) These are essentially the indigenous race of this world, but in the story it comes across as just being another race of people. There's really no knowledge of the afore mentioned settlement of the planet. So far I have come up with two possible names for characters. Aashahak, is the head shaman of his people, and Uujuguk is sort of a prototype side character. I've also come up with a possible way of shortening Reijak names. So, Aashahak becomes Aasha, and Uujuguk becomes Jug. It kind of depends on the name and the social status of the individual.

    Okay, so I hope that sort of helps to clarify some stuff... and also gives you some more examples to go on. It was very hard for me to cut out so much stuff from this excerpt but because of time and space limitations it was the best I could come up with. So I apologize if it's difficult to work with for this workshop.

  5. Juliette,

    The concept I'm working on is that there are multiple alternate timelines/universes. Some look like they could be our future, direct descendents of our own world. Some look very different indeed.

    Jasmine comes from one of these could-be-our-future timelines. Some of the other individuals do not. The names that are listed in the excerpt are mostly Jasmine throwing convenient (if slightly insulting) labels at people.

    This would have become clearer if I'd sent a (much) longer piece. Jasmine can't remain hidden in mindshadows at any great distance, so at this moment she is being unwillingly dragged to a briefing on the mission she is supposed to be a part of. This would include the real names of her new colleagues, and the nature of this other Earth on which she now finds herself.

    Of course, not everything she hears at the briefing is true, either.

  6. Juliette,

    Thanks for the insight into liquids. Someone I asked to read what I had so far said plaintively that she couldn't even begin to pronounce the indigenous (alien) names. The actual personal names need a bit more work, but you won't be seeing those for a while.

    As to Cindy and Kieth, well... Cinthia has been used as a given name for thousands of years and Kieth for hundreds. I sort of doubt that they will be going away any time soon. Also, distant, alien planet does not automatically mean far future. Here, in any case, the humans do not have fantastically weird names, but normal ones.

  7. PS The Veil is a convenient way to describe the barrier between one timeline/universe and another. We must have some sort of barrier - we can't just have everything falling through the walls of reality at an inconvenient moment, now can we? :)

  8. Btw, Juliette, I hope you have a good time here in LA. I live in the San Fernando valley which is on the other side of the hill from downtown LA. Where exactly is the Nebula Awards being hosted? Is it at UCLA? Is it coincidence that it's the same dates as the LA Times Festival of Books which is also at UCLA? I was considering going to that...

  9. To Khajidu,

    I'm glad you mention this. What I'm trying to point out is not that you don't have a sense of these connections, but that your knowledge of them is not coming through in the text as written. Aspects of the language, culture, or setting that have particular significance need to be front-loaded so that readers can understand them. I'll try to address this also in a post.

  10. To Colin,

    First, I think the dropping of the "s" only applies to double s's, so it would be Lanuz's. That's my sense of it. :)

    All of the Lanuz-related folks have recognizably fantasy names except for Thrall. His name comes across as translated. While that's not necessarily a problem, I'd expect to see a mix of translated and untranslated names in the story as a whole. My instinct in my own work is to pick one or the other.

    I think it definitely makes sense to have two groups of names, one for one world and one for the other. If the two worlds are different time periods of the same world, I'd expect them not to be vastly different, just maybe with some systematic sound changes.

    I'm struck by your thoughts on Allen. The name is cute, but the Allen wrench is an extremely earth-specific object, and I think bringing that connection in is likely to be distracting from your story rather than helpful.

    Steampunk is definitely big right now, so much so that it's becoming its own sub-genre. But my understanding of it is that it's almost like alternate Earth history, and isn't actually directly related to our own Earth. I think that unless you want to go through and figure out what forces and/or catastrophes caused losses of technology, it might be worth your while just to say you're in a Steampunk alternate Earth, and save yourself the trouble. Steampunk alternate Earths can come in many varieties, too - one of my writer friends recently showed me a Steampunk story set in Aztec times. So you've got lots of flexibility there. Make sure, though, that you've thought through what the distinct differences are between Lanuz's era and the "modern" one.

    The Reijak stuff seems fine, but it's hard to tell without seeing it "in action," so to speak. I'd watch out for "Jug" as it seems translated.

    About the Nebulas: they're held at the Luxe hotel in L.A. proper. Very close to UCLA, as I understand it, but not on the campus.

