How to use European style names in otherworld fantasy
In recent trends, otherworld reincarnation/transition fantasy stories with a ”Medieval European” setting have become overwhelmingly common. As a result, it has become inevitable that “European Style” proper nouns for the names of people, places and countries will be written in katakana.
This essay intends to provide guidance on how to give consistent and natural sounding “European” names. The goal is to explain what ”sounds right” and conversely, what “doesn’t sound right”.
This essay is divided into:
“1. Using European style names as they are”
“2. Changing a single letter in a name”
”3. English is special and should not be used as a standard”
“4. Let’s stop using double dashes ‘=’ to separate the first and last names”
A total of four sections, to briefly summarise.
Note that the claim “You can use real European names, so you just need to Google a list of names” will be the main discussion point of this essay. There are a few specific examples that are not recommended (because it is crazy to specifically make a “List of names that can be used in otherworld fantasy”).
Also, since this is not advice about how to create a fictional language, this will not be useful to those who are looking for a guide or planning to create one. If you can create an original name with a good feel to it without using an existing language, you should do so. Please take note of that.
1. Using European style names as they are
First of all, I think you might have guessed this from what I have said so far, but I am not against using existing “European style” names in otherworld fantasy.
There are some people who are against the use of a certain number of existing names from western languages. These people don’t directly complain about it in the comments section, but will give their own opinion on Twitter and blogs. It doesn’t solve anything even if they complain about the names used in individual works and it is difficult to convey the problems to many authors with short comments.
There are many reasons for that, but one of the key points is the difference in history. In other words, “European style names come from their unique historical background, especially that of Christianity. It’s strange that the same name would be used in other worlds with different historical backgrounds” is how their argument goes.
The most obvious one is “Christopher (Chris, Christoph, etc)”. The name “Christina (-ne)” comes from the name “Christ” , and unless the name “Christ” was similarly worshiped, in the context of a different world, it would be considered a silly name. Many western names actually come from Christian backgrounds, even though they might not be as clear as the example given. We Japanese, without knowing that, might unthinkingly consider those names to be “stupid”.
Of course, this is a perfectly valid point, and some people hearing this argument for the first time might be convinced that existing “European style” names can’t be used. However, I think that it is still acceptable to use existing “European style” names for several reasons.
First of all, speaking from pure logic, it could be a name with the exact same pronunciation, regardless of its meaning. “Christóforos” is the Greek name for “Christopher”, meaning “Christ bearer” in English. In modern English, the sound “pher” can be found in verbs such as “offer” and “transfer”. In Latin and Greek “phero” (in classical Greek “pero”, but by Christian times it was already “phero”) was derived from the name of the fallen angel “Lucifer”.
However, although the verb “phero/pero” has the meaning “to carry or bear”, that is its meaning as interpreted in Latin and Greek. In another language (of course including languages from otherworlds), it could hold a completely different meaning. This is of course the same for the pronunciation of “Christos”. The Greek word “Christos” comes from the Hebrew word “Marciaha (Messiah)” which translates literally to “the anointed one”. Since the spread of Christianity, it has also gained the meaning of “saviour” which while it is still pronounced the same way, has become a word with a completely different meaning.
If you think of it from the perspective of a different language, in the first place, “Christopher” or “Christina” may not necessarily need to be split into “Christo” and “pher/ina”. “Chr-Istof-Er” might be the way it would be broken down in a language of a different world (of course, longer and more complicated names will have a lesser chance of there being such a coincidence.
This is even more so if the connection of the name is indirect. “Paulus (Paul in English)”, “Petrus (Peter in English, Pierre in French)” and “Luka (Luke/Lucas in English, Luc in French)” are all Christian first names. Some people might find it weird, but they are all names derived from the apostles. Continuing on from the example of meanings of names as discussed before, even considering languages on Earth, “Paulus” means “humble person”, “Petrus” means “rock” and “Lucas” means “a person from Lucania (a region of ancient south Italy)”. They didn’t originally carry any holy meaning, so even without Christianity, it wouldn’t be strange to use them.
