We love to make up worlds in speculative fiction, but for some reason, making up words can be way more difficult. Why is that, and is there a way to make it easier? That’s what we’re talking about today. We’ll cover exciting topics like naming your aliens, comprehension scarcity, and why you should always say a new word out loud a couple times before adding it to the final draft.
Generously transcribed by Suzanne. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris and with me is…
Chris: Now imagine if before you could understand us in this podcast, we made you memorize a bunch of new words. Oh, crap. We’ve already done it. That’s true. Oh no. Okay.
Oren: Can I interest you in some process advice?[Laughter]
Chris: Okay. Okay. Let’s pretend that we made up words our listeners had to memorize, not because they represent new concepts we need words for, but so that we can pretend things are new and fancy when they aren’t. So for now on we’re just going to call a plot “causal sequence™” and the patent on “causal sequence” is pending, by the way. I’m building my brand.
Oren: I mean, that’s still better than just making up a completely new word for a thing we already have a word for. Like, instead of “writers” from now on, we’re going to call them “inkerers” because they ink things. That’s what they’re called now. Don’t let me hear you call it a “writer.” It’s called an “inkerer.”
Chris: I like that we have two “ers” in this: “inkerer.”
Oren: I mean, look, I’m just giving you the full experience of what it’s like to open a fantasy book and be hit by a ton of made up words. All words are made up. Languages are fake. Reality is a hologram. Buy gold. Anyway, moving on.
Chris: If we compare the difference between making up words, ‘cause we want to sound fancy or sophisticated, and what we typically do in this podcast, I hope, it’s actually not a bad way to look at when you should make up words for your fantasy world or your scifi world, whatever have you. It’s about whether or not you’re trying to communicate clearly. Do you need a word to communicate clearly? If you really do have something in your world that is completely different than anything else, and you need a word for it so that you can communicate to your audience, then that’s a reason to make up a word. Now, the other question is, have you decided to use a term because you’re trying to brand something essentially that actually isn’t new.
So if you have elves in your story, but you’ve decided to call them something that isn’t elves, a term that you made up for them that’s the name of that fantasy species in your world, they aren’t anything new. You could actually communicate what they are more clearly by using the word elves, or fae, or something people are familiar with, but you’ve chosen to give them another name to try to brand it as your own. In doing that, you’re also making it much more confusing for readers and making it harder for them to learn about your world.
Oren: Yeah, readers have a surprisingly small amount of attention span to learn new words. It’s always smaller than authors think it is.
Chris: It’s mostly about just how much do you want to be memorizing things, right? It’s about rote memorization, you know, are we going to use flash cards? If you’re not in school anymore, just think about all the work you had to do in school, memorizing facts and figures. That’s not really the experience people want to have when they pick up a book. Of course, we also have a third option, which is The City in the Middle of the Night when you use the existing words in misleading ways that again is not about communicating clearly. It creates confusion. So in The City in the Middle of the Night, we have Bisons, which are some unknown creature that comes out of nowhere, lightening fast, and then eats half of a person and disappears again.
Wes: It’s all teeth. Bison, baby![Laughter]
Oren: Or the aliens that they call crocodiles, which when they’re actually described sound more like lobsters than anything else and have nothing in common with crocodiles. It’s just the weirdest. The City in the Middle of the Night is kind of unique though.
Chris: That’s a really unusual issue. It’s possible, but that’s actually a pretty rare problem.
Wes: Yeah. But to that, I say it takes a while, several pages for me to remember someone’s name and so best practice: use it, meaningfully, in context, for good reason. Do that and we’ll remember the name of most things if you’re focusing on it. A lot of people forget that.
Oren: Names are actually a really big one though. People forget that names aren’t exempt from the “words that you have to memorize” rule. I really wish most English speakers didn’t have two names that are used in different contexts because, oh boy, that just doubles the number of names everyone needs to remember.
Wes: That’s the trauma of having to read Russian literature in high school. Everyone has like eight names. No one knows what’s happening.
