What's in an alien name?

An oft-discussed topic among writers of speculative fiction, both science fiction and fantasy, is how to name characters, places, and ideas of extraterrestrial or otherwise non-human or alien origin. Naming is a difficult part of all fiction writing — it’s more difficult than one might think to make names for characters. Some (myself included) believe that character names ought to suggest something about the characters, the themes of the story, their roles in the plot, or perhaps stand in ironic contrast to those roles.

Even writers who don’t believe in choosing names based on the events in the story use character names to give background and context. If they don’t they ought to. If nothing else a name says something about a character’s family background, the character’s parents’ beliefs or attitudes, and so on. We also have to choose carefully so as not to confuse the reader. In life it’s not rare to be in a room with three or four Rebeccas or Steves. In fiction that just stands in the way of storytelling. Perhaps absolute realism demands that the more characters in a story the more characters ought share a name. The more characters there are in a story, the harder it is even for an attentive reader to keep track of the characters.

Here there is a fundamental similarity between fiction writers and programmers. Despite conventional wisdom that writing and writing code are unrelated (indeed the differences between the disciplines are real and numerous) the importance of naming is common to them. Phil Karlton famously said, «There are only two hard things in Computer Science: cache invalidation and naming things.»1 When one writes a new function or method or creates a new object or variable, it ought to indicate what that does or the information it keeps.

Even a non-programmer can take a good guess what example.show() might do. Even the programmer who defined z and y() will likely forget what z.y() does.

The process takes on an extra dimension (sorry) when the writer invents an entire civilization or language. Generally one needs not know every detail of the history, geography, or culture one creates from scratch, but it is necessary to have enough of those details that they can be self-consistent.

When creating names for alien places or characters, it is tempting to make the names sound alien. After all an American named Philip would have been Philippe were he born in France, Felipe if from Spain, or Filipo if born to particularly sadistic Esperanto speakers.

Not a human mouth

Furthermore, authors speculate (correctly, I assume) that extraterrestrial physiology would preclude pronunciations that are comfortable or even possible for Earthling characters or readers. A discussion of this can be found at the TVTropes page TheUnpronounceable with many examples, but broadly this approach results in names with many apostrophes and few (if any) vowels.

Yet, with some exceptions fictional aliens manage to communicate in existing Earth language or at the very least their conversations are translated for the benefit of human readers (which of course is common with other literature. I’ve never read Crime and Punishment in Russian and I’m pretty sure that Dostoevsky didn’t write it in English.)

In our non-fictional world, often personal names are not translated. It’s understandable that a Croatian woman named Ivana wouldn’t want to be called Joanna by English speakers. Certainly some people do use a cognate name (or simply one that sounds like their given name) in languages that use foreign tongues.2

The names of places are translated from language to language much more often, especially when the name clearly originated from ordinary words; in France the United States becomes les États-Unis. Of course that is not always the case. French maps of Idaho refer to la Snake River and the river between Texas and Mexico is the Rio Grande on English maps.

Names are clues

Names have meaning, independent of whatever an author wants to give them. While a name spelled out in English letters without a possible human pronunciation has the pretense of authenticity, it doesn’t help the reader to learn anything about the alien culture or even about the alien language. It doesn’t help a reader to differentiate the names to associate them with characters or places, and doesn’t give the reader a chance to talk about those parts of the book with friends or colleagues.

Even worse: from the perspective of the characters in the story, the names themselves will be useless. Letters too have meaning and purpose. Even the obscure and deeply flawed rules of Earthly transliteration attempt to approximate pronunciation for the benefit of communication between cultures. If the written word gives the characters nothing to go on, it’s a disservice to them. One hopes two civilizations interested enough in one another to learn the other’s language would at least come up with a way to translate or transliterate names for the other to use.

The names of real people and places almost always have some root in words with meaning. Most obvious are examples from the languages common to places: Riverside, New Haven, Mount Olive, Crazy Woman Creek. Surnames in English share this tendency, though most have lost a direct association. It’s a good bet that someone named Miller has an ancestor who once had a mill, someone named Smith has an ancestor who was a blacksmith or had some other kind of smithy, and that someone named Jefferson has a Jeffrey in the family tree.3

When translating names from fictional languages, especially those which cannot be pronounced by human speakers, doesn’t it make sense to construct those names with meaningful words?

This approach presents a number of opportunities. It’s a chance to provide a window into the culture of the foreign speaker. Even if derived from words with common meaning, the conventions used by that culture may vary wildly. We have more people named Smith today than are actual smiths, but very few people have surnames like Astronaut, Sysadmin, or Commoditiesbroker. We’ve abandoned the idea of giving surnames based on occupation in favor of inheriting surnames. But even a culture which shared that convention and subsequently abandoned it might have done so at a different point in history, making for names with more modern, futuristic, or downright alien occupations.

