Writing Excuses 14.36: Languages and Naming
Key points: How do you name things? How do you come up with names? Baby name websites! Sanskrit or foreign languages. Read the credits on movies. Internally consistent, and different. Borrow names from other countries. How do you approach constructed languages, dialect, or jargon in stories? A few words go a long way. Read it out loud. Make sure readers can tell your names apart! Consider using the language as a source of conflicts, either because people don’t speak the same language, or because of the way their language makes them see the world. Misunderstandings and cultural expectations can lead to conflicts. What does this do in your story? What’s the role it plays in the plot? Can you use dialect or wording to help with setting?
[Transcriber’s note: Apologies to the Ursumari, Hindi, and Korean for any mistakes in the transcription of names and words in those languages.]
[Mary Robinette] Season 13, Episode 36.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Languages and Naming.
[Dan] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Mahtab] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] [pause] I’m… Okay, I’ll tell you my name. I’m Howard.
[Mahtab] I’m Mahtab.
[Dan] She won’t make you work for it. Like Howard does.
[Brandon] Languages and naming. So. I would say the number one question I get, usually from younger writers who come through my line is, “How do you name things?” So, I’m going to actually point this at you first, Mahtab, because I think they’ve probably heard us answer this question. How do you come up with names for your stories?
[Mahtab] Well, I consult a lot of websites. Especially, I start with baby names. But Sanskrit is also a really good source, because… Really, I mean, writing for a North American audience… And since most of my books are published in English, even if I threw in a few Hindi words, it would seem, like, exotic. But, for example, in The Third Eye, I used the word Zarku, which is… It means, in Sanskrit, it means evil. Which is… So I would do Google translate and take keywords off… Which personify the character that I’m naming and try and find the right word. Play around with it. Just, as I said, Google some interesting names and see… And and say it out loud to see what sounds good.
[Howard] Reading… For starters, you should all be staying through the end of the credits of all of the movies you see. But reading the names on the credits is a great way to read a bunch of names that you’re probably unfamiliar with. It’s also a great way to realize that wow, portions of this film were produced or managed in, I think that’s Southeast Asia, or I see a lot of Indian names. I like that. I like seeing that in the films, but seeing that variety opens me up to naming things, because… I mean, just the way we name other human people is hugely diverse.
[Brandon] Now, you were talking about one of the naming conventions you came up with for one of the races in Schlock Mercenary.
[Howard] Yeah, I… The role-playing book, the Planet Mercenary role-playing book, one of the things that we realized is that if people are going to role-play, they’re going to want to be able to name their characters. What are the naming conventions for these different species of alien? The first thing that I did was panic, because, how am I going to come up with seven different naming conventions? The second thing I did was, well, I’m going to start subtractively. So I looked at my own language and said, all right, they will never have some of these sounds in their names. I used a different set of subtractions for each of them. One of the groups, one of the races, all names are 10 syllables long. They are all 10 syllables long, and this is how the construction works, and this is where the accenting works, and this is where the pieces of the names come from. It was still familial, which is something we’re all familiar with, but it created these names that just looked incredibly alien. But after I knew how to build them, I could suddenly rattle off 10 syllable names very quickly. It made them start to seem real. I think that’s, for me, the most important aspect of naming and language stuff in worldbuilding, is that once you have some of the words that your aliens are your monsters or your whatevers use, they become different than you, and they begin to develop their own voice.
[Dan] I think a key part of that, that a lot of as you said especially young writers are overwhelmed by, is making a lot of those decisions. They can be meaningless or random at the point where you’re establishing those rules, as long as you come up with something that is con… Internally consistent and that is different, it’s going to feel cool. The readers don’t necessarily need to know, oh, he just pulled those letters out of the alphabet at random and disallowed them, or however it is that you’re building these. You don’t need to overthink that initial process. There doesn’t need to be some kind of divine foundation for where these names come from, as long as you come up with consistent rules that sound cool and unique.
[Howard] The uplifted polar bears in Planet Mercenary. What I said was the first two generations of uplifted polar bears, it was very common to give them Inuit names, Siberian names, those were very common. Then the polar bears realized you’re just naming us after the humans who live near us. That’s awful. So for two generations, all of their names are a little more blended. The whole reason for that was so that I could tell the joke of oh, some common Ursumari names are Jones, [Ketchikan, Ggrrnnkk!]
[Howard] But as I was writing it, I realized that’s probably exactly how the bears would do it.