Chris: It is kind of tricky sometimes because there are situations in which you introduce a character. And then it makes sense in some contexts to use their last name and in other contexts, you use their first name, but you can’t just start switching them off. Depending on how important the character is– If it’s a minor character, you’ve just got to choose one or use both names all the time. It doesn’t matter if it’s realistic. People cannot keep track if you suddenly switch a name for a character. But if it’s a major character, then you can eventually get it so that your audience knows what both their first name and their last name is, but you have to give them a chance for repeated exposure to learn them both and not try to make them remember it the very first time you introduced both names.
Oren: And do you really need that nickname? Do you? Because man, you had better need it if you expect me to remember a nickname.
Wes: The best example that comes to mind is Petal from A Memory Called Empire, and Reed, for 12 Azalea and Three Seagrass, but we did not get those nicknames until we knew who they were and their actual names. That was important.
Oren: Right. And those nicknames also followed logically from their actual names.
Oren: His name is a flower and so his nickname is Petal. Her name has “grass” in it, so her nickname is Reed. Those are super easy to remember compared to most nicknames.
Chris: The thing that I’ve seen writers do a couple of times that always is just no, nobody’s going to catch that is when they introduce somebody’s first and last name, and then they refer to them again by a nickname based on their last name, not their first.
Wes: Oh, no! That’s horrible.
Chris: I’ve seen that a couple of times now in my critiques on the site I’ve had them come up. No, you can’t. No, that’s too much. That takes way too much effort to try to figure out what you’re talking about, who you mean.
So anyway, cool thing about A Memory Called Empire, it sounds like, is that all the names are based on numbers paired with words that have meaning in English so that people can probably have an easier time remembering all the characters’ names, because they have meaning. At the same time, in many cases, we are used to names that don’t have a literal meaning to us. They’re just a collection of sounds. So, if you really want to add some conlanging for flavor, make up a language that feels consistent, if you’re going to do it, doing it with names is the best way to do it. Again, keeping in mind that you have a limited budget.
Wes: Good way to put it.
Chris: We talk about comprehension scarcity. People can only take in so much complex information and especially anything that they have to remember what it’s called any terms or names definitely is part of that. Very quickly. But you do have a limited budget. So, if you’re gonna make a little naming language, a lot of times that’s what they’re called when you make a fantasy language just for the purpose of naming things, names of people, and sometimes the places, are some of the better ways to do that. Now, I think a lot of times places still benefit from having actual words, but commenters pointed out in my post, you could be like, Mount A Name. So people know it’s a mountain.
Oren: So that’s an interesting thing with place names. I actually think that in some cases, the advice on this maybe goes a little too far in the other direction, because there are tons of memes about how you can absolutely give your place a descriptive name, because lots of places in real life have descriptive names. And yes, that’s true. But not all of them. And if you have a lot of place names in your story, like if your characters are traveling around and they’re all descriptive place names at that point, that’s going to start to feel silly. Some of them can certainly be, but they probably shouldn’t all be. At some point, you’re going to have to give a place a name that isn’t just a description of the local terrain.
Chris: I think you could probably, if you varied it up, have a lot of them come from the origin story of the place or other things. But that is somewhat of a good point. Like the Avatar setting does pretty well, but the names of the countries in Avatar are a little simplistic.
Oren: Avatar gets away with these things because it has these simplistic names of each of the countries. And then it goes with some descriptive names like the Air Temples are all just named the Northern Air Temple, the Southern Air Temple, et cetera. But then you have some cities like Ba Sing Se and Omashu. Those are both proper names and in particular they sound like names that aren’t English. I mean, Avatar’s fine. It gets away with it. But if they were naming lots of cities, that would start to get hard to keep track of.
Wes: What other cities do they name? What’s the name of the Fire Nation capital or is it “the Fire Nation Capital”?
Oren: It’s just “the Fire Nation Capital”. They don’t ever– if it has a name, they don’t give us one. I think there are only four towns that have names that aren’t a descriptive place name. There is Ba Sing Se and Omashu. Which, at least according to some translations I’ve seen, are descriptive names, just not in English. I’m not positive about that. It’s just a thing people on the internet have told me. And then there is Kyoshi island, which is named for a person and Chin Village, which is also named for a person. And I think that’s it.
Wes: That’s helpful. Good job. You remembered them all. I think every other place they go has a descriptive title.
