It is not uncommon for someone to say, “Such-and-such book changed my life.” For someone who reads regularly, as I do, I suppose it is to be expected. However, I don’t know how many people could say that reading a fantasy novel influenced their choice of career. I’m sure many writers in the genre would make such a statement, but as yet I’m not actually a professional writer—I’m not published—and so saying that a fantasy novel influenced my choice to become an English teacher is perhaps a curiosity.
As I stated in one of my first blog entries, I love words. That love of words, and my curiosity about how language works, originated in my reading of Lord of the Rings. I was fascinated by the created languages of Tolkien’s world—Quenya and Sindarin—and I even went to the extremely nerdy length of hunting down an online course to learn Quenya. Unfortunately I lasted for about two lessons, and the reason was that I quickly realised that my knowledge of linguistic metalanguage was relatively limited. I knew the basics of grammar, but not much else. Yet my appetite had been whet, and it was not long after that I began my university studies in linguistics.
One of the most beneficial aspects of studying linguistics was gaining a knowledge of phonetics. It took most of a semester to re-orient my brain to think of English in terms of the discrete sounds rather than in letters or syllables. One incredibly useful application of this knowledge in my job is the ability to explain to my English-as-a-Second-Language students that Australian English has 44 sounds that are written using 26 letters. Although this doesn’t necessarily make learning English simpler, it certainly helps students to understand why English spelling can be so difficult, particularly the vowels. When you have 20 vowel sounds and five main letters with which to write them (six if you include ‘y’), it isn’t any wonder that students have difficulties. Yet I have seen that knowledge prove to be enormously helpful for many of my students.
What does this have to do with writing fantasy? A lot. One of the most enjoyable parts of world creation, for me, is coming up with names for my characters and places. One of the first and strongest impressions I get when reading a fantasy novel comes from the names. I find it very difficult to suspend disbelief if the names of characters or places don’t suit the setting of a book. Unusual names don’t bother me, but names that have inconsistent sounds or orthography (the spelling system of a language) jolt me out of the story.
I’m not sure why I am so sensitive to this area of worldbuilding; perhaps it is my linguistic training. Here is an analogy: if I made an acquaintance with someone in my home town who had lived in Australia all their life and had grown up with Australian parents, I would be more than a little surprised to discover that their name was Sato. It isn’t that I dislike the name, but simply that it is unexpected because such a name has its origins in an entirely different culture and language. And that is my point: when creating names for a fantasy world, it makes sense that such names would reflect the language of a particular culture the same way they do in the real world.
This may seem like a daunting task for some, especially those who have no background in linguistics and have no intention of obtaining one. However, there is one tool that I have found incredibly useful in the search to create names that have a consistent and linguistically sound basis: a website called Behind the Name.
The brilliant thing about this website is that it gives you the origin of the name and the language that it is derived from. For example, if you are looking for names that have a Hebrew flavour, you can simply go to the Hebrew section of the site and look at their list of male and female names with Hebrew origins. It is also incredibly useful that they have pages dedicated to ancient cultures, such as Ancient Roman or Greek, and also Mythological and Biblical names.
To give you an idea of how I settle on names for my characters, I’ll walk you through the process I’ve been using for my current collaborative project. It became apparent early on that the feel of the main culture we had created was akin to Spanish, with a dash of French thrown in (it helps that both of these languages come from the same Indo-European sub-family of languages, the Romance languages). In the original version of our story, I had already established that the main character’s name was Elyse, and I didn’t want to change that. Thus, in order to give the name a Spanish feel I added the the ending ‘–iana’ and came up with the full name ‘Elysiana bren Vitas’ (bren meaning ‘daughter of a noble house’ and Vitas being her House name, which is a modification of an Ancient Roman name).
For more minor characters, I used the database on the website to find Spanish names that fit my needs. One of my rules of thumb when choosing names is to try to ensure that all major characters have names starting with different letters, purely for the reader’s sake. I figure it is easier for a reader to distinguish between ‘Reynard’ and ‘Nacio’ than it is to try to remember which character is ‘Reynard’ and which is ‘Roland’. So the first thing I do is scan the names for the letters I haven’t used yet, and then look at the meanings of the names to see if there is anything that suits the type of character I am creating. On occasion I will find parts of names that I like, and then I will combine them into something new. For example, the name of my protagonist in my large solo project is Rayenna, a combination of the names ‘Reina’ and ‘Anna’ that together mean ‘queen of grace’.
One other aspect that I take into consideration is spelling. For a long time I had settled on particular spellings for the names of some of the characters in my stories. However, a few months ago I had the urge to regulate the spelling of the names in my solo work and come up with an orthography for the primary language, Alonïan. I took a leaf out of Tolkien’s book for this task and aimed for a system that would allow for the phonetic spelling of names, with an almost one-to-one correspondence between sounds and spelling. However, the difficulty with such a task is that the names still needed to be comprehensible for the reader, not using too many foreign marks or letters.
The result was a system where I devised a way to distinguish between short vowels, long vowels and diphthongs. Short vowels are represented the same way as in English, but long vowels are represented by adding an umlaut over the appropriate letter.
Here are some examples:
Short vowels: One of the main cultural groups in the story is the Menolkans. This name has three syllables, and three short vowels, and is pronounced meh-NOL-kuhn. Relatively simple, and probably the pronunciation that and English-speaking person might guess.
Long vowels: The main country in the novel is Alonïa. The original version of the name was Alonia (with no umlaut), but I wanted some way to show that the ‘i’ in the name was distinct from the ‘a’ (i.e. not pronounced together), and that the sound was the long vowel in ‘see’ rather than the short vowel in ‘hit’. Adding the umlaut was a way to signal to the reader that this was a long sound without changing the spelling too dramatically. Hence the name is written as ‘Alonïa’ and pronounced ‘al-o-NEE-uh’.
Diphthongs: These were a bit harder to regulate. I wanted a system that would be consistent, and so I decided to start with the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) as my inspiration. I looked at the way diphthongs were represented in IPA, and after some consideration it seemed logical to use the short vowels as a basis (as diphthongs are essentially a glide from one short vowel to another). Hence the vowel in the word ‘bay’ is represented as ‘ei’, as it is a glide from the sound ‘e’ in bed to ‘i’ in hit’.
This then caused a difficulty with some of my names, which had diphthongs followed by other vowels. For example, the name Rayenna. I had been writing the name like this for a long time, but if I followed the orthographic rules I had set out the name would be written as ‘Reienna’, which would be a mouthful for any normal English speaker (if they hadn’t read my pronunciation guide beforehand). The solution, once I thought of it, was simple. Because I had already established two main cultures and languages, I could posit that one had influenced the spelling of the other. Hence ‘Reienna’ became the traditional Alonïan spelling of the name, but under the influence of Menolkan culture the spelling had shifted to Reyenna (and in some situations Rayenna). Thus I could keep my original spelling, but the orthographically correct spelling was still valid. [Some may argue that this is cheating, but I argue that it is actually a reflection of the way spelling can shift in real-world languages.]
Why, might you ask, would anyone care? Well, it’s quite possible no one will care, and that if I ever get published only a small minority of people would ever bother reading a pronunciation guide. However, I am the kind of person who writes what I like to read, and I like reading pronunciation guides. If my attention to detail (even though it may feel frivolous to some) could cause another reader to decide they want to learn more about linguistics, then I will have done them the same service that Tolkien did me. And if no reader ever cares, then at least I had a darn good time fiddling with such useless nonsense.