Sunday, May 12, 2013

Fantasy Names - Diversity or Prejudice?

There tends to be a lot of debate about names in fantasy, with many people complaining about "unpronounceable" names.  The problem is, this is a very subjective complaint.  Unpronounceable by whom?  It's one thing if you encounter a character called Xxshkry'wwqivhx'shq, but I've read comments about Tolkien's names being unpronounceable, which I consider patently absurd.

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?


  1. Actually, I don't find it as necessary to use weird names in fantasy as I do in science fiction. Contemporary fantasy gets ordinary names, and fantasy set in a sword-and-sorcery world gets names like Berlina, Darvid, Felistia, Zatarra ... different, but not difficult.

    But when the alien descends from his flying saucer, and introduces himself as Captain Jraljat, and the other alien is Admiral Bzoglit, well ... Hey, they are aliens, not humans, they need really weird names. Or the three alien races: Bacarians (almost human), the K'Fuuutuu (far less human), and the Iyyllyardi (totally non-human). As the aliens get weirder, so do their names.

    Most of the names I use in fantasy are commonplace by comparison.

    1. Yes, SF has similar issues, and diversity-related themes can often be much more explicit there than in fantasy. As far a fantasy's concerned, I was thinking more of epic fantasy than anything, though even S&S can benefit from multiculturalism.

  2. Names can be an example of one of those "windows" into parts of your world you may or may not have time to explore in more depth. They can be a way of showing the reader that a wider world exists than your immediate story or novel setting, certainly.

    I think there are different traditions that come out in naming in traditional fantasy, but if you're shooting for a world that "feels" like there are cities where different cultures come together to trade and exchange knowledge, it makes sense to have some different kinds of names (and also to at least allude to the fact that people speak different languages etc.)

    I'm no linguist and am pretty sure most made from scratch names I could come up with would sounds like a bunch of nonsensical sounds, so I tend to "cheat" and borrow names (with some modifications) from real world cultures and locations. But unless your story takes place in a very isolated setting, a world where everyone had names like John, Mary and Susan would likely not exist.

    Sometimes really exotic (to us) names have been translated into something that is more familiar to speakers of a region's "dominant" language. For instance, Native Americans will often have a translated name, or even an English name (like Chief Joseph, whose real name Hinmaton-Yalaktit meant, roughly, Thunder Rolling in the heights in his people's language). I've seen this sort of approach taken in fantasy as well. Everyone calls the trader from over the mountains "Jeb" or "Aspen" because the locals can't pronounce his real name (or don't want to bother).

    Interesting thing is, in English, most of us have "forgotten" what the literal meaning of our names are in whatever old European language they came from. Maybe that's part of the difficulty. To many British and Americans, even our own names are a random assortment of sounds. What is a "John," for instance, (aside from the modern colloquialism for toilet)? Some surnames retain their meaning (like Smith), but except for flower and mineral names (Rose or Amber), most forenames do not. Could be why people often have a lot more trouble learning and remembering proper names in the real world too.

    I do get impatient with random-seeming accents etc. that do not really aid in pronunciation. If you're shooting for a Germanic feel by using umlauts, for instance, at least use them consistently and in a way that tells the reader how the word or name should really be pronounced.

    One thing I do try to do is to avoid having characters (especially ones who only show up a few times in the story) with relatively similar sounding unfamiliar names. The "oh darn, I keep mixing up Riordh the innkeeper with Rordon the stable keeper" syndrome can be frustrating as a reader, especially when keeping these minor characters straight is important to the plot. If there's a reason for having the names similar, maybe it can possibly be worked into the story by having the pov character possibly have an issue with their similarities as well.

    I didn't have trouble with most of Tolkien's names, though I did get razzed by a friend who was a bigger Geek than I am for mis pronouncing the name of Legolas the elf. Still, thinking of him as Lego LASS instead of Leg O las for the first 2-3 readings in no way diminished my enjoyment of the saga ;)

    1. All good points. I did make the point that elements like apostrophes and accents have to be used appropriately, not just scattered around to make the name look cool.

      The similar names issue can be awkward if you're shooting for a culture (as Tolkien was, based on Old English) where family members might have related names (Eomer and Eowyn, for instance) but here again you can minimise the effect by careful choice. The hardest thing is probably when names feel quite different to the writer, who already has a full set of associations for them, but might still confuse the reader. I've had a few of those.

  3. I think you have said it all. Anything goes, just like in the real world, as long as it is linguistically consistent. Umlauts on the wrong letter, accents that serve no logical pronounciation guide, clusters of random consonants just show an ignorance about how language works. Having said that some names used in the 'real' world ARE just random sounds put together by parents after originality. In my fantasy worlds I like to have cultures that care about the names they stick on their children.

    1. Yes, although the umlaut can also be a diarhesis, indicating that two vowels are pronounced separately. I have a people called the Beëlta, where the accent shows it has three syllables, whereas Beelta might just have two.

      Most of the more traditional names we use do have meanings, of course, but most people don't bother to find out what they are. Unless they're like me. I've always been proud that my full name (Nicholas) means Victory of the People.

  4. This warrants more thumbs up than I possess. Excuse me while I get my knife.

    1. You mean you don't have prehensile toes?

  5. This is the key, I feel; 'meet the reader halfway'. I've gone through a fair name-paring process with my fantasy quartet, which were written firstly as pure personal entertainment, and originally contained not only a swag of diacritics, but two languages other than English. I was able to retain a vestige of them in spell-words, which can be understood by the context of how they are being used and for what purpose.

  6. The adventures of Bob and Brittany the barbarians? Hmmm. [Scratches chin]. I see humor potential here.

    But you've promised us some tales about Bob's brother, Ug, first, I believe ;)