Chris: If you think about the countries it’s: Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom, Water Tribe, right? Very simple and descriptive. Now of course, it’s also a kids show and it has kind of like a light flavor, so that might give it a little bit more leeway when giving things really simplistic names. But, I think you could probably, if you vary it up, do quite a lot with descriptive names.
Oren: Wait, there’s one more. There’s that Fire Nation river village they go to that has a non-descriptive name. I don’t remember what it is though, but I know it has one because I had to look it up for an RPG I was playing in.[Laughter]
Wes: I think if you’re writing in English and making up words, you might pay attention to, Hey, this word I just made up. Is there any chance the person reading it is going to pronounce it? Because I forget words if I can’t, in my little head, try to figure out how I would sound it out, which is why I don’t remember any Elvish in Lord of the Rings. At all. Because I have no idea how it sounds. And no, the movie did not help.[Laughter]
Oren: Oh man, that was a problem in To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, the Paolini book that came out last year. This is a real doozy, this was my favorite. So we run into these aliens and they have a scent based language. So they don’t make sounds at all. And the protagonist can understand them because of some advanced tech that she has, but other characters can’t. And she even thinks about how these scents that they have don’t really translate into words because again, they aren’t words, there’s no phonetics. And then suddenly out of nowhere, she’s pulling out a bunch of proper names.
Like you guys are the Wranaui, that’s what we’re calling these aliens now. And you, you are Ctein, that’s what we’re calling you. That’s what your scent translates to somehow. And so it was already just like, What is happening? Where did these sounds come from? And then also for some reason, Paolini decided to spell it weird because Wranaui has a silent w at the front. Why would you put a silent w in a word you just invented for an alien species that doesn’t even use sound for their language? Why would you do this?
Wes: That sounds like a stylesheet nightmare for an editor.
Chris: I do want to add just a caveat that sometimes depending on the world building choices, if you are reading a story that is based on somebody using words from another real world language that they’re using, like their own culture and own folklore, to be respectful. As writers, if you can make words pronounceable easily to your audience, they like that better. But at the same time, if we’re reading a book that is based on another culture to not get entitled about the words and whether or not they’re pronounceable, right? Because that is an actual real thing that happens to people who are bringing in words from their heritage and their culture and they have a bunch of readers who are just disrespectful about the names.
Oren & Wes: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
Chris: So just want to put in that little caveat there, that when we’re talking about this, you have a fantasy language and you can make it however you want. And so if you know, you have a mostly English speaking audience, you can make it easily pronounceable by them. But that doesn’t mean that there are no situations in which you would serve an English speaking audience, words that are not easily pronounceable.
Wes: It just will help me remember.
Oren: Just remember, you want to dunk on the scent based aliens with silent Ws and not the real people who have names that don’t sound Western. That’s the rule to remember: always dunk on the scent based aliens.
Wes: To piggyback on Chris’s notion of modern languages and other languages besides English, if you have a story that is not dealing in Russian folklore, but there’s a mermaid, but you decided to call it a rusalochka. Don’t do that. Just call it a mermaid. You shouldn’t cherry-pick folklore names if your story’s not about that folklore, just because it sounds cooler or it sounds different.
Chris: You’re talking about stories that are not actually about Russian folklore specifically?
Wes: Yes. So a mermaid in Russian can be called a rusalochka, but there’s all kinds of folklore involved with that. But if you have a story that takes place in the Caribbean and there are mermaids and you decided you wanted to call them, because it’s mysterious, I would recommend not doing that. It’s an actual word from a different culture.
Oren: You’re getting into problems of exoticism there, right? And when it comes to problematic places to do that, Russian is not the highest on the list. I would agree with you: generally that’s not a good idea.
Chris: If nothing else, it’s breaking theme. It would be different if we were creating a setting that was a Russian folklore setting.
Wes: In that case, it would be appropriate, yeah.
Oren: Or maybe you have some mermaids who are from Russia and they introduce themselves that way. I don’t know.
Wes: This is a bit of a thesaurus problem. You’re confronted with a name of a thing, but you just think it’s boring or lots of people use it all the time. And so you say, okay, let’s look into thesaurus of what is this concept in other languages? Maybe I could adopt that cause it sounds neat. Which I am guilty of for role-playing games and stuff like that. I’ve done that. But it’s never been to great effect. So I stopped doing it cause everybody’s like, oh, this… yeah.
