Tag Archives: names

What’s in a Name?: Alphabet

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Here it is — the final post of our What’s in a Name? series. Today we’re talking about alphabets.

alphabet spiralWell, actually not about alphabets. While you can create a whole new alphabet for your language, it’s a lot of work to do just to create names. Especially since unless you’re writing out all of your game materials by hand, you’ve got to create either a true font or a set of dingbats to represent your new alphabet.

You can actually create something unique by using Roman letters. After all, most languages in Europe and the Americas all use some variation of Roman letters and they all manage to look different.

(Photo courtesy of: http://www.flickr.com/photos/fdecomite/ / CC BY 2.0)

Go Back to Your Sounds

Remember the list of sounds we made back on the Day 2? It’s time to pull that out. What you want to do is assign one letter or letter combination to every sound you have. What you’re creating here is actually called an orthography.

Now, you can mix up the letters and sounds — but I wouldn’t recommend it. What I mean by that is, you can assign the “sh” sound to the letter “a”. I wouldn’t recommend it because it’ll be a constant headache for you and your players. You’ll constantly have to look back and forth between your  names and your “alphabet” and I’d be very surprised if your players didn’t revolt by the second game session as they try to remember that “Shewsberry” is actually pronounced “thantcamms”.

What you do want to do though, is settle on one way of writing each phoneme you have. Even though in English (for example) “c” can make an “s” or a “k” sound and more than one letter in the alphabet can make the same sound, for simplicity’s sake, I’d recommend one sound, one letter combinations.  That way, you know that “Cebunclane” is always pronounced “ke-bunk-la-ne” and not “see-boon-clain”.

A Note About Diacritics

One obvious way to make your language look different is by using a lot of diacritics. But this can also create a huge headache as you have to remember how to type them or pause frequently while writing to use the “insert special character” (or equivalent) function of your computer. And if you ever want to post your names online, keep in mind that HTML has a very limited set of special characters it supports.

You can actually get a very different look to your names just by using combinations of letters not normally found in English and peppered with a few very common diacritics. Here’s some examples:

  • Nord-Pas-de-Calais (French)
  • Lübeck (German)
  • Zaragoza (Spanish)
  • Algyógy (Hungarian)
  • Bizusa-Bâi (Romanian)

Have fun with this. It can be some work, initially, but once you’ve created it, it really does help give your world a unique flavor. Then, if you decide you do want to create a full language for your world at a later date, you’ve already laid some of the foundation work.

This article series was inspired by Mark Rosenfelder’s Language Construction Kit and I’ve drawn on it heavily as a resource. If you’re interested in a creating a language of your own, his site is a great place to start.

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What’s in a Name? Stress is Good

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Stress the right syllable
Image by quinn.anya via Flickr

It’s day 3 of our series on creating a naming language and today we’re talking about stress. Not that kind of stress — this is the emphasis we place on one syllable over the others within a word or name. Setting a set stress pattern for names can help keep your language from sounding like English with funny pronunciations.

In English, we learn which syllables to stress on a word-by-word basis. Indeed, different regions of the English speaking world can stress different syllables of the same word and names are no exception. Changing the stress pattern of word or name can change it’s pronunciation. For example, most non-natives will pronounce my home region of Oregon’s Willamette valley as WILL-a-met or-EE-gone, when it’s actuality pronounced will-A-met (to rhyme with “damn it”) OR-e-gun. Another example is the word “laboratory”. In American English, the stress is on the first syllable (LAB-or-a-tory) while in England, the stress is on the second syllable (lab-OR-a-tory).

Other languages are more regular. Hungarian stresses the first syllable, while Polish stresses the second-to-last syllable. Other languages can have more complex stress rules, depending on vowel placement within a syllable or length of syllable. My language slightly stresses the last syllable of a word.