That’s why we can freely names like “Maria” for a story’s heroine. The name “Maria/Mary” (Meryam in Hebrew and Maryam in Arabic, who appears in the Bible as the mother of Jesus) originally had the meaning of “rebellious”, “bitter” or “loved”, and there are various theories that say it might have also meant “praying for a child”. But before the birth of Christ its religious meaning of “Our Lady” and “Mother of God” naturally did not exist. Even if you take into account its meaning, or even consider the possibility of a name sounding exactly the same, there’s no reason for it to not appear in an otherworld fantasy.
Another big reason for adopting “European style” names is that it reduces the effort required to learn more about the language and the setting, it is a practical motive.
Before talking about the complicated stuff, let’s give a simple example. You have a king called “Aurelius” and a queen called “Jennifer”. The first prince is called “Yan”, the second prince is called “Hans-George” and the princess is called “Falida”. What would you think of that? No matter how indifferent the person might be, having an impression that it feels “mismatched” would be unavoidable. However, even if it isn’t such an extreme case, such naming formats have been written in novels.
Language is an organic system. The same can be said for grammar, the system of speech and phonology. Because of that, within the same language family, of course, and within people who speak the same language, names will have somewhat consistent features. If you think to yourself, you would find it unlikely to mistake a Japanese name for a Chinese or English name. (Because of this, the common template in otherworld novels that different countries have different naming conventions despite saying that “a common language is used across the continent” feels unnatural, but we will not talk about that for now).
With that all said, creating a fictional language (or several) from scratch with consistent naming, phonetics and morphology is clearly overwork. It is possible to spend an entire lifetime on it, like Tolkien did with “The Lord of the Rings” saga. Here lies the advantage of using existing names. Using an existing name requires no further details other than that the language just had that name existing naturally.
Neither grammar nor a phonological system can be formed at random, so it is impossible to create a combination of sounds that humans (or demi-humans if it is a fantasy) can naturally pronounce without going through the changes in its phonological system as natural languages do. But, since languages are tied to the history of the Earth, it could be said in a sense that it would be natural for humans in other worlds to talk with the same or almost the same language structure.
(It should be noted that there could be demi-humans with different mouth and throat structures and it is quite possible for them to speak a whole new language, different from any language on Earth. However, in many stories, the physical characteristics of demi-humans that differ from humans are primarily ears or a tail. Elves and Dwarves don’t change that much, so you don’t have to worry about them. Also, herein lies the benefit of using the otherworld template. This problem would be cleared up if you just said that everyone spoke the same language across the world.)
That way, all you need to do is to look up existing names for each country (language) that suits the image you have of the character in your mind. Major languages can be searched in Japanese to find a list of katakana notation, so language skills are not required and it is almost effortless. On the other hand, if you don’t put in enough effort, you would end up using names like “Aurelius, Jennifer and Yan”. Please be very careful.
2. Changing a single letter in a name
The introduction was quite long, but practical and immediate advice for creating a “consistent naming” method is, in all honesty, as I said in the last paragraphs of the introduction “just fucking google ‘human female (male) names’!”. That’s about it. I will provide justification for saying that earlier. If you read through this, it will all make sense.
Nevertheless, it is also a fact that using existing names will reduce the fantasy-like atmosphere of an otherworld story slightly. I want to tweak them a bit……, those kind of feelings start to appear.
But, please wait a moment. I don’t mean to tell you not to do that without giving any reasoning, but don’t do it too freely. If you’ve read this far, I think you will understand, but language has a sound and form which makes you know it as “that language”. If you messed around with it, it would turn into a “lie”. The best way to get a feel for this is to use Japanese, which you would be most familiar with.
Suppose a British man called Fred (temporary name), doesn’t know any Japanese, but wants to write a novel where a country similar to Japan appears. He wants to give a Japanese style name to a woman and so he googled it and found that the name “Hanako” is a typical Japanese female name. But if he used it as it is, it would sound plain. Using the first letter of his own name, he changed it to “Fanako”!
Yes, it’s funny. What is wrong is that there are no Japanese names starting with “Fa”. The F sound is very common in European languages, but in some languages, it’s not used.
Or suppose you want to name a boy in a Japanese-like country and the name “Yuma” has recently become popular in Japan. However, Fred felt that “Yuma” had a girlish feeling to it. So Fred decided to change it to “Yumad”! It sounds funny. This is because Japanese basically has no syllables that end with consonants (closed syllables). In general, Japanese words don’t end with consonants (except n).
As you can see, strange things can happen easily if you mess with some of the names without knowing the language. This alone should have made my reasoning clear.