Chris: In the end naming something a different name doesn’t actually give it novelty.
Wes: Right. But people think it does. And we’re here to tell you no.
Chris: No, it doesn’t. It just makes it harder to understand what you’re referring to. You got to make your mermaids different than other mermaids if you want them to have novelty and then people will appreciate that regardless of what you call them.
Oren: So here’s a question: Is there a way that I can judge whether a made up word is going to sound silly or not? Because right now, the only way I have to do that is by saying it out loud a few times and seeing if it makes me snicker. I don’t think that’s a very accurate test.
Chris: I think there are worse tests. I mean, the problem is that language is so complicated that if you’re not a linguist, that’s just always going to be tough. You could try saying it in spoken conversation with somebody else. I do think there are few tips for making made up words in your conlang that sound a little bit more natural. One is just to keep in mind that the more common the word is the fewer syllables it will have. Because that’s how we naturally evolve. That’s why we don’t call email “electronic mail” anymore. Right? Now, it’s a less common term and it’s getting more syllables added.
So again, don’t make anything too many syllables, if it wouldn’t actually have that many syllables. Another thing is to keep in mind that across languages, it’s found that we change the sounds based on the meaning. So the word for snow is going to generally have softer sounds in it. Whereas the words like cut or chop, we’re using hard consonants. That’s actually a trend that is true across languages. So having a language that’s entirely hard sounds, some languages could have harder sounds than others, but there’s a tendency to be like, this is the super soft-sounding language and the super hard-sounding language. That sort of neglects nuance within those languages and the way that they would have different sounds in them for different meanings.
Oren: Right. Plus the concept of a hard or soft sounding language is often bundled with a lot of really racist ideas. So, you know, that’s another reason not to do that.
Wes: I think, Oren, I wouldn’t worry too much about it sounding silly cause I just think. I mean with the proper context and what it is, you know… With no context, Babadook is kind of a silly name, and it’s very much not. Make a word that you like, and it sounds good to you and then use it well.
Oren: Consider these examples. So in The Name of the Wind, in the framing device, there’s an elf or fairy-type guy who follows the main character around and calls him reshi. Which, if I recall my Wiki dive correctly, is basically like a fairy word for teacher. But it sounded very weird to me. More like a diminutive, like a cute pet name you would have for either a child or a romantic partner. Every time he said it, it sounded like he was saying, Hey babe. And of course there are other things in there that have like romantic connotations between Kvothe and this guy, even though Kvothe is painfully straight in this book.
And then in the Fifth Season, they made up a word for earth magic. Instead of calling it geomancy, it is a word that is spelled with an O, but the narrator pronounces it with an E sound. And so it sounds like “ergogeny”, which sounds like it’s supposed to be sexy.
Wes: Yeah it does.
Oren: Even though “ergogeny”, isn’t actually a word I found out it’s erogenous or ergogenic, it sounds like it’s supposed to be the Y-version of those words.
Chris: Those all have ties to words in English with certain connotations. We have lots of nicknames that end with an E sound. So that’s probably where the idea of reshi sounding like it’s a diminutive or like a cutesy name. And again, linguistics is so complicated that most writers don’t have the time to do that level of study. So I feel like the best is saying it, saying it with somebody else asking a few other people what it sounds like. I’m not sure that there is a more calculated method that will enable you to do better than that.
Oren: One thing I can warn people about is be very careful when you give something a rhyming name, I’m not going to say you never should. But rhymes really stand out. And so if you give someone a rhyming name, that name is really calling attention to itself. And if there isn’t a reason for that, it can start to feel really weird, especially in audio. It’s maybe not as much of a problem in text because you might not notice the rhyme, but when you’re writing these names, think about how they’re pronounced. Cause you’ll probably want an audio version of your book if it gets published.
