Wednesday, August 29, 2012

What's Your World Called?

One of the things many fantasy writers seem obsessed with is giving their invented world a name.  In some ways, this is reasonable – it’s a lot easier to talk about if you can call it something – but does it really make sense?  After all, what’s our world called? 

Well, in fact it has hundreds of names, but most of them are either the common word for the ground we walk on, or else the generic word for a world.  Why should other worlds be different?  As Ursula LeGuin put is in her SF novel Rocannon’s World, there are planets without names, called by their people simply The World...  There’s no reason for a fantasy world to be different.

Of course, LeGuin did give a name to her most famous fantasy world, but that’s a little different.  Just as the Earth is simply a description of the ground we walk on, if you lived somewhere that was nothing but islands and oceans all mixed up together, why wouldn’t you coin Earthsea as a word to mean Everything?

The same principle applies for a country, a planet or an entire plane of existence: it only needs a name for people who are aware of something else.  A tribe living in the rainforest, that maybe has some dealings with a tribe that lives a couple of days’ journey away, doesn’t need to give their homeland a name.  Even when inhabitants do become sufficiently aware of the rest of the world to adopt a name, it’s often very functional.  Take Germany, for instance.  It’s proper name is Deutschland – and all that actually means is The Land of the People.

The scale of naming works gradually outwards: your village as opposed to others; your local territory, perhaps defined by a larger town; your country; your continent...

Many of the classic fantasy worlds are actually at one of these levels.  Narnia, for instance, is the name of a country, not a world, while Middle Earth is a continent.  Tolkien’s world (which, of course, is only a mythical version of our own) does have a name – Arda – but this is only used when the perspective is of the Valar, who know of something beyond it.  Elves, dwarves, humans and hobbits, like our ancestors until very recently, just call it the World.

And this is the point.  We now sometimes think of our planet as Earth, not just the earth (or sometimes Terra) because we’re now aware that there’s something more, even though it’s largely a theoretical knowledge.  Most of us never claim to have met an alien (and almost certainly none of us actually have) but we know that, theoretically, there are probably other planets somewhere with other species living on them.  Even if there aren’t, we have stories about them, so we need to think of Terra, not just the world.

This can apply to entire fantasy worlds.  If you write, for instance, about a world that’s linked by stable magical portals to one or more other worlds, with which they’ve interacted, traded, made war and so on for many generations, then of course they’ll need not only names for the other worlds, but one for their own, just as we’re aware of living in Britain, Canada or Japan.

For a story, though, that’s set in a single world whose inhabitants are unaware of anything beyond it, there’s no reason for a name other than the local word for world.  But that raises a problem in itself.  You could decide that some name (let’s say Shansilea) is the word for world – but whose name?  Our world contains thousands of languages and, even in our age of globalisation, a few dozen that have international status, and all of those (certainly all the international ones) have their own word for our planet.  Which is the name?

None of which is saying that a writer shouldn’t give their world a name, if only to be able to talk about it; but be careful of how to present that name.  Your main character might call it Shansilea, since that’s the word for world in his/her language, and that can be how you talk about it, but be aware that other characters might use a different name.

Or, of course, the god who created your world might have decreed that its name shall be Shansilea, now and forever.  Fair enough.  Your god, your world, though you still have to explain how that commandment is common knowledge throughout the world.

My main world still doesn’t have a name, after more than forty years of development.  If I want to discuss it, I call it the Traveller’s World.  I could pick someone’s name for it, but which?  If I chose the Kimdyran name, for instance, I’d be afraid of offending the people of Errish, or Hafdosu, or Shillau.  Such is relativistic world-making.  So it remains the Traveller’s World.  Or just The World.

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