You certainly don’t need to set a fixed stress pattern, but it can help make your language sound distinct

Next time: Pitch

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What’s in a Name? The Music of Language

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Welcome to Day 2 of our series on creating a naming language."I love you" in several languages

Every language has its own particular sound. Japanese sounds different from Spanish and few people would mistake guttural German for tonal Chinese. Frequently, with just a little education, we can tell which language is being spoken, even if we don’t we don’t know a word of it. To me, each language has its own particular music and once I figure out the music, it’s easier for me to learn or create a new language.

Step to Your Music

Our naming language should also have it’s own music. What do you want your language to sound like, overall? Is it lilting and musical, straight-forward and down to earth, or harsh and demanding? What kind of people live in this area? Are they extremely poetic, which could lead to a fluid-sounding language. Or are they “salt of the Earth” farmers, who are more likely to create names that are practical and straight-forward?

The Beginning of Language

Your next step is to find out what letters give you that sound when spoken together. For example, Tolkein’s Elvish has a lot of l’s and vowel sounds, making it sound fluid and musical, while his Orcish is harsh and gutteral. Think about the languages you speak and find the phonemes1 that will give you the sounds you’re looking for.  If you’re still needing inspiration, check out some language learning sites on-line that have examples of spoken languages. I’d actually recommend listening to languages you don’t understand, so you can focus on the music of a language and not get bogged own in the words. What sounds do you hear that you’d like to use? Write them down phonetically in a way that makes sense to you.

The Sounds Take Care of Themselves

Every language has some phonemes or sounds (letters) that are more common than others. This is a large part of what gives each language its own sound. For English e, t, r, and a are among the most common letters used. In a language I’m currently creating, the most common sounds in the language are hard k, ts (like the Russian ‘tsar’), short a, long e, and m. Take your phonetic list and rank the phonemes in order of frequency. I usually go most frequent to least frequent, but you can use any method that works for you. Separate out the vowels and consonants into their own lists and rank them individually.

That’s it for today. Next time we’ll cover the importance of stress.

1pho.neme (n). any of the abstract units of the phonetic system of a language that correspond to a set of similar speech sounds (as the velar \k\ of cool and the palatal \k\ of keel) which are perceived to be a single distinctive sound in the language.
Meirram-Webster Online Dictionary

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What’s in a Name? Language!

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Creating names can be one of the most challenging parts of creating a game setting. Sure, you can name things whatever happens to come to mind, but that can create names from all over the map (literally, if you’re borrowing names from the real world). You can end up with the Boxboggle river in the city of Sparrow Hill in the country of Wwoauntyz on Planet Q. While that kind of naming is common in the modern US, it doesn’t really help give players the feeling that your setting could be a real place.

street signs(Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/philliecasablanca/ / CC BY 2.0)

Another option is to use words that describe something about the area. For example, Meadowbrook or Razorback Wallow. This is often a good choice. Because you’re using names from one language (usually the language your group speaks), these names often have a more unified field. They feel as if they come from the same culture and they can give your players an idea of the culture of an area.

There’s a third option, though. You can create a naming language.

What’s a naming language?

Unlike creating a full speaking language (which can be fun, but takes a lot of time and energy investment), naming languages have a few simple rules and can be created in an evening. Your goal here isn’t to create  an in-depth grammer and lexicon; it’s to create some rules about letter and sound patterns so that your names feel as if they all came from the same culture.

How to Create a Naming Language

Naming languages can be very simple to create. Creating full languages can involve creating new consonant and vowel sounds, as well as pronouns, grammar, sentence structure, standard word order … whew! Before you feel overwhelmed, remember that your sole purpose here is to create names. That’s it. You don’t need a complicated grammar or set of pronouns or whatnot. The names you’re creating don’t even have to mean anything (though they can, if you wish). You’re just looking for something that sounds internally consistent.

I’ve broken the process down into a series of steps, which I’ll cover next week over the course of several blog entries. These steps are:

  1. Decide what your language sounds like.
  2. Choose the most common sounds.
  3. Figure out the stress patterns of your names.
  4. Create tones.
  5. Determine sound constraints.
  6. Create an “alphabet” and pronunciation guide.