  11. To David,

    I see what you're saying, and it makes sense, but I didn't see what was going on in the excerpt that I read. You might want to ask yourself what Jasmine knows about these timelines, and what she's been doing crossing them, and get more concrete about showing us the reality that she is familiar with.

  12. Thanks Juliette. This is great insight for me. I think you're totally right about the whole Allen/steampunk thing. I'm definitely going to have to reel that back in. It's not the route I was going for. The story is about Lanuz and the role he plays in restoring order to the world.

    In any case, I think all of the history that I have developed can stay (I do actually have a timeline stretching back the original settlement of the planet which should rather concisely explain what happened to their technology), it's just that it won't have the same effect on Allen and his people. The core image I have of them is a small village or town of people who scavange technology from surrounding ruins of once great cities. Allen and the other mechanics of his township have become adept at understanding ancient technologies. This is important because the technology used on Lanuz's mechanical arm was developed and installed by an ancient sect (yet another aspect of the story which I was unable to insert into this excerpt... I assume I'll get into that more later if need be.)

    So really the whole steampunk thing was just imagery rather than any kind of alternate-Earth thing. But that, along with the names could all be changed. There's no reason why Allen's name can't be changed at this stage in the game. In which case, I think it best to develop some set of rules for naming that group of people that is different from Lanuz's people.

  13. David,

    How you use "veil" was obvious to me, for what it's worth.

  14. Juliette,

    I'd love for you to get rid of the captia. It is an incredible PITA.

    Just saying...

  15. Catreona, you have to be careful with removing CAPTCHA. Most sites tend to get spam, and that's obviously what CAPTCHA is intended to catch. Normally though, a site will require CAPTCHA only for registration, and then force people to register in order to post comments and the like. Captcha verification on every post is a bit much. You're right about that. But taking it out means other measures have to be taken to ensure that spam doesn't slip through the cracks.

    Also, I'm curious as this was brought up on the Analog forums. Is your dislike of CAPTCHA related to a vision thing? If so, then maybe instead of removing the Captcha altogether, there should be an audio captcha installed (if that's possible on this software). I believe that allows you to play an audio clip, and you simply type out what it says.

    Anyways, sorry for the off topic.

  16. Thanks for your comments, Colin, as I wasn't sure what Catreona meant. I'm not sure I can change it, but I'll take a look.

  17. David,

    I knew what you meant by Veil, inasmuch as I thought she'd been traveling into another dimension or something. In fact I guessed she traveled into our world, since she came back with tequila, but since I imagined her as being in an Earth future I had a tough time understanding the details.

  18. Colin, I really appreciate all the information you've just given me. It's very good stuff, but stuff that isn't currently evident in your scene. I'm taking it into account and I will return to it in a future post. Eventually I hope you can get a lot of it in under the radar...

  19. Collin,

    Yes, I am visually impaired. And, yes, I know what captia is used for. I have, however, seen blogs that do not use it on comments. Edward Lerner's blog, SF and Nonsense, for one. I guess it depends on either how concerned you are about getting spammed or how keen you are on using all Blogger's bells and whistles.

    There is an audio captia option on the Blogger comment thingy. You will see it, the little handicapped symbol, right beside the textbox to type in the letters. And, frankly, it's almost as maddening as the visual captia.

    Unless a blog gets a great deal of traffic, such protection isn't necessary IMO. At the same time, the level of protection and the number of neat thingamibobs to use on one's blogs is a totally individual thing. I'm certainly not demanding that Juliette do anything. Instead, I merely pointed out that the captia is a mighty, and often frustrating, neusence. This is an accessibility/usibility issue that a blog owner needs to be made aware of. But, I promise to do my level best not to complain about it very much.

  20. Juliette,

    Go to your Blogger dashboard, select this blog. Select the Settings tab from the top row of tabs and then select the Comments tab from the bottom row of tabs. This is a long page, containing many options. Word varification is near the bottom. Select the No radio button to remove word varification. Do nothing, leaving the Yes radio button checked, to retain word varification.

  21. Catreona, I see how that could get frustrating. I did see the little handicap symbol there after I posted and attempted to figure out how it worked, but gave up on it... By the way, I hope I didn't come across as insensitive. I was just trying to be helpful. In any event, I'm sure if Juliette tried turning off that function and monitored the comments relatively closely for a few days she would see if the Captcha verification is even necessary. But again, I'm off topic...

