Fantasy Names

It is a cliché that character and place names in fantasy fiction should be ‘strange’. The more distant in time and space, the weirder the names. The reason isn’t hard to divine. Unfamiliar character and place names helps to set the action in an unfamiliar place and time. After all, you’ll find no Bill or Ted in the Bhagavad Gita or in Shui Hu Zhuan (The Water Margin or ‘Outlaws of the Marsh’, considered one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature, attributed to Shi Naian).

Even Professor Tolkien when peopling his Middle Earth adhered to the same—though for the most part his names were taken from various versions of ancient Germanic (Old English, Old Norse, Old Frankish) with a smattering of Slavic; and where he created anew still he drew upon Old English and Norse. But, while generally conforming, it will be noted that George Lucas broke with the tradition when he named his hero ‘Luke Skywalker’. (Was this a case of the author projecting himself into the action?)

Unfortunately, some fantasy writers forget that their created names must be pronounced by their readers and those readers, being human, are limited in their articulation by the restraints of the human vocal equipment. MRI scans have shown that internal voicing (the way most people read) still accesses the same equipment. I’ve encountered several names that in my head I’m forced to substitute ‘wazzis name’.

Readers of my blogs, both Feast Fables and the stories posted here on crimsonprose will now retort that, oops, I do the same. In fact, I have been asked to provide a Pronunciation Guide for Alsalda (see below).

There are three sources for the names in my stories (four if we count modern English).

In Feast Fables 1, the names are drawn from two dialects (Usaric and Gusrikt) of a fictitious tongue, with no attempt to connect these to any known or surviving language. These fictitious dialects provided the Usaric names of the Uissids (sons of Uissinir): Olun, Urinod, Jiar, Huat, Zrone, Torund, Ypsi, Gimmerin, and Raesan; and the Gusrikt sisters Kerrid and Barega, all of whom weave their way through subsequent stories found in Neve and the more recent Priory Project, and Alsalda that’s now beginning.

In Feast Fables 2 Kerrid encounters an entirely different people. And I wanted to show the resultant culture shock. For that I created a language, Erbhelmn (move over Tolkien!). Even at the time of Feast Fables 2 ‘Erbhelmn’ had several dialectal versions, one of them (Ulmfrehelmn) being the native language of Chadtamen and his sister Amblushe in Feast Fables 3.

The Alsime and Ulvregan, two of the peoples Julia encountered at Destination in Priory Project, are descendants of the Ulmfrehemn. Hence their names look much the same. The names drawn from this created language continue into Alsalda (now beginning).

There are references in Priory Project of other peoples. The Himen, the Eskin, Kerdolan, Ormalin, Tuätin, the Saëntoi, plus others. Some of these are destined to make dramatic entrance in Alsalda, particularly the western branch of the Tuätin, the Uestin.

The Tuätin—of whom the Saëntoi are a southern branch—speak Tuädik a (fictitious) Indo-European language. Since the ancient Ulmfrehelmn forms its substrate we find it occasionally intrudes to affect the vocabulary from which the names are formed.

And so, the promised . . .

Alisime and Uestin Pronunciation Guide

I’m going to keep this simple, for no matter where I say the stress should fall, still American-English speakers will prefer it one place, British-English speakers another. Ditto for where the word should be divided. These preferences are a feature of our similar and yet noticeably different language. The same holds for long and short vowels. (Witness the difference in England in the length of -a in such words as ‘path’ and ‘grass:’ northern short –a as in ‘ass’; southern long –a as in ‘arse’.) Yet there are features which might at first cause problems and which I address here.


  • –n ending

When following a vowel this –n presents no problem. But because it’s used to denote the plural (one eblan, two eblann) it often follows a consonant. Here -n is barely sounded (more like it’s swallowed), a mere touch of tongue to tooth.

It is also a common male name ending (Demekn, Bukplugn) where it is sounded like an unvoiced –in, never as a voiced –en.

  • –a ending

As with contemporary English, this is commonly found in female names (Alenta, Halalda). It is the schwa-sound ‘-ǝ’, exactly as in English.

  • –ah ending

Again, a common ending in female names (Detah) and denotes the longer –a sound as in ‘tar’.

  • –y– (initial and internal)

Found mainly in male names (Dannyn, in Priory Project); it’s sounded as in ‘yes’ and ‘yin’.

  • The diaeresis (double dots)

This indicates that the second, marked, vowel is sounded separate from the vowel preceding (Liënershi = Li-en-er-shē). I have used this, also, to clarify pronunciation in the rare Uestuädik name with a run of vowels.

  • -chi-

Occasionally found in names, it is the verb ‘to be’. It is sounded exactly as it looks.

Uestuädik (Uestin)

  • Initial U-

This is a tight W- sound, with the following vowel long (Uest = Weest, Uissid = Weezid).

  • –i ending

Sounded as a long –ē (Beli = Bel-ee, Rizzoni = Rizzōn-ee)

  • C-, -c-

C is always hard, as in ‘cat’, never soft as in ‘cent’.

I trust this quick guide has helped to untangle your tongues. Though I do confess, as Kerrid said upon her first encounter with the Erbhelmn language, it does have an excess of labials requiring a lot of lip-activity. Which probably explains why she describes the Ulmfrehemn (Feast Fables 2) as a hard-wanting (lustful) people.

About crispina kemp

Spinner of Asaric and Mythic tales
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2 Responses to Fantasy Names

  1. Joy Pixley says:

    I appreciate what you’re working through here and applaud what you’ve accomplished. And yes, I too feel the constraint of creating names and terms that (1) seem “foreign enough” but (2) are not so unintelligible that the readers can’t sound them out (and thus will have a hard time remembering them). Half the time I loop all the way around and end up creating words that are already real words in some other language — I count myself lucky when they’re not profanities. I also continue to struggle with keeping my languages in order, and am currently very frustrated that two languages with *completely* different origins have started sounding far too similar. Grrr. Your post inspires me to go attack that problem again, hooray!


    • crimsonprose says:

      I would say that I’m Tolkien-inspired, except my (call it) obsession with language, creating it etc, predates my reading of him. I was creating languages even when at school. So finally having an excuse to use it was brilliant. Maybe I should have been a linguist. (Ironically, I had to have speech therapy as a child; not for a stammer or lisp but because no one could understand what I said. I mangled the lingo!) But I know what you mean of constructed languages converging. It’s probably our brains trying to bring the alien into line with the familiar. Like I can usually see something representational in most abstract art.


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