14.36: Languages and Naming

Your Hosts: Brandon, Dan, Howard, and Mahtab

How do we come up with names? How do we do it in ways that enhance our worldbuilding? What are the elements that give our invented naming schemes (even the zany ones with lots of syllables and apostrophes) verisimilitude?

In this episode we talk about some of the tricks we’ve used, the pitfalls we’ve avoided, and conlangs in general.

Liner Notes: In Episode 12.51 we discuss Conlangs (“constructed languages”)with Dirk Elzinga.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson


Give us a naming convention that has nothing to do with family.

Binti, by Nnedi Okorofor

10 thoughts on “14.36: Languages and Naming”

  1. For me, the “why” of conlanging is simple: because the real world is full of languages, and if I’m creating a world, I myself won’t be able to believe it if it isn’t. Then again, I’m literally a linguist, so I don’t expect everyone else to look at everything the same way.

    I HATE making up names for things. So I came up with a shortcut: I decide on a phonology/inventory of the sounds in the language the name comes from, and I write a computer program that can generate words (or at least morphemes) in that language based on consonant/vowel frequencies and clusters, etc. (that may not sound like a shortcut, but trust me, it is for me. And I’ve done it enough times that it goes pretty fast for each new one now). Plus, it saves time when I get to the part where I need to name a whole bunch of stuff; I can just hit “run” a whole bunch of times instead of wracking my brains.

    It also means I can escape my own biases as a native English speaker in terms of construction. Sometimes I do get words that are hard for me to pronounce, but to me, that’s not a bug, it’s a feature–not all languages in the real world are easy for me to pronounce either. That said, I only occasionally use those words in the story, and never as anything that gets said often or early. I may like them, but that doesn’t mean my reader isn’t going to see a keyboard smash and stop reading forever. I do my best to maintain a balance of remaining faithful to the language and avoiding Eurocentrism, and making it palatable to an English-speaking audience.

  2. For my second world fantasy I mutate the consonants or vowels of ordinary names. It means they look weird but are completely pronounceable, such as Fiona -> Veona.

  3. I’m still wondering how Brandon came with Jasnah’s name. Why? In Polish the word “jasna” means “bright”, which leads to the very alliterative name “Jej Jasność Jasna” (Her Brightness Jasnah)… :-)

  4. The foursome that named themselves Brandon, Dan, Howard, and Mahtab talked about how naming works in stories, especially with fantasy and foreign languages mixed into the pot. How do you name things, how do you use conlangs, dialect, or jargon in your stories? What role does it play in your plot? Can you use dialect or wording to help with setting? All these, and more (Ursumari names? Of course!) get discussed in the transcript, available now in the archives.

  5. I remember reading a book (which I will leave nameless here) where it was a major plot point that the protagonist was looking for a mysterious snow fairy. After a new, supposedly unrelated character showed up with the Japanese word for “Snow” as their name (one of the few words I know in that language), I spent most of the rest of the book in a figurative facepalm.

    In my current WIP, I’ve been going in the opposite direction by using English words as names with the intention that everything has been translated anyway (leading to weird things like “Rose” being named after what the sun does instead of the flower). For variety, I’ve also used Latin names to signify “from old language no one speaks anymore”, though I’m a bit iffy on whether I should keep that.

    1. Using Latin sounds interesting. Of course, I might be biased as I’ve done the same. (With the added complication of pure gibberish in the mix as well.)

      1. I’ve been building a world based on ancient Greece and the Roman empire and I’ve been mixing Latin, Greek, and Coptic (ancient Egypt) which ends up sounding like gibberish.

  6. I think the net easiest naming convention apart from family would be place. In other words, people are named after where they are born (or when) as posed to who they are born to. But I’m sure other people can come up with more creative ideas than that.

    It’s also fun to mix words(or draw inspiration) from languages with similar sounds. For instance, the Dutch, Celtic, and Slavic languages all like their hard consonants and pushing multiple consonants together to create sounds we don’t have in English. Celtic and Scandinavian both use sounds from the back of the throat in their languages and in their singing.

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