    Juliette, yes, I agree, as you know I went through a few different pieces for this excerpt. The first one had a bit more of the earlier era in it (this is one that I didn't actually submit to you). The second version, the one I submitted to you via email had just a bit of everything in it, but as you pointed out was all reminising and no current action. The piece I submitted is missing quite a bit of the world elements, but does show a sort of starting off point and some character development stuff... a little. Also, based on something I believe you commented on before I started writing anything, you mentioned that since the major part of the story would be in the modern era that the piece I submit should be in the modern era as well.

    So I assume that through this we will be modifying the piece we submitted so that it will weave in more of the world elements? I guess for me it will just be more of a challenge working from such a limited scene.

  22. Juliette,

    Later on in the story Something Very Bad on this Earth takes an interest in what the VoidWatch operatives are doing. I intend to detail the timeline-jumping mechanism at this point, as the VoidWatch try to stop the Something Very Bad from using it to get loose into other timelines.

  23. But I can see that, for the reader, it might be better to make it clear from the start - the setting, and the character's relation to the setting, at least, if not the actual "how does this timeline-jumping device actually work?"

  24. I agree on Shelton. It is actually a place holder name. In fact, a number of my place names are placeholders because I haven't quite decided on a naming scheme.

    The part of the world where the story takes place is divided into four kingdoms the division is political and not much cultural. They are inhabited by the same race of people with the same language (given some regional differences). Although I want to avoid an "earth" feel to the names, I also want the names to "sound" like names and at least mildly familiar. The people in this part of the world speak in effect English. (Well, not, but you know what I mean. We understand what they say and I won't do any language building. If we understand part of what they say, why wouldn't we understand all of it?)

    However, they are fighting with people they fled from to settle their kingdoms. They have been separated for more than a thousand years. I am assuming at this point there would be little similarity in the language and they wouldn't understand any of their enemies speech.

    First, is that a reasonable assumption? Or I could change that and have the invaders speak "English". If I build some language, I don't need to build a lot of it, but they give some commands and the main characters hear those. When it comes to language building I'm at a complete loss.

  25. As far as the names being similar, I think that's to be expected. My friends Alan, Mary Beth, Christopher and Eleanor all have pretty different sounding names. Although this novel is about 80% written, the names (except for Wrai) are pretty much open to change.

  26. Juliette,

    Thanks for the critique. I'll work out what you mentioned in my piece. Tsumw could mention he was named after the species, or allude to an aspect of his culture.

  27. Just a clarification. If you watched the last workshop I gave, you'll know that I'm aiming to have you change and develop aspects of your worlds, and also to have you go back and rewrite the submission you made. The rewrite occurs at the end of the workshop, so it's not close - we're just getting started. I'm trying to nudge all of you in good directions, and my aim is not to make anyone feel unduly criticized, but to see if we can make what you've got into something more.

  28. Jeanne,

    When I say the names are similar, that's a good thing. I think I mentioned in my main post that I'm just expecting them to come from the same language. If they're so similar that they can't be told apart, that becomes another problem - but it's not one that I've seen in any of these excerpts.

  29. Jeanne,

    I'm right with you on having accessible names that are pronounceable for English speakers. You still have lots of options, though.

  30. Oh, I wanted to ask, what exactly do you mean when you say a name is "translated". I get that the name is a word in the English language, but how is it translated exactly, and just so I'm certain, what exactly is wrong with it, or what caused you to comment on it? I think I understand, but I just want to be sure.

  31. Colin,

    What I mean is that the name is not a set of unfamiliar sounds, but a word that means something in English. So just what you thought. The only reason I point these out is that they come across differently from the other names. For example, a friend of mine once named a town "Basin," but the sound combination was similar enough to the language she was using that I couldn't tell if it was "ba-seen" or "basin," as in Big Basin State Park. This kind of ambiguity can trip you up as a reader.

  32. I see. So the confusion is then in how to pronounce the name? Or is it just that the reader will automatically read it as the English word? Taking the example of Jug, obviously the Reijak wouldn't intend to nickname someone based on an English word, but because the reader will read it as such it becomes confusing. Yes?