This is the second in a set of articles intended for authors and game writers, addressing quick and easy methods to develop character and place names around a linguistic theme. In Part 1, we examined using existing and historical names and places. In this segment we will examine how to further break down language elements to form new ones, and drawing upon existing literature and media for inspiration.
In the first of these blogs we focused on the inspiration of medieval Spain and drawing upon Spanish language to flavor our character and place names. But let’s face it, much of worldbuilding is so much more than historical analogs. There’s aliens species, demons and wizards, elves, orcs, dwarves and so much more to fill our creative space. For many of these elements, there is a wealth of existing lore and language in the works of other authors and creators waiting to be drawn on.
Just like the tropes of the races themselves, there are certain linguistic elements which cling to their respective races across novels, films, tabletop and video games. If your goal is to emulate an existing flavor of a fictional race, the following is a simple guide which will give you immediately recognizable phonetic sounds, and set the foundations for building upon them your own personalized modifications.
Let’s take as an example the dwarves of Thorin’s party in The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, now a set of names well familiar to audiences worldwide. With thirteen members, the names of these dwarves represent a perfect pool for our first dip into fantasy naming. Using the phonetics of these names we can build a linguistic map for a dwarven kingdom of our own.
The thirteen dwarves are:
Thorin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Fili, Kili, Oin, Gloin, Dori, Nori, Ori, Balin, and Dwalin. Let’s add in Gimli from The Lord of the Rings for good measure.
First, break those names down into individual letters.
Consonants – B, D, Dw, F, G, K, L, M, N, R, Th
Vowels – A, I, O, U
11 Consonants and 4 Vowels is not much of an alphabet, but you’ll be surprised at how far we can go, with just these letters.
Let’s also look at the phonetic clusters in the syllables themselves:
Ba, Bi, Bo, Bom, Bur, Do, Dwa, Fi, Fur, Gim, Glo, In, Ki, Li, Lin, O, No, Thor, Ri
Now lets pause for a moment to look at how the dwarves’ names are constructed. You may have noticed that two of my letters – Th & Dw – are actually consonant groupings. These are known as digraphs, which are two characters used together to form a distinct sound. The dwarven names from The Hobbit follow a distinct pattern. Consonant – Vowel – Consonant – Vowel, etc. Essentially they are made up of phonetic groupings: Thor-in, Bi-Fur, No-Ri. It is to keep in consistency with this pattern that I have chosen to make Th and Dw proper letters. G and L I have made separate letters because we have instances of G and L being used both together and independently, but we could easily make the GL grouping a letter as well.
If we look at the phonetic clusters, we can also see a few grammatical rules, just from these names, which we can follow, at least loosely to help create new names within a distinct feel. For example, I and O are the only vowels which are seen to end a syllable. They are also the only vowels to begin one. M is only seen at the end of a cluster, and along with R and N are the only consonants to end a syllabic phrase.
Are you still with me?
Now it is as simple as making new syllabic clusters based on our existing rules:
Bali, Thorri, Bofin, Dofur, Bomri
Expand upon this by swapping letters from our alphabet to make new phonetic groupings:
Dwolo, Thimri, Nolin.
For place names, which are not represented here in our limited source pool, try stringing together three or more syllables to sound more grand:
Glorindol, Dwali Noinbo, Kilibo, Tholobur
And there you have it! Dwarven names in close keeping to their source of influence. To expand upon this, bring in phonetic influence from other dwarven sources, from real world language, or simply add and subtract letters and syllable phrasings as you see fit. You can always return to this baseline if you stray too far.
This same application holds true to any collection of words, names or other sound sources you might wish to draw on and is the true beginning stages of any conlang.
Check this space every Wednesday for new updates and musings!