Other Sources

There are some excellent resources on line for creating languages, if you’d like more in-depth information. Here’s some of my favorites:

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Beyond ‘Fred’: Russian Names for Characters

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Russian Nesting Dolls

Sometimes the hardest part of building a character is  coming up with a good name. You can always take a name from Tolkien or other fantasy novels, but you’ve seen those names over and over and you want something a little different, but not way out there. How about an historical name? Or one from a different culture? In the first “Beyond ‘Fred'” post, I covered Roman names. If Roman names aren’t your cup of tea, how about Russian ones?

[Photo courtesy of: http://www.flickr.com/photos/aussiegall/ / CC BY 2.0]

Russian Name Structure

Russian names are complex, as many people have not only a given name but also several nicknames, based on the their relationship with the speaker. Because of this, I’m using a very simplified Russian naming method.

In general, Russian names consist of two elements: a given name and a patronymic. Russian patronymic names are based on the father’s given name, with a ending that depends on the character’s sex:

-ov for a man, -ova for woman

So Boris, son of Ivan would be Boris Ivanov. Ivan’s daughter Susan would be Susan Ivanova. Women usually retain their own last names, even after they’re married. There is an exception to this — if the person is a member of the ruling class, the ending is different:

-vitch for a man, -vitcha for a woman.

If the father’s name ends in a consonant, add the ending becomes -ovitch or -ovitcha. So Boris, the son of Ivan who’s a prince would be Boris Ivanovitch and Susan would be Ivanovitcha.

For a really good, in depth coverage of creating a Russian patronymic, see Paul Goldschidt’s Dictionary of Russian Names — Grammer.

List of Names

This also includes nicknames based on the given names, where I know them.

Male Names

  • Alexandr (Sasha, Shurik, Alex)
  • Alexei
  • Arkady
  • Boris
  • Budimir
  • Busla
  • Dmitri (Dima, Dimka)
  • Erema
  • Fedor
  • Fyodor
  • Georgi
  • Grigory (Grisha)
  • Ilya
  • Ivan (Vanya)
  • Kirill
  • Lev
  • Login
  • Mikhail (Misha/Mika)
  • Petr
  • Sergei
  • Solovei
  • Roman
  • Vasily (Vashya)
  • Vladimir (Vova)
  • Viktor (Vitya)
  • Vyslav
  • Yuri

Female Names

  • Anastasia
  • Darya
  • Ekatarina (Katya)
  • Eugenia (Zhenya)
  • Irina
  • Katarina
  • Marya
  • Maya
  • Nataliya (Natasha)
  • Olga
  • Sofia
  • Svetlana (Svetla)
  • Titania
  • Vasilia
  • Yana
  • Zhanna

Sources:

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Beyond ‘Fred’: Roman Names for Characters

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Finding a good name is sometimes the hardest part of designing an NPC. You want something more exotic than “Fred the Fighter”, but “Frewxyque the Grand Thunder Duke” becomes too hard to say with a straight face after the first first time.  Baby name books can help, but some of the best names come from real-world sources. Beyond ‘Fred’ is a series that lists names from various sources broken down by region and/or time period.

<div xmlns:cc="http://creativecommons.org/ns#" about="http://www.flickr.com/photos/consciousvision/3388909371/"><a rel="cc:attributionURL" href=This time we have Roman names. Since my interest here is in providing name ideas for RPGs, I’m not breaking these names down by Roman time-period. I’m including a list of resources at the end of this article for those wishing more in-depth information about Roman names.

