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 reader must pause to figure out pronunciation – and every moment the reader does that is a moment of failure for the writer (it destroys the all-important immersion, 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.

One thought on “Of Apostrophes and Umlauts: Names in Fantasy

  1. Hi Phuul. You say “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.”

    This is to state, in part, the theory of ‘On fairy-stories’ (OFS). There is another rather important part of the theory which I’ll get to. But your words, I think, quite fairly reflect these ones

    “The human mind is capable of forming mental images of things not actually present. The faculty of conceiving the images is (or was) naturally called Imagination. But in recent times, in technical not normal language, Imagination has often been held to be something higher than the mere image-making, ascribed to the operations of Fancy (a reduced and depreciatory form of the older word Fantasy); an attempt is thus made to restrict, I should say misapply, Imagination to ‘the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality.’ ”
    — OFS para 65 (in the Flieger and Anderson edition)

    Tolkien’s dancing between Fancy, Fantasy, and Imagination might seem baffling. The clue is in the phrase “the inner consistency of reality”. As the editors point out, he lifted it from the Oxford English Dictionary. It appears in a definition of Fancy, which is at somewhat curious pains to distinguish it from Imagination:

    “… while imagination is the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of realities” (OED 1st ed., Fancy noun sense 4)

    I tried at one time to find how this wording came to be used but the trail ran cold. Regardless, both OFS and the Dictionary are invoking Coleridge’s Famous Distinction, as critics call it. Namely: Imagination (strictly Secondary Imagination)

    “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealise and unify”

    But humble Fancy

    “must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association.”
    — S.T.Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (1817)

    Tolkien, with the help of the unknown dictionary writer, re-brands Coleridgean “imagination” as “fantasy” and we are done.

    Well, not quite. You see, further on OFS addresses another question: namely, what is the point of all this? Tolkien’s answer, in a word, is Joy:

    “…every sub-creator wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it. If he indeed achieves a quality that can fairly be described by the dictionary definition: ‘inner consistency of reality,’ it is difficult to conceive how this can be, if the work does not in some way partake of reality. The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth.” (OFS 103)

    As a student of Plato you might see what Tolkien was doing in changing “realities” to “reality”. Aside from that the words recall a late work by Coleridge. Perhaps it was Fantasy all along; perhaps the quest was for Joy:

    It may indeed be phantasy when I
    Essay to draw from all created things
    Deep, heartfelt, inward joy that closely clings;
    And trace in leaves and flowers that round me lie
    Lessons of love and earnest piety

    — S.T.Coleridge, ´To Nature´, c.1820 (found in MS after his death)

    Liked by 1 person

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