First of all, each language has its own phonological system. There isn’t really an F in Japanese. There is no distinction between L and R. There is also no pronunciation of TH that I struggled with in English during Junior High school. Not only consonants, vowels are also completely different from English. However, it doesn’t matter that much when we name characters in Katakana, so let’s put that aside for now (because most European languages use five vowels, there are very few names that can’t be approximated).
Because of this, when you play around with a name, you need to reference other names in order to choose a pronunciation that is within that language. As for what kind of consonants are “convincing” that will be discussed further in the next section.
Another thing is that you shouldn’t mess around with name endings. Many European languages are characterised by female names ending with an a. If you have ever studied a second foreign language in university, you might know that in French, Italian, Spanish, German, Russian and others, all nouns aside from human names are sorted into masculine and feminine (and neuter). There is a rule that feminine nouns end with an a. Although masculine nouns don’t have such a common feature, words that end in consonants or o are likely to be masculine (or neuter) (although in the case of the current languages listed, French is particularly difficult to understand).
Also, especially when changing name endings it is easy to lose the “language likeness”. Naturally, a language is derived from its overall pronunciation and spelling, but the endings are the strongest and most dangerous part to change.
For example, in katakana, when I saw the name “Catherine”, it had a “French-ish feel” and at the same time, I could intuitively tell it wasn’t “Italian” or “German”. That is because in Italian, German and some other languages it is “Katarina/Katerina/Katrina”, and in principle, names that end with the katakana “nu” sound do not exist in Italian or German. Only French uses “ne” if you read a “nu”. If you wanted to use the “nu” sound in Italian or German, you would still have to use “nu”, but there isn’t really such a sound in those languages.
In another example, “(E)Manuel” is a male name that one of the most recognisable around Europe. When it is changed to “Manuele” it suddenly seems to have an Italian feel to it. In the case of “Manuelo”, a Spanish feeling explodes from it. Using “La” the name sounds female, no matter what the language is. “Li” is an exotic ending which doesn’t seem to be used anywhere. Like that, the importance of vowel endings are that they can carry different nationality and gender connotations.
Although the risk is lesser, it is also better not to mess with the begining of names. Closer to home, the Japanese language has the principle that you do not mess around with the pronunciation of the beginning of words. Try to think of a few and make sure they are not Japanese but in Chinese or Katakana. Despite the fact that there is a “Ra” sound in the table of Japanese syllable sounds, using it at the beginning of a name ruins it. Similarly, Spanish doesn’t have words that start with st or sp. “Spain” is Spain because it is read in English, in Spanish it is actually “España”, in English it is “station”, but in Spanish it is “estación”, the E sound is used significantly.
As you can see, languages often have phonetic combinations that exist as phonemes but are not allowed to be used in specific locations (beginnings or endings) of words. If you think you can just go and change it, you can end up with unexpected names. If you know the language well then don’t stop yourself, but if you’re just messing around, it’s best to keep it to a minimum.
3. English is special and should not be used as a standard
So far, it has become clear that if you want to modify names, it is better to change (cut or add) only a single letter in the name while comparing it to other names. It could be a vowel or consonant, but if you intend to keep it as a “European” name at the very end, I’ll tell you now that you should never treat English as being the standard.
The first foreign language that you learn in Japan is English in most cases. You will learn English in compulsory education, and in many cases, you will come in contact with English and Katakana words derived from English on the streets, on TV and in everyday life. And since many European languages are written with the same alphabet (Latin and Roman alphabet) as English, it is easy to think that they would have similar pronunciations.
That is ridiculous. English has an unusual spelling among European languages and its pronounciation (phonological system) are not all typologically common sounds. There are cases where its pronounciation is actually very rare in other languages.
In other words, if you name people or places in English just because they are the easiest, or because you think that they could be anywhere in Europe because they are pronounced in English, they could potentially sound like “warped” names. What is unusual about our world is that we have many historical ties to language, and the same should be said for humans in otherworlds.
Although different people might think of different English sounds that are difficult to pronounce, the TH sound is one of the more common ones. But this is a pretty unusual sound around the world. Aside from English, there are only a few other languages such as Spanish, Icelandic, (modern) Greek, Albanian and Arabic. The sound doesn’t exist in French, Italian, (Latin American) Spanish, (classical) Greek, Portuguese, Romanian, German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Russian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Serbian, Croatian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, Finnish, Hungarian, Turkish, Armenian, Irish or Basque. Of course, there is no equivalent sound in Japanese, Chinese, Mogolian, Thai, Vietnamese or Farsi.