(Photo courtesy of Flickr, © Conscious Vision 2007)

Roman Name Structure

Roman names had several parts, frequently becoming long and complex:

  • Praenomen: A personal name. This was primarily used by family members and very close friends only. Romans had very few praenomen; typically the first child would be given the father’s praenomen (adjusted to a feminine form, if the child was a girl).  The second child would receive the praenomen of someone else in the family — and uncle, perhaps.
  • Nomen: Indicates which gens the person belongs to. The gens is a group of loosely organized families all sharing the same nomen. A woman would use the feminine form of the nomen, formed by substituting ‘-a’ for the ‘-us’ ending.
  • Cognomen: A family name used by a group of blood relatives. It was a name unique to the individual and usually referred to something specific about him — usually a physical characteristic. Like a nickname, it wasn’t given to a child as part of the name given by his parents; it could be inherited from a male relative or chosen by concensus in the general community. Cognomen were almost never complementary — usually they were neutral, or even insulting names.

Common Praenomenia

Here are some of the most commonly used prenomen:

  • Gaius/Gaia
  • Lucius/Lucia
  • Marcus/Marcia
  • Quintus/Quinta
  • Titus/Tita
  • Tiberius/Tiberia
  • Descimus/Descima
  • Aulus/Aula
  • Servius/Servia
  • Appius/Appia

Common Nomenia

Here are some of the most common nomen:

  • Acilius/Acilia
  • Aebutius/Aebutia
  • Albius/Albia
  • Antonius/Antonia
  • Cassius/Cassia
  • Claudius/Claudia
  • Calidius/Calidia
  • Didius/Didia
  • Fabius/Fabia
  • Flavius/Flavia
  • Galerius/Galeria
  • Genucius/Genucia
  • Laelius/Laelia
  • Marius/Maria
  • Mocius/Mocia
  • Naevius/Naevia
  • Ovidius/Ovidia
  • Porcius/Porcia
  • Rutilius/Rutilia
  • Sentius/Sentia
  • Sergius/Sergia
  • Tarquitius/Tarquitia
  • Tuccius/Tuccia
  • Tullius/Tullia
  • Vedius/Vedia
  • Vibius/Vibia
  • Vitruvius/Vitruvia

Common Cognomina

Here’s a list of common cognomen and their meanings. Many female cognomia are the same as the male versions:

  • Aculeo/Aculeo – prickly, unfriendly
  • Albus/Alba – fair-skinned, white
  • Ambustus/Ambusta – scalding, burning
  • Atellus/Atella – dark (haired or skinned)
  • Bassus/Bassa – plump
  • Bibulus/Bibula – drunkard
  • Brocchus/Broccha – Toothy
  • Bucco/Bucco – fool
  • Caecus/Caeca – Blind
  • Calidus/Calida – hot-headed, rash
  • Calvus/Calva – bald
  • Caninus/Canina – dog-like
  • Celsus/Celsa – tall
  • Cicurinus/Cicurina – mild, gentle
  • Corvinus/Corvina – crow-like
  • Dives/Dives – wealthy
  • Dorsuo/Dorsuo – large black
  • Fimbria/Fimbria – fringes, edges of clothing
  • Flavus/Flava – blond-haired
  • Florus/Flora – floral, blooming
  • Galeo/Galeo – helmet
  • Gurges/Gurges – greedy, prodigal
  • Laterensis/Laterensis – from the hill-side
  • Lepidus/Lepida – charming, amusing
  • Licinus/Licina – spiky or bristly haired
  • Lurco/Lurco – glutonous, greedy
  • Macer/Macra – thin
  • Merula/Merula – blackbird
  • Mus/Mus – mouse
  • Natta/Natta – artisan
  • Paetus/Paeta – blinking, squinty
  • Plancus Planca – flat-footed
  • Priscus/Prisca – ancient
  • Pullus/Pulla – child
  • Quadratus/Quadrata – squat, stocky build
  • Regulus/Regula – prince
  • Rufus/Rufa – red-haired, ruddy
  • Rullus/Rulla – rustic, uncultivated, boorish
  • Scaeva/Scaeva – left-handed
  • Silanus/Silana – nose, water-spout
  • Varro/Varro – block-headed
  • Varus/Vara – bow-legged
  • Vatia/Vatia – knock-kneed
  • Vetus/Vetus – old

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Resources: