Science Fiction Names and Approaches to Spelling.

I was reading a fantastic sci-fi book that took place between India and Djibouti. The names, so difficult to pronounce, got me thinking about Kashyyyk. Yes, Kashyyyk, the Wookiee homeworld from Star Wars. Without some tribal knowledge, a casual reader would be lost in the pronunciation of that name, too.

Names are the handle readers cling to as they’re pulled by the characters through the story. Names set the tone of the characters themselves. Plain names, tough-guy names, ironic names, funny names, even no name says something about a character. With sci-fi and fantasy, they speak to the invented cultures as well. But what happens when the names are unpronounceable? How do you spell a whistle? And, as writers, how distinctive do you want the name to be? The problem—when does distinctive become distracting?

People of Earth have developed their own sounds for communication, their own rules,

miriam-espacio-305932

Photo by Miriam Espacio on Unsplash

and their own artistic inflections. We’re the same species with the same anatomy around the globe, yet cultures evolved isolated from others to the point where certain sounds are unpronounceable to foreigners.

The written characters of a language relate to the sounds belonging to the cultures that spawned them. But what about spellings for sounds that don’t belong to that culture? New combinations of letters and accent marks help adapt the adopted sounds. I personally like the Cyrillic sound Ж, otherwise written in my language as Zhe.

Once, some friends asked me to read a section of a Vietnamese newspaper. Vietnamese uses English letters so it appears generally familiar, but the language pays way more attention to vowels, whereas English flexes the tongue on consonants. Those guys had a good laugh. Turns out what I’d read and struggled to pronounce wasn’t even close because I didn’t comprehend the nuances of the accent marks over, under and around every vowel.

Following the book from India to Djibouti, the place names and foodstuffs were difficult to read. I simply didn’t have a linguistic model to adequately contrive a sound. With science fiction and fancy pronunciations don’t fully matter. People form their own sounds and move on, always pronouncing the thing the way they initially described.

Now from Djibouti to Kashyyyk. Why the hell is Kashyyyk spelled with three Ys? It’s an alien planet and we can reasonably assume if they once belonged to the Galactic Republic then the Republic would call the Wookiee homeworld what the Wookiees wanted. It’s also safe to assume the English translation would be an approximation using recognizable letter combinations to describe what the Wookiees were saying. So why would the original writers use yyy to represent the long e sound where ee would work perfectly? Even an ei, as in sheik. Or an ique as in mystique. The triple y makes no sense.

Except…

The author wanted to illustrate the alienness of the name, make it totally strange and instantly recognizable by the reader as something other. So why not invent letters to make it a proper alien language.

Because none of those invented letters would translate to English. There are plenty of examples of invented languages all of which follow established conventions. Klingon. Dothraki. Esperanto.

You’ve read this far, what kind of mental sounds would you assume if I suddenly wrote my name as ベンジャミン? Dual Japanese and English speakers would get it, but otherwise, without any clue to form a mental sound, it’s a distraction that would disrupt the flow of the reading process every time the name came up. It’s just my name, Benjamin, as translated by Google. But see how recognizable letters are needed to form familiar sounds? Bizarre spellings don’t really add to the alienness of a name, but crazy spellings do distract from the story. Besides, the alienness of any given character or object should be clear from the context. Who’s going to say Kasheek spelled this way isn’t alien? The sounds are the same and it enjoys the privilege of conforming to non-distracting conventions of English.

With that can I take a moment to point out that no Wookiee with a line in a movie or holiday special ever vocalized syllables that came close to sounding like Kashyyyk. Did Chewbacca ever lead anyone to believe he could say his own name? No! The Wookiees only howled and growled. The names of their characters and planet should’ve reflected their typical sounds. Grerrlrrlrrlrr! Still, you’d need the rolling r from Spanish to pronounce this. A sound that English just hasn’t mastered, yet.

Writing is a personal expression, one derived from the soul. Honestly, all languages need to evolve, otherwise, they become stagnant and unsupportive. If they evolve too fast, however, they lose the meaning inherent in the sounds described by squiggly characters. Besides, I don’t like scolds telling people how to express themselves. But I also feel a sense of responsibility in conveying my meanings clearly and unobtrusively. And so I try to keep my sci-fi names simple, though I do tend to throw in a zhe now and again.

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2 responses to “Science Fiction Names and Approaches to Spelling.

  1. Great post! I did a poll once about reader’s 3 least favorite things about science fiction and “hard to pronounce/read names” was one of the answers. I do strive to keep my characters names easier, even if they are a little unsual, for that exact reason.

    • I remember that post. One of my favorite sci-fi trilogy set up a simple and consistent linguistic technique to the names that established the alien nature of the universe, yet kept things simple to read. That was really one of my favorite parts of the author’s style.

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