Saturday, April 16, 2011

Worldbuilding A to Z: L is for Language

I will never be able to invent languages like Tolkien. (Who can?) It is through names and terminology that I must attempt the conceit of different languages in my WIP. I want the names in my world to seem genuine, like they truly evolved out of diverse but coherent  natural languages. The problem is that I am terrible at making up any names myself. What does a writer do? In my case, I will be using names from real world languages using a different source language for each nation in my world. 

Obviously, in Akhet the source language will be Ancient Egyptian. Now there are unique difficulties with using that source. I can't actually learn the language without a long period of extensive study and maybe not even then. I can't even obtain a useful dictionary of the language. I tried, but the books I found with large glossaries notated the Egyptian words as they would have been written, without their vowels. That's not much use to me. So I have settled on simply compiling a list of names of actual Ancient Egyptian people from my research. I have in many cases managed to isolate the meaning of the different word components of the names. By doing this with any name I can kind a translation of, I can assemble a list of word components that I can mix and match if I want to create a name that means a specific thing.

For instance, the name of the second King of the sixth dynasty was Userkare which is translated as "The Soul of Ra is Strong". Now I can see that the "re" at the end of the name refers to Re/Ra and if you read my post yesterday you know that "ka" is usually translated as "soul". Therefore I can surmise that the "User" element of the name refers to strength.

Right now I have used this method with two important characters' names. My MC's companion and sometimes POV character is named Setekhpenre. The element "pen" I have seen used in enough names where it is connected to the name of a god (penre or penamun) to guess that it refers to being "chosen of" the god in question. Setekhpenre is indeed a person "chosen of Re" for a specific task in my story. My MC is called Kamose. Ka, of course, referring once again to that soul like element of the social self I discussed yesterday. "Mose" can be isolated from names like Thutmose as meaning "born of". Therefore my MC is "born of his ka". That will have significance.

One further concern when working with such names is trying to keep them from being too unwieldy for readers. I am fully aware that in using a language so unfamiliar to English speakers I am risking frustrating my readers. Because of that I have tried to chose and assemble names that are as easy as possible to pronounce while still maintaining the Egyptian feel. In addition, I will most likely include a pronunciation guide for all my names. I've always appreciated those in fantasy books I've read.

What do you think of the names I mentioned above? (Two other names I am using are Asetnofret and Nebetah.) Do you find them too difficult? Would a pronunciation guide be enough to stave off any frustration on your part? Let me know how you like your fantasy names.


  1. Fascinating post. Personally, I don't like to read books where I have no idea how to pronounce the names. A guide would be a big help!

    Glad to have met you through A to Z.

    Ellie Garratt

  2. I'm rather a fan of books where I can't be sure of the pronunciation. Perhaps a guide tucked away at the back is useful in cases like that, in the sense we may need to speak the names one day.

  3. Just my opinion, but that first name you gave as an example is four syllables long and that could get hard to manage for a reader. On the other hand, it is distinct and not terribly difficult to pronounce so it's probably fine.

    I've seen pronunciation guides in other books and it helps. I know it can pull me out of the story if I can't get the character's name right in my head.

    Whew, you're almost caught up. I don't know how you do it.

  4. Have you ever taken a look at M.A.R. Barker's Tekumel books? The only one I've read is the first one: Man of Gold. He was a linguist like Tolkien, and he loaded his book up with pronunciation information. Brust also did this in some of his books that were set in a fantasy Hungary. I personally like going on the side of heavy guide, but I bet I'm a minority among readers, there. No guides make me sad.

    Have you looked at any of those Learn Egyptian books that they tend to have at museums for kids? I bet those would help.

    Is your setting actually Egypt or an analogue of ancient Egypt? If the later and you're not a linguist, I'd give myself some freedom to take word elements and stick them together and not worry if you messed up the forms. You could even vary them slightly to make them sound better to your ear. After all, this is AEJPT or what-have-you. Otherwise, make friends with an Egyptologist!

    I'm good with all your names, although I might question "Asetnofret." Unless I'm giving myself permission to do something Dickensian, I avoid names that might suggest something to the English ear or eye. "No fret."

  5. When creating a society with its complex language, the best thing to do is to keep it simple, memorable for the reader. I stop reading books when I can't follow and recall names and such.

  6. I tend to ignore pronounciation guides in books. I also prefer short names and if they aren't short I'd shorten them in my head anyway hahaha. I love your careful way of devising names. Very cool.

  7. I think pronunciations are very contextual in terms of the story. I find that if I'm reading a fantasy and it has loads of difficult names I tend to look at it as part of the experience (learning to say them). However, if it's a book with mostly typical names and they throw in two or three zingers, it can get a little tiresome. Probably just me ...

    Tolkien was a genius. I've started watching the 'Game of Thrones' television series on HBO recently and saw a special where they had a linguistics scholar develop one of the languages for the show. Really cool stuff, and I'm right there with you on wishing I had that ability/talent.

  8. Thanks for all your thoughts, that's very instructional.

    As far as trying to learn Egyptian, perhaps someday I will, for fun. (The way someday I want to learn Quenya for fun.) But at this point I don't want further research to stall my writing process. I want to get this thing written and move on to other stories that may take place in other parts of the map.

    It seems a pronunciation guide is my best bet (at the back of the book so as to be easily avoided). And probably also a glossary of terms that I borrow directly from Egypt.


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