Monday, February 25, 2013

On Naming

My stories take place in a secondary world inhabited by paleozoic plants and animals, humans and abhumans, and a hierarchy of spiritual agencies. I've struggled with the naming of things. My organisms are based on actual genera from the Devonian, Carboniferous, and Permian Periods, fancifully conceived. My abhumans and spirits are inspired by ancient Semitic and Greek folklore and various other things. So, should I adopt names as given by science and folklore, or make up new ones?

I've gone back and forth on this. I've been reading Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun and am much taken with the vocabulary he employs. I like the way he uses modifications of extant words, however obscure, to describe his far-future earth. Baluchither comes to mind—the term he uses for his giant mammalian beasts of burden. Whether these animals are related to the prehistoric baluchitherium is of no importance. The connotation is clear, at least in my mind, and the single word does more work than a page of description. It's alien, yet familiar, ancient, yet futuristic; it strikes the right balance between obscurity and specificity. He also borrows units of measurement, names for vocations and social classes, and so forth. It's all cobbled together from different languages—baluchitherium is itself a mix of Asian and Greek—but then, so is English, and it seems to work.

Then there's Edgar Rice Burroughs, the real pioneer in this line. He takes the opposite approach. He coins new words for most of his Martian species, ranks, etc., e.g., thoat, padwar, jeddak. At the same time, some species, like the great white ape, aren't given special names, while others, such as the calot and the banth, are given characteristics of terrestrial species, in this case, the dog and the lion.

Other approaches abound. Frank Herbert uses the conceit of an invented language to name things in parallel with their English descriptions; which is fitting, since his model for Dune is clearly the story of T. E. Lawrence and the British colonial Middle East. Tolkien uses English terms for most of his sentient races, but again we have the conceit of invented languages, where the common tongue is represented by English, and words like goblin and troll are to be regarded as translations from the Westron. Most of his races have names in other, more "ancient" languages; some races or agencies have names in only those languages.

Well, so, there are various solutions to the problem. I've tried Gene Wolfe's approach, but words like lepidodendron and dimetrodon and dunkleosteus seem to strike a jarring note in my tales, and the genera aren't well enough known to make make the connotations helpful. To my ear, pernath and deinoth and urianth—my made-up words for these things—are much more pleasing, poetically descriptive, and germane to the world they inhabit. Once a creature's been described, its name evokes a vivid mental image, which, I hope, prevents its being confused with another.

On the other hand, while I've tried inventing names for my spiritual agencies, I've never been pleased with the results. If something is supposed to be a seraph, I'd much rather call it a seraph than a word I've made up. Here I really do want the connotations, because they say so much more than I could ever put into words. It's a mistake, too, I think, to make spiritual things too familiar. The less said, the more potent they'll be in the story. Relying on the connotations of the right choice of words helps preserve a sense of mystery.

And then there are the ranks and positions of human affairs. Here, again, I've tried coining words, but the results strike me as a bit silly and hard to follow. Burroughs was an inventor, but his ranks were a simple top-down affair. My world is governed by a complex headless bureaucracy in a steam-age metropolis with various bronze-age tribes on the periphery. Making up titles would involve too much abstract explanation. Borrowing approximations from Greek or Byzantine affairs seems more natural, even if the they're a bit obscure at first. Words like archon and phylarch and exarch and logothete and thaumaturge are real and have the right ring, but their historical usage is elastic enough to allow me to do what I want with them. At the same time, they're just alien enough to avoid the stock mental images summoned by more conventional words like king or chief or viceroy or agent or wizard.

So, what I've settled down to is something of a compromise. I borrow words like seraph and nephel for spiritual agencies. Generally speaking, all species—angelic, abhuman, animal, vegetable—are named using a pseudo-Hebraic style, with the suffix –im for plurals. So we have seraphim, helborim, deinothim, pernathim. This is perhaps in bad taste, as some are made up and some are not. The crossover is behemoth, a kind of giant pareiasaur answering to Job's numinous description of the hippopotamus; I use the roots –oth or –eth for all reptiles and amphibians. Likewise, I use –ath for trees (hemlathim are cordaites and ynathim are sigillaria) and –anth for fishes (e.g., urianth). This latter is based on the word coelacanth, which is in even worse taste. Abhuman species have both poetic names and common English names; helborim are also called goblins, and weluhim, cyclopes. I'm also not above using scientific words if they're sufficiently common and, well, ancient- or biblical-sounding, e.g., trilobite, ammonite. On the other hand, all class- and rank-names are borrowed (or coined) from ancient Greek or Byzantine words, e.g., helot, phylite, logothete. Units of measurement come from Greek as well, e.g., the stade and the mile.

The real goal of all this naming is to create an antediluvian feel and permit a moderately poetic diction without calling attention to itself or making the reader stumble over barbarous jargon. I'm not sure that Tolkien would approve, but the mix I keep going back to seems the least artificial and the most germane to my own mind, which is perhaps the best test of secondary-world coherence.

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