Speaking of another unusual thing, WH sounds, like white and when. It is a feature of some American English and New Zealand English speakers and sounds exactly the same as the British English w sound. This is more unusual than the TH sound. Any language aside from English listed in the previous paragraph (including Spanish, Greek, etc) does not have it (it does seem to appear as a rare sound in Taiwanese, which can be considered a Chinese dialect, as well as in Slovenian and Tuscan Italian under certain circumstances). Because it is such a rare sound, when names such as “White” appear you think “Oh”. I’m sure it would be difficult for people from other worlds to pronounce.
Furthermore, this may be surprising, but the English R sound, which is difficult for Japanese people, is also very unusual (the distinction phonologically between L and R is a common feature and will be discussed further at the end of this section). Depending on the dialect, the English R sound is a sound called the posterior alveolar approximant (British accepted pronunciation and most American dialects) or the rhotic approximant (in some American dialects). The former rather exaggerates the wh and the latter is a rare sound, and aside from some American dialects, I have not learned any language with that sound (although when I checked, there seems to be an example in the African Igbo language). By the way, the most common sound represented by the letter R is the gum rolling sound. Of the above, French and German are different, but the R sound in many other languages is like this.
While it’s not so difficult, you also need to pay attention to the J sounds. The same goes for G, such as in just, job, John or G for George. They sound the same but are different from the French G in Georges. The Italian G is also like this, but it isn’t necessarily a sound that exists in other languages, including German, Dutch, Spanish and Russian. (However, it might not be difficult for them to pronounce as they also have loan words in their language. Judo from Japan is often just pronounced as such in many other languages.)
J was originally the same letter as I, and in languages that use the same alphabet as English, if you write J, there are many cases where it is pronounced Ya instead of Ja (Starting with Latin, German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Polish, Czech, Croatian, Lithuanian, Estonian, Finnish, Hungarian, etc). It is said that the English pronunciation is based on the French pronunciation of the Ya sound when it was pronounced with the tongue too close to the top of the mouth in the Middle Ages during the transition from Latin to Old French (although it has already changed in modern French).
In French, Portuguese, Romanian and Turkish, J is pronounced as [ʒ], so it is only in the English language, with the exception of foreign words, that the J is pronounced with the [dʒ] sound. (The only other case is when Arabic is converted to the Roman alphabet. However, as previously mentioned, the Italian G, Turkish C and Albanian Xh are also pronounced as [dʒ]).
As you can see, English is by no means representative of any European language. I won’t go into the details of grammar comparison (There are no gendered words and there is no distinction between nouns with honourific titles, the auxiliary verb “do” is used to make a sentence a question, no verb voice changes other than in “third person singular present”, the fact that there is a progressive tense is a “strange” point that appears in English but not in most European languages), even if you limit the discussion to just how to read the alphabet and how to pronounce them, you can see that there are some features that are rare in Europe and around the world. In this sense, English is not a “standard” language.
Let’s talk about spelling and double vowels, another peculiarity of English. In English, “name” is pronounced as “naym” and not “narm”. “Time” is pronounced “tyme” and not “team”. If you get used to it, you tend to think of it as normal, but it is actually quite unusual. If you wrote down “name”, Italians, Germans and even French would simply pronounce it as “narm”, like in Romaji. If A is written (with the added ー in Japanese), it is common sense for it to be read as Ay in English. E would be Ee and I would Aye.
Actually, I used to read the English “name” and “mate” as “narm” and “mart”. It actually wasn’t until the 19th century that Na finally became Ne and then into Nei. In the Middle Ages, “name” was pronounced as “narm”, “time” as “team” and “foot” as “fot”, this change is called a large vowel transition. In other words, medieval English didn’t have double vowels like ay or aye.
Whether double or continuous vowels are allowed also changes with the language. In fact, for example, the sound Ei is not a standard German sound, (Ei is pronounced as Ay, such as Einstein, which has two ei’s). It seems that it is difficult for westerners to read consecutive vowel letters, which is why many Japanese names written in Romaji are often not pronounced correctly.
