Of Apostrophes and Umlauts: Names in Fantasy

Fantasy is the genre where the author is free to invent just about anything – so long as internal consistency is adhered to, one is limited only by the imagination. Unsurprisingly, this means that Fantasy has a strong tradition of the Secondary World – a setting that operates under its own rules, not ours – which, by extension, means that its naming conventions are its own, not ours. The result is that Fantasy names often find themselves walking a tightrope between comprehensibility and unreality, while also avoiding the outright silly (never mind modern authors: E.R. Eddison has characters named Spitfire and Fax Fay Faz).

Tolkien offers one solution, of course: develop extensive conlangs, and construct appropriate names from there. Well and good, but most of us aren’t world-class philologists, and even Tolkien had his accidents: Celeborn’s name in Quenya is Teleporno. This means that we as creators are left very much to our own devices in inventing names that feel appropriate to setting and story. It may be an over-simplification, but for the present discussion I’ll take a look at two extremes.

At one end of the spectrum, we find stories where the names are basically real world ones, either served up straight or with minor modifications. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire does this – Ned, Robert, Brandon, Jon, Catelyn, Petyr, Samwell – and the effect in the (Anglophone) readership is to create familiarity. These look like names we know (because they are) – which means these characters are the “normal” ones. Certainly more normal and mundane than the Targaryens with their outlandish names like Daenerys, Viserys, and Rhaegar.

While I understand what Martin is doing here, this approach isn’t to my personal taste. As a reader, I like the weirder end of fantasy – that sense, as the saying goes, that we are not in Kansas anymore. Adding a y to Peter or Caitlin, changing Edward to Eddard – it feels too mundane to me, especially in a setting that already borrows heavily from the War of the Roses; why read imitation history when I can read the real thing? But if overly real names are insufficiently fantastical, what to make of the other extreme?

It goes without saying that it is all-too easy to come up with a name that looks like a cat has walked across the keyboard. Chuck some zs and xs in there, and you’ve got a name where your readership keeps having to pause to figure out pronunciation – and every moment the reader has to do that is a moment of failure for the writer (it destroys the all-important immersion, thus drawing attention to the cracks in the secondary world). It further invites questions as to why two characters from the same place have such linguistically alien names from each other – by contrast, the mundane model never leaves the reader wondering what on earth the characters’ parents were smoking.

But if we’re stopping short of unpronounceable, there is the time-honoured fantasy trope of the Punctuation Shaker  – apostrophes, umlauts, and circumflexes make a given name appear non-Anglophonic while still actually looking like a name. The Punctuation Shaker approach gets mocked, generally fairly but sometimes unfairly – I hold the view that there is absolutely nothing wrong with apostrophes, umlauts, and circumflexes in fantasy, so long as it is clear the writer actually has some idea what these things do. If I read a name laden with apostrophes, I want to know what effect the apostrophes have on pronunciation – and whether the author has a method to their madness, rather than simply using these things gratuitously. This actually makes me more comfortable with umlauts generally, since I have passing familiarity with real-world languages that use them (Wise Phuul has Finnish-style vowel harmony on Imperial names, due to sad geekery). I haven’t the foggiest idea about apostrophes and circumflexes though, so I find I need a bit more hand-holding there. In principle, I like the idea of fantasy names escaping the Anglophonic tyranny – the point being that there should at least be the illusion of system.

(Speaking of umlauts, Teltö’s name is accordingly pronounced Tell-turr, not Tell-toe. But Death of the Author applies, so the reader can pronounce it how they like. I, for one, mentally pronounce Martin’s Cersei as Kur-see).

In concluding this short discussion, I can only emphasise that this is really a subjective area. I can genuinely understand the preference some readers have for the Martin-style mundane approach. It’s just that, personally, I prefer more alienness in my reading, however hit or miss it might be.



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