Chris: Another thing, just to think about if you are doing a naming language or something: The thing that a lot of writers want to do before I say this is they really want to make a whole language and do things like have your protagonists say a whole line in this other language, this conlang they invented, and then translate it in italics or something. And okay, you’ve got to need to really think about how many meaningless words you’re putting on the page. If the reader can’t understand the word, it’s like having words on the page that have been redacted or scribbled out. It’s just a bunch of meaningless letters. And putting that before the reader, if you do it in tiny, tiny portions, and they actually give it context so that they can learn a few words or a specific phrase, short phrase that is used over and over again in the same kind of cultural function, like it’s a goodbye or hello, for instance, and people can kind of solely actually learn what it means so that it’s no longer just meaningless letters on the page, but you definitely don’t want to do that.
Having a protagonist that knows the language is also the worst place to come from here because you want an ignorant protagonist if you really want to show off a language. You want a protagonist that doesn’t know it. They can learn it with the readers. Regardless if you’re going to have, for instance, a bunch of world terms for places, names for people for things.
One of the most essential things you can do when your novel or story opens is simply not throw in too many at a time. And I’ve just read so many openings where it’s like first paragraph: three new terms. People are trying to pick up a term by context. Every term makes it exponentially more difficult because now you have a context that has another unfamiliar term, and you’re trying to sort that out. It’s just very overwhelming, very quickly. My general rule is max one new term per paragraph, and you can’t do that every paragraph. Every once in a while…
Oren: But what if I have really short paragraphs, Chris, could I get more that way? It sounds like I should have more one line paragraphs is what you’re saying.
Chris: Do I need to make up strict rules? For every 500 words, you can introduce a new term.
Oren: We can just tax people on it. If you want to introduce a new word, send Mythcreants a hundred dollars and you can do it. We’ll say it’s good. Boom, done.
Chris: Yeah. Part of the hard problem is that when you’re talking about comprehension and scarcity, and the fact that your story can become too complex or are overburdened, as we call it, and so if other elements of your story are simple and don’t take figuring out, you can get away with more terms that people have to learn. You don’t want to make them learn too much in a short space. So I still think a limit on a paragraph is a good idea. Sometimes if there are two concepts that are closely related to each other, it might be better to introduce them at once.
If you really love your conlang and you want to work it in in various ways and make it friendly and you’re also trying time travel loops or something, then that’s going to become a big problem and can become complex too fast. You just got to choose where you’re going to put in that investment.
Oren: Okay. Well, I’m going to do the thing that always leads to good discussion, which I’m going to bring sandwich discourse into this.
Oren: Because I need to know at what point is something different enough that you should call it something else? So you have an elf, let’s say you take your Tolkein elf and they’ve got all the Tolkein elf stuff. They’ve got the ears, they’ve got the beauty, they’ve got the height, they’ve got the ethereal slimness. And let’s say, we take that elf and we give them, I don’t know, some horns. It still seems like an elf, right? What if we give them hooves?
Wes: Oh, interesting.
Oren: Is it still an elf? What if it can breathe fire? Is it still an elf now? When does it stop being an elf and become a sandwich?
Wes: Well, it really depends on what you’re adding to it, right? Because the second you said hooves, after that you said antlers, it was a satyr, you know?
Oren: That’s a good point.
Wes: So like, however you’re trying to modify the base, some things are going to carry more weight because there’s stronger mentions and thoughts of other types of creatures.
Chris: You have to think about, what is my fantasy species that I have here and what are its characteristics? Now what is the closest term for it? So if you’re like, okay, it’s humanoid and has pointy ears and has hooves and horns, it’s like, okay, probably the closest match is the satyr.
Oren: But what if it has octopus tentacles? Where is your categorization now?
Wes: Oren, then you just call it a sea satyr and move on.
Oren: Ah, darn it.[Laughter]
Oren: Argh, I’ve been destroyed by facts and logic.
Chris: I mean, that is very true. You can just call it the sea satyr and now we know it’s like a satyr, but slightly different. The point is that if your goal is to communicate what it is clearly and not to make it sound different or fancy, you’ll generally make the right choice. Maybe not always, but generally the right choice. Or close enough choice.
Oren: Well, close enough choice is basically my life motto. So I think we’ll go ahead and end the podcast with that. Or as I like to call it the whisper tape. That’s what it’s called now. It’s called a whisper tape. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons.
First, we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Denita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com.
We’ll talk to you next week for another whisper tape.
This has been the Mythcreant’s podcast. Opening and closing theme, The Princess Who Saved Herself, by Jonathan Coulton.
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