New Worlds: The Subtle Art of Naming

(Because Book View Cafe is still having technical difficulties, I am posting this week’s Patreon essay here.)

The last few theory essays have discussed language on the page. For the final one of both this calendar year and Year Five of my Patreon, I’d like to offer some concrete advice on how to create words and names that support the feeling of a plausible secondary world.

This isn’t about the phonology and orthography, the sounds and spellings used in a name. (We already discussed that way back in Year One.) Instead it’s about structure, about the underlying patterns and quirks that will make names come to life. In the real world, we don’t name things randomly, so following a few patterns in your story creates verisimilitude.

Since we’ve recently been discussing gender, let’s start there. It’s common for given names to be gendered, not just in which ones get used for whom, but in how they’re formed. Look at Spanish and Italian, where it’s common for masculine names to end in -o and feminine ones to end in -a. There are exceptions, naturally, but the pattern is persistent enough to be noticeable. By contrast, over in India the -a ending is often going to be masculine, while -i is feminine. It can also be about something other than the final sound: in Japan the unvoiced consonants (e.g. T, K, S) are considered more elegant and therefore more feminine than their voiced counterparts (D, G, Z), so the latter are less frequently found in female names.

Also consider the mutation of names into different forms. This can be about gender, with Charlotte being a feminine variant of Charles, Georgina a variant of George . . . but it can also show names spreading from culture to culture, so that in addition to Charles you have Carlos, and for George you have Jürgen. (Some variants are easier to recognize than others.) In Europe these cognates are hugely common because of the influence of Christianity, though non-Biblical names have also spread into different lands. Or what about nicknames and diminutives? Russian literature is notorious for these, but you find them elsewhere as well. Whether it’s elders speaking to children or good friends demonstrating their intimacy, having patterns in how names get shortened or morphed gives additional depth.

Family names may also exhibit patterns. Those Year One essays already mentioned things like occupational surnames, patronymics, and nobiliary particles; you can invent elements like that to include in your characters’ family names. (Including in gendered forms — fairly common with patronymics, and even found in occupational names, i.e. Brewer vs. Brewster, Webber or Weaver vs. Webster.) Here’s a trick, though: you don’t have to know what the elements mean. In the Rook and Rose trilogy I’m writing with my friend Alyc Helms, there are numerous Vraszenian surnames ending in -ek or -ček. I figure that’s probably a locative suffix, but if you asked me what Ryvček or Andrejek means, I’d have to pull an answer out of my ear. All that really matters is, if you see another name with that kind of ending, you’ll have the instinctive sense that it’s probably a family name.

The same goes for geographical names. In England there are many place names with endings like -ton, -ham, -ford, -wick, -port, and more. Digging into etymology can tell you what those mean — e.g. -ey comes from the Old English eg for “island” — but as with the surname suffixes, the recurrence of an element is more important than its semantic meaning. Just try to avoid using the same ending for a port city and a tiny village in the mountains . . . though heck, even then it’s not a big deal. If a reader ever calls you on it, make up an answer!

Some tricks for naming get a little farther into the grammatical weeds, though not very far. With geographical names, for example, you’ll sometimes want to think about the demonym, the form used to talk about people from a given place. English tends to form these in some predictable ways, with -an and -ian being the most common (Mexican, Colombian), along with -ish (Spanish, Swedish) and -ese (Chinese, Japanese). Even then, though, there’s some randomness and wild cards: why are people from Canada Canadian, instead of Canadan? Where the heck does the G come from in Norwegian? Why, when the local name for a certain country is Deutschland, do we call the place Germany and its people Germans? (There are answers to all of these, of course, but whether you want to dive far enough into your fictional history to explain them in your story is up to you.) Giving your fictional demonyms standard English-style endings will make things feel familiar, while inventing something like -ari gives it a bit more distance. Either way, an occasional “the people of France are French” bit of pattern-breaking adds spice.

Not everything is about names, though. I’ve started to notice that when authors invent a noun for something in their story, they rarely seem to give much thought to the plural. When there’s more than one of those things, the plural is either the same as the singular (as with the English “deer”), or else it’s just pluralized with -s or -es. But especially if your phonetic model comes from another language, consider going for something different. In German, for example, plurals are formed with -en, while in Hebrew it’s -im. But you don’t have to use a real ending; you can make up your own instead.

Getting to the grad student level of this stuff . . . remember above, when I mentioned the G in “Norwegian”? Did you notice Spain’s I falling out when it became “Spanish”? Sound changes of that kind are a fantastic way to make words feel more realistic. These can happen in demonyms: looking at the Rook and Rose books again, the people of Vraszan are Vraszenian. Or they can happen with plurals: we pluralize lihosz as lihoše, ziemič as ziemetse, kureč as kretse. (Try saying “kuretse;” see how easily that U drops out of the word.)

You can even — if you’re enough of a language nerd — think about how words connect to each other. Inflected languages like Latin, where words change their form based on their grammatical usage, have certain endings that show X belongs to Y. That’s how you get phrases like Agnes Dei, amicus curiae, Rex Angelorum, ars gratia artis, in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. You don’t need to have as many of these as Latin does (where there are different classes of nouns and different changes for both the singular and the plural), but if your story is going to be quoting multiple titles for people or books, a little structural consistency goes a long way.

And for our last trick, you can even play armchair etymologist! I owe credit for my awareness of this one to Amanda Downum, whose novel The Drowning City is set in Symir, on the river Mir. Notice the echo there? In Rook and Rose I applied this idea to the city of Nadežra, which sits on the Dežera. Since Nadežra started out on an island in the river before sprawling to the opposite banks, you can speculate that “na” comes from the word for “island,” and na + dežera collapsed into Nadežra. Furthermore, that’s the holy city of the goddess Ažerais — not quite the same, but they might derive from the same root? There are other, similar linkages worked into other clusters of words, so that the made-up names and terms don’t all stand in isolation, but echo each other in subtle ways.

Remember, you don’t actually have to work out what all these things mean. We aren’t all Tolkien, exhaustively working out the linguistic development of whole families of related languages. All you have to do is let some patterns appear in the names you invent — and then break those patterns before they get too strict. Because messiness? Is also very realistic.

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