[Mahtab] It’s also a very good idea to borrow names from other countries. To point out an example, Avatar. It still sounds weird in my mouth, because it is basically avataar in Hindi, which is just a version of… Most gods and goddesses in the Indian… Hindu mythology have various forms are various versions which are avataars. So when I say avatar, it’s like, that is not the correct pronunciation.
[Mahtab] The other thing that I also remembered was tsehelyu [sa-hey-loo?] which is the bonding of the horse and the person. It’s… I thought it was spelled differently, but I looked it up, it spelled t-s-e-h-e-l-y-u. But it sounds so close to [sahelee?] which is friend in Hindi. It’s just a friend bonding. So you can use existing words. Change the spelling, change the pronunciation, and you have a totally different word.
[Brandon] [garbled] This is how language works. It really does. Like my son was assigned… They’re doing a Christmas thing at school, and they said all the kids are going to say Merry Christmas in different languages. He came to me and said, “I chose Korean. How do you say Merry Christmas in Korean?” I’m like, “Merry Christmas. That’s what they say.”
[Brandon] Now I… There is actually a way to say it in Korean, but I had to go look it up, because when Christmas time was around, everyone just said Merry Christmas because even though it’s not in Korean…
[Howard] It’s Western…
[Brandon] It’s a Western holiday. They just use the English words.
[Dan] We borrow stuff from each other all the time. I will say, following from what Mahtab said about kind of borrowing words and names from other cultures, use a really wide variety of them. I made a world map for a fantasy series that I wanted to put together. I realized, after I had kind of named 15 or so nations on this map, that most of them were kind of the obvious this is based on German or Welsh or maybe some Russian if I was feeling saucy. Why did I not have some more Southeast Asian? Some Chinese? A lot of these other completely different sounds that are not as European and not as obvious that we tend to skip over?
[Brandon] One of my favorite things… We’re on a side tangent here, but with making maps, is to think about who’s making the map. Because if you make the map, that country’s names for all the countries in the world, are going to be that country-ized, that country-ize. Like, we call Korea Korea, right? In Korea, it’s Hangug. It’s… The Koryo dynasty was years and years ago, but that’s the name that stuck for us. All countries do this, right? They don’t call us America, they call us migug. That’s just how… When whoever’s making the map is going to use their biases to create all of the names for all the countries. That is a lot of fun for me, for worldbuilding aspects.
[Dan] Because a lot of those names will come from the first person that they encountered from that region, or, like with Korea, whoever was in charge at the time we decided to codify the name.
[Howard] It is important to be careful with this. The apocryphal possibly story of a games workshop sending their materials to be translated in German, and the Germans coming back and saying, “Okay. We need to work on naming with you, because you’ve literally named the villain villain.
[Howard] You’ve named the hero hero. You’ve just…
[Howard] Taking these words from German and naming them as your characters in English, because you think it sounds exotic, is not going to work well because it spoils the surprise for everybody here…
[Howard] Who can read German.
[Dan] Yeah, which is why I liked, again, what Mahtab said about changing the spelling, changing the pronunciation. Use it as a base and then make it your own.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week.
[Mahtab] Yes. I would love to recommend Binti by Nnedi Okorofor. I hope I’m not butchering her name. But it’s a novella. An excellent mix of African culture and science fiction. It centers around Binti, who is from the Himsa [Himba?] tribe. She has been offered this place in this university. It’s called the Oomza University. Which is a place of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept this, she has to leave her people. So when she does, and against everyone’s wishes, against the family’s wishes, she decides to go. But the one thing that she takes with her as something to remind her of home is this earth, which the Himsa people tend to apply on their hair and their skin. It turns out that this is something that helps her when there is a war that the University is with, with the Meduse people which is an alien race. I’m not going to, again, give away the ending. It’s a short novella, but it’s beautifully written. It’s, as I said, a very good mix of an African culture, science-fiction, and a must read.
[Brandon] It won the Hugo and the Nebula. It’s free to read on Tor.com, I believe. Maybe it’s not free.
[Mahtab] I don’t think so.
[Brandon] Yeah, it’s actually one of the Tor.com novella programs. But it is a novella that you can get very cheaply online, and well worth a read.
[Mahtab] Excellent. Excellent book.
[Brandon] Let’s stray a little bit from naming towards language conventions. So let’s talk about conlangs, which is kind of the word for constructed languages that you use in your books, or your own kind of feel on how to use dialect or jargon in your stories to kind of enhance the authenticity or the worldbuilding of your story. So how do you approach coming up with languages and things like this?
