Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Does your world/universe use names?

I'm figuring it does, whether it's an SF story or not.

Every time we choose a character name, it means something. I was part of a panel discussion about this at BayCon 2008, and the panel agreed that names are often chosen for what they convey subconsciously about a character. This is true whether the names are from English, from other world languages, or even if they are all made up.

Science fiction names are often taken from world languages. The presence of different language groups (like English/Germanic, French/Spanish/Romance, Indian, Chinese, etc.) can imply a lot about the history of the future world featured in the story. Off the top of my head I can think of Aliette de Bodard, Sheila Finch and Mike Flynn who have done interesting things with their naming schemes and also with the twists they've put into the history of their universes.

Okay, so what if all the names are made up?

Making up names is fun, at least for me. When I'm creating a character, a lot of times the name will just leap into my head, but in order to take the world concept just a bit deeper, it's good to consider these in a language context. Are these names pronounceable in English? Are they pronounceable by anyone? And to push the level a little further, do they form part of a unified system?

Here's my own experience with finding an underlying language system.

I had this great mega-fantasy story and I had made up scads and scads of names for it before I suddenly decided I wanted my world to be a bit more principled. So I tried to figure out what "language" the different names might have come from, and I found the names falling into three or four categories as far as the types of sounds that occurred in them. Some sounded like English-pronounceable names, while others were more like Spanish-pronounceable names, or French-pronounceable names. I asked myself, "Do I want to have this be a single-language world?" The answer for me was that I wanted everyone in the immediate area to speak the same language, but I remembered that names in almost every country tend to keep the forms of older contributing languages - and I really liked the idea of this country having older contributing languages. So I took the few names that "were not like the others" and regularized them to one of the four main sound systems. And that gave me a place to go with the world's history and backstory, i.e. that there had once been people from four different language groups that populated the area.

Which is the long way of saying that if you think about your names for people, and names for things, as part of a language system, you can inadvertently give yourself a much deeper world concept and open up possibilities for history and demographic changes in your world.


  1. I the first to post? Do I win a prize??

    I can't remember where I read it--I think it was an interview with Brandon Sanderson. He mentioned creating names by appropriating various Earth-bound cultures. So if he were naming a mythic race, he might base their names on Brazilians, or Fijians, or Belgians, etc...tweaking the names that all come from a common root.

    I thought that was interesting and had a strange synergistic logic to it.

  2. I have developed two worlds, or more correctly, a small part of a solar system in viewable distance from a horseshoe nebula. It took some time to develop these two cultures that were evolving on sister planets.

    Naturally, they were humanoid and naturally they evolved from some form of mammal.

    It was the evolution that was time consuming but well worth it in the end. I can appreciate your fondness of language. I do like to play with names and as such it has formed a major role in one of the two cultures history and social environment.

    How's that for important?

  3. Jamie, you won a big smile from me! Thanks for stopping by. Using Earth languages as a basis for names is a really great way to start, particularly when you don't want to go to the trouble of creating a brand new sound system yourself! I should check out Brandon Sanderson's use of names.

  4. Hey, John, thanks for sharing your story. Your description makes me curious whether the two different worlds were aware of one another and able to communicate. But that's probably central to the story...

  5. Hey Juliette!

    I've got you bookmarked now, muahaha! ;)

  6. Hey, Juliette! Wonderful blog and wonderful subject. I can't promise I'll be as talkative here as I am at Analog, but I can promise I'll drop by and say "Hey!" from time to time.

  7. Greg, if you were as talkative here as at Analog, I'd be awfully busy! It's great to have you stop by and I hope to see you again. Suggest some topics! I'll try to remember some of the things you were talking about in your universe, hmmm...

  8. Great new blog! I don't comment on blogs as much as I read them, but I will be stopping by.

    ~E Thomas

  9. Another option is to skip all of the phonology and pick names for things that have value or meaning to the culture. For example, name a female "Knife's Edge" while naming a male "Rose Petal" You can get even fancier with longer phrases or metaphors like "The-Wave-that-Washes-Slime-Upon-The-Beech (The Wave for short).

    Even fancier, you can break the names up into words and phrases that have cultural meaning for one culture and try to develop a phonology for another cultural group: "He-who-belches-fire, meet Dzardziids."