One of the cliche developments is that “the protagonist who has been sent to another world says his real Japanese name, but others can’t pronounce it correctly”. The usual development if they said their name was “Tooru” would be if they actually meant “Toru” (if it’s not an absolutely different world). However, this is a strange event, because in Japanese, “Tooru” is often pronounced as “Toru” unless it is pronounced deliberately slowly, so even if their accent was strange, the pronunciation shouldn’t be wrong. “Keita” is also pronounced as “Keta”. Because vowel length (to be exact, “the distinction between short and long vowels to Japanese ears”) is common in many languages, it shouldn’t be hard at all.
A realistic development wouldn’t say that the pronunciation couldn’t be imitated after being heard. Westerners who write the names Tooru and Keita in Romaji (especially English speakers) if not told, will usually end up writing the names weirdly like “Toryu” or “Keta/Kaita”. I heard a funny story somewhere about Professor Akaike, who is world famous for the “Akaike Information Criterion”, that his name couldn’t be pronounced properly.
It seems to be true in other words that if the language uses the same characters as the Roman alphabet and has fewer vowel sequences, then it would be likely for people to be confused about how to read the protagonist’s name when it is written in a guild or something similar.
By the way, L and R sounds are not separated in Japanese but are distinguishable in English. However, this distinction is common throughout Europe. In terms of this world, there are more languages that distinguish between the two than those that don’t. For example, because we use Kanji, we tend to imagine Chinese is similar to Japanese, but even in Chinese, the L and R sounds are properly distinguished (although the R sound isn’t the same as in English. The R sound is also not distinguished in Korean).
Sometimes I heard stories (complaints?) that there are too many L’s and R’s in medieval European fantasy, but if you are writing in Japanese Katakana that does not distinguish between L and R, you can simply just use the L sound whenever an R appears, there are some things that just can’t be helped. Rather, if you used European names that can be found in reality, there’s a higher chance that you will be able to find a matching Katakana syllable.
However, since the main point of the criticism is to say that if there are too many L’s, it should be avoided because it makes it difficult to differentiate between characters. My response does not directly answer this, as I suggest in this essay, a practical method to have consistent naming is to follow actual European names. Something to pay attention to would be to be careful to not have too many L sounds in names as much as possible (or to modify the names to reduce the number of L’s in them).
4. Let’s stop using double dashes “＝” to separate first and last names
The subject has changed quite abruptly, but while writing this, this has alway been something weighing on my mind as I was reading novels published on “Shōsetsuka ni Narō”. Many people place a “＝” between the first and last names of characters. Because there are many people who use that symbol, I would like to point out that western names appearing in ordinary novels (mainly translated works) and other published books usually separate them with a “・”.
That symbol is not an equals symbol, but a double hyphen. “＝” is the correct symbol rather than “゠”. That said, I don’t regard that as a problem, but because some places can’t display the “゠” symbol, in this article “＝” will be used instead.
Since this wasn’t a traditional symbol in Japanese notation, the convention of its usage isn’t completely clear. If you look up some books on proofreading and Japanese notation, the “・” symbol is the proper symbol to separate names, but I did find that double hyphens are sometimes used in children’s books.
However, looking at the names of authors and characters in published translated works, it seems that the actual trend that is followed is “first and last names separated by a midpoint, and if either the last or first name is more than one word, they are connected with a double hyphen”.
An example of such names that contain a double hyphen are the Katakana notation of Jean＝Jacques・Rousseau (Jean-Jacques Rousseau), “The Little Prince” by Antoine・de・Saint＝Exupéry (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) and Nobel Writing Prize writer Gabriel・García＝Márquez (Gabriel García Márquez) and so on.
Compared to the original language notation, Rousseau’s name, Jean-Jacques and Saint-Exupéry’s last name are connected by hyphens. Garcia Marquez is a Spanish name that originally had no hyphen, but due to the joined paternal and maternal last names, the connected is denoted by the double hyphen.
In addition, single named or single last named people who’s original spelling did not contain a hyphen are usually just written with a midpoint joining them. It doesn’t even have to be a novel, just look at translated books or books with foreign names in bookstores. Given these examples, the double hyphen has a different usage and meaning from the midpoint “・”, I would like to conclude by saying that it is incorrect to use a double hyphen “＝” to separate first and last names.