[Dan] Let’s start by saying that we did an entire episode on conlangs with a linguistic professor last year. So, for a much more full discussion, look that up.
[Dan] But now I got nothing.
[Mahtab] I can start, because I was very taken up with Dothraki, which was invented by David J. Peterson. I was listening to a TED talk of his in terms of how he came up with it. So what he said is he used the text George R. R. Martin wrote and he used certain words. He kind of broke them apart. So words like cow and ruck and hudge, cuss, which is consonant vowel consonant. He kind of used that as a base and then he developed a language. Of course, there is a lot between using those words and what he came up with. But just writing for younger readers, I think one has to be very careful because large paragraphs or large texts in a very weird language could actually pull the reader out. Which is why I appreciated just a few words of parsel tongue in the Harry Potter movies, or just a couple of words here and there, because you do not want to trip up young readers. If you do come up with interesting words or made-up words, I would read it out loud. Just to see if you’re tripping up, which is what would happen with the… With your readers.
[Howard] Or if phonetically you’re saying something you don’t want to say.
[Howard] One of the tricks that I look at is… Primarily for naming things, but if you’re making up a language, English readers… I don’t know if this is a problem in other languages, but I know it’s a problem in English. English readers will tend to conflate foreign looking words that all begin with the same letter for each other. You have three six letter names that all begin with F. They’re all going to be kind of read as the same person. So you may want to find a set of rules for your language that allows you to have different first letters. That’s a… It’s a silly sort of constraint, because you may have a language where all of the first letters are the same. Every word begins with F.
[Brandon] Orson Scott Card has a really great essay on his website about naming, where he talks about this sort of concept. Varying the length of the names, varying the… Some of them being… Sounding like a word, like calling someone Bean as opposed to calling someone Ender which will… Ways that different names stick in people’s heads. It is well worth reading.
[Howard] But with regard to language, specifically, if you are going to be dropping snippets of your alien foreign whatever made-up language in your book, having the words… Let us be able to tell the difference between the words. So that if one of those words shows up later, in a chapter heading, maybe we’ll recognize it as a word we’ve seen before. Maybe that’s a plot point. Maybe it’s a significant touchstone for us as readers. There needs to be a reason for you to have gone to all this trouble to construct your own language.
[Brandon] I, when I’m building books, I’ll use a couple of different styles. It’s going to depend, for me, on how much time I want to spend with the language being a source of conflicts. Last month we talked about this idea of cultural setting as conflict. In some of my books, the fact that people don’t speak the same language, or the ways that their linguistics work informs the way they see the world becomes a conflict in the story or at least a way that characters are not quite understanding each other or the cultural expectations are being expressed. In those worlds, I spend a lot more time on my worldbuilding and my language. I am not a linguist. Fortunately, my editorial director, Peter, is a linguist. I’ve taken enough classes that I can be dangerous in this field, so to speak. But you don’t need to be a linguist to be able to do this. I really do approach it results-oriented. Why am I doing this? Like Howard said, what is the function of this in my story? Why am I having this happen? In the Stormlight Archive, I have one character who uses a lot of words in a different language. It is to reinforce that his culture is really important to him, and the way that he sees the world involves giving people nicknames from his language. Which really changes the way that the reader and the other characters interact with this character, and has been wonderful for using those linguistics. But the actual linguistics don’t matter as much to me as what the role… The role they’re taking in the plot.
[Mahtab] Dialect or using certain words can also help you… Help give you a setting, a time. Like, for example, Feed by M. T. Anderson. They use words like unit, which is wow. Or “This is really meg.” Words like this. Which was… Although the book was written in 2002, it was an indication that this is a society in the future. I was just reading To Kill a Mockingbird. One of the lines that Miss Maudie says is, “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy.” People don’t normally speak that way. So if you use a dialect, or if you use a certain way of putting words, and the order in which you put them could also help you describe whether it’s southern US that you’re talking about or even India. There are so many dialects. By using it, you can say so much more without saying it. Because that’s the way the people in that area talk.
[Brandon] Excellent. We are out of time on this episode. Howard, you have our homework.
[Howard] Yes. You are probably familiar, fair listener, with the way human beings name each other. We name each other after our progenitors. We have first names, we have last names. They all sort of run in families. Come up with a naming convention for aliens or fantasy races, whatever. Come up with a naming convention that has nothing to do with family and is completely, completely different.
[Brandon] Completely removed from the way that we do our naming.
[Howard] Completely removed from the way that we name each other.
[Brandon] Awesome. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.