There are no shortage of possible conventions for naming, and creating a consistent and believable backstory for characters is part of our job as writers of speculative fiction. Just as it is important to decide whether a fictional culture has a feudal society, a democracy, a hive mind, or what have you, it’s important to know something about the values and priorities of that culture. The characters may or may not share those values, but that too serves to provide insight into the characters themselves.

In Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep various cultures and races were depicted as having different naming conventions. The two prominent Skroderider characters were called Blueshell and Greenstalk, and the introduction to those names explicitly addresses the problem of pronunciation:

«My name is—» the sound was the rustling of fronds, «but you can easier call me Blueshell.»

The Tines’ (also from Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep) individual members had monosyllabic names which seemed like nonsense, but the packs had a pair of names: one name associated with an occupation or character attribute, the other an amalgamation of the names of the individuals. Thus there were names such as Scriber Jaqueramaphan.

That sounds weird!

How strange or familar the name comes across to the reader is important. A hard-to-understand name will make the reader work. This can be desirable but might also serve to undermine sympathy for the character. This applies both to the choice of names by characters in the context of the story and to the choice by the author telling a story to the reader. A name will impact the reader’s assumptions about a character (and to a lesser extent to places). As writers we ought to use this impact purposefully rather than avoid the effect or worse, ignore it completely.

When deciding what implications one wants the reader to pick up, it should also be considered what perspective the reader should have. Unpronounceable and/or enigmatic names will make aliens seem more foreign and can help the reader to identify with human characters who have difficulty relating to the aliens. Vinge’s single line quoted above establishes the Skoderiders as dramatically different from us, but in the same stroke tells us that they are (or at least Blueshell is) friendly enough to bridge that gap.

Wait, that doesn’t sound weird!

Alternately we might help the reader identify with alien characters’ perspective by using familiar naming schemes and even familiar names from the characters’ perspective. We tell the story in our own language anyhow, so why not drop the pretense of authenticity by inventing names that do not seem to be translated?

In Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky the eight-legged race of creatures many of the characters are a part of are referred to as «spiders» even before they come into contact with any humans who might make that association. The characters’ names are not generally common English names, but they sound like names. It’s easy to accept Sherkaner Underhill, Victory Smith, and Gil Haven as people from the moment we’re introduced to them.

Vinge takes this a step further by using the names of actual Earth locations in the story. Professor Underhill, for example, teaches at Princeton. It’s difficult to parse at first, but it makes intuitive sense that a place called Princeton would be a university.

That sort of approach has to be handled extremely delicately. There’s a balance point between pushing the bounds of a reader’s understanding and losing the reader in an undecipherable tangle of vocabulary. Regardless of how the name fit its purpose it was jarring to read that this alien world had a «Princeton» and more so that it would be a university,4 despite it being a different planet.5

Ain’t no silver bullets

This is not to say techniques used for devising alien names are intrinsically right or wrong. There is still room for naming conventions which require almost unpronounceable spellings. Languages must necessarily be dependent on the biological capability of a species. Audible communication might not be vocalized with air passing over a vibrating medium but perhaps instead be made up solely of taps, scrapes, and knocks upon a carapace. That culture might be so fiercely individualistic as to demand that their names be used regardless of how suitable a human mouth is to making those sounds.

But even this example doesn’t justify a facile collection of consonants and apostrophes to indicate a foreign language. Rather it demonstrates the importance of thinking deeply about language when it comes to fiction about people from different worlds encountering and interacting with one another. Especially because novels exist almost purely in language, language ought not be ignored.

At its best, speculative fiction challenges assumptions about who we are and about the nature of the universe we inhabit. Alien races and cultures permit authors to hold up a mirror so that we can see our behavior and ideas in ways we hadn’t seen before, ones that are not dictated by the circumstances of evolution or of society — not dictated by what has been so far. It enables us to see limitations and also how those limitations can also be our assets.

If authors of speculative fiction don’t make thoughtful choices about those relationships and how they manifest, it undermines the ability to convey the message we want to carry. Language matters, words matter, and names matter.

  1. At least, Martin Fowler says it was Phil Karlton. As always (and as it should be) skeptics gonna be skeptic↩︎

  2. This is a topic that requires more depth (and knowledge) than I have, but there is an interesting article from the Journal Intercultural Communication Studies Choice of Foreign Names as a Strategy for Identity Management which seems to be a good start. ↩︎

  3. The name «Jeffrey» in turn may derive from words meaning «land of peace». That makes Jefferson «the child of one who comes from a peaceful place». ↩︎

  4. This served a recurring theme in A Deepness in the Sky: the difficulty of translation between languages and more broadly understanding vast differences in perspective and experience. After several uses of the word «plaid» to describe eg a colorful sky as seen by one of the spiders, there is a scene in which a human translator explains the difficulty encountered translating the descriptions of what the spiders had seen due to the spiders’ broader visual spectrum. One interpretation is that the spiders’ narrative was written by one of the spiders and then translated by the same people — or at least the same set of rules — which the characters in-universe had used. ↩︎

  5. There are other hypotheses about the use of the name «Princeton» which will have to come at another time. ↩︎