It reminds me of the annoying habit some people have of "revealing" a fact that's common knowledge and then inanely demanding "Who knew?" I always want to yell at them, "I knew, and probably half the people you're addressing did too. Don't try to drag the rest of us down to your level of ignorance."
I've discussed this issue before on this blog and pointed out that the world contains a great many languages and naming styles, and by no means all of them conform to the anglocentric prejudices of many fantasy readers. If a world consists of three kingdoms, whose royal families are descended from three brothers, then there isn't a great deal of need for linguistic complexity, and it's easy enough to keep all the names familiar. If, on the other hand, an author wants to give their world an impression of the richness and diversity found in ours, that's going to mean people and places with a great variety of names. You can hardly call three heroes from different corners of the world Tom, Dick and Harry.
But does this really matter? It's all just for entertainment, isn't it?
Well, yes and no. The entertainment aspect is a big part of it, but I believe any art-form has a duty to show some degree of social responsibility, even if it's only a minor aspect. I've no doubt some people will disagree with me, and I don't think it's an argument that can be won or lost — you believe it or you don't.
Fantasy is, first and foremost, about the strange and exotic, and that seems to me to be highly relevant to this issue. The great and mysterious world we live in, with its stretches of terra incognito marked Here Be Dragons, is in the process of shrinking into a global village, and we're daily in touch with all its diversity. And we can't really pretend we're handling it well. Too often, the reaction to encountering a very different culture is That's just wrong — they should be more like us.
This can be particularly true of names. Names are vitally important to a person's sense of culture, especially if they're cut off from that culture, but in the West we're generally not very tolerant of this. We've come some way since the days when, for example, Hollywood insisted on anyone with a non-Anglo-Saxon name changing it, but not all that far.
For many years, for instance, there have been jokes about Polish names being unpronounceable. They're nothing of the kind, of course: for the millions of Polish-speaking people, they're as straightforward as Smith, and this is true of every culture that uses "difficult" names. Most of us encounter people from cultures from all over the world, and that's likely to increase as the twenty-first century progresses. Are we going to refuse to recognise, say, African names that begin with Mp- or Nd-, or Polynesian names with three apostrophes in them, just as many of us refuse to accept similar names in fantasy?
Fantasy, as I've said, is very much about the exotic, and it gives us the chance to practice at understanding huge cultural differences and test our tolerance against our prejudices. The extent to which we use it in this way probably varies a lot, but the opportunity's there.
We love it, on the whole, when things are strange and wonderful: worlds carried on the back of a turtle, or on the inside surface of a bubble; bizarre races of beings, and creatures that appear in no zoological text; magic and miracles, immortality and weird planes of existence, titanic forces of good and evil, or of order and chaos. And some of us run screaming when these have names that couldn't derive from one of the major western European languages.
Of course, fantasy names can't be a free-for-all. For a start, they need to be linguistically believable and consistent. That means all those consonant clusters, double vowels and apostrophes (they represent glottal stops, not an excuse to make the name look cool) have to be there for a reason, and names from the same culture need to have similar phonology and morphology.
It's also advisable to meet the reader halfway. If part of the story is set in a culture whose language has forms the reader might find difficult, keep the hardest names for the background ones that might come up once or twice, and give the character we're going to be spending a lot of time with the simplest name possible within the parameters. Or a shorter diminutive
In the same way, if there's a culture the reader's supposed to see as "us", that can often (though not always) be given the most accessible language. Tolkien did this in an extreme way, by "translating" hobbit names into English, though it's not necessary to go to that extent.
It can also help to flag up when a name's supposed to be difficult. Michael Moorcock did this, for instance, in his Elric novella The Jade Man's Eyes, where Elric is asked about a legendary city built by an ancient, unhuman race:
"You mean R'lin K'ren A'a?" Elric pretended a lack of interest he no longer felt."Aye. A strange name. You pronounce it more fluently than could I."
What Moorcock's telling us here, very succinctly, is Yes, I know it looks a mouthful. It's meant to — that's the whole point.
Nevertheless, pandering to narrow cultural prejudices isn't what fantasy's supposed to be about. If readers are never given challenging names in fiction, chances are they won't try to cope with them in real life, and that way lies intolerance, division and strife.
Fantasy is fun. At its best, it's a roller-coaster ride of exuberant entertainment, but it can be other things at the same time. It can challenge readers, help them confront and overcome their prejudices; but not if writers constantly give in to those prejudices.
And, in any case, where's the fun in reading about Bob the Barbarian and his true love Brittany?