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In a short story that I'm writing, there are four main characters:

  • Myra
  • Alytho
  • Syng
  • Theyna

Myra and Theyna are female; Alytho and Syng are male. They all have a few things in common, one of which is that they, like all people and places in their land, have a "y" in their names. Don't ask me why; I thought it would be an interesting twist. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I'm aware of names on Earth that are similar - for example, in patronymic or matronymic societies, children might have their last name be the first name of one of their parents - followed by a common suffix.

Does it make sense, though, for everyone to have one letter or sound in their name that is the same? I'm not asking for people to come up with some weird societal situation; I'm asking from a linguistic point of view.

Other random information:

  • I haven't yet decided on country size yet, but I'm looking at something the size of Iran.
  • The setting is medieval.
  • There's really only one culture here, without a mixing pot of immigrants.
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Letters, whether alone or in combination with others, only represent sounds. Compare English; the "y" in Theyna would be pronounced quite differently from the "y" in your other examples. Hence your question seems to become more of, but not quite, does it make sense that perhaps the same sound would appear in all personal names of a culture? – Michael Kjörling Jan 25 at 15:04
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Being of a nation which uses the latin alphabet with a lot of extra letters (éáóöőúüűí), and having a name actually having one of those I would put my bet on nationality. Could it be that no other nations on your world uses "y", so having one in your name is a clear sign of belonging to them? – mg30rg Jan 25 at 15:07
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@MichaelKjörling It's humans in an Earth-like setting, the same world as described here and in linked questions, although the country name was changed long ago from "Xenqua" to something that makes more sense. – HDE 226868 Jan 25 at 15:07
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@HDE226868 In fact, there were - I mean in the medieval Earth. There were traders crossing the known world multiple times in their lives (look up "silk road" for reference), and there were mercenary and wandering tribes. :v But I can't tell you how to set up your own world. :D – mg30rg Jan 25 at 15:14
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There are a number of inflectional languages where e.g. all male names will have a particular sound at the end of name simply to indicate that it is a masculine noun - even names from other cultures will be adapted by adding such endings in order to use them in sentences. – Peteris Jan 25 at 18:06

10 Answers 10

up vote 7 down vote accepted

The most plausible explanation to me seems that the letter or sound carries a meaning. Consider for instance Scandinavian family names, which almost exclusively end in -sen (or -son in sweden) which means son of. Perhaps, in this culture it is custom to include something meaning 'child' in the name.

The language would need to work a certain way for it to work flexibly like in your examples though. More specifically, it must be rather flexible with word order and possibly have pronounciation of wordgroups be decoupled from meaning. That way, the 'y' in Theyna and Syng can signify the same thing, despite not sounding similar.

You could then have other words with the letter 'y' in it pop up which mean something related to offspring or a parental relationship. For instance, if the sun is still called 'Sun', 'syun' could mean sunshine or literally, 'child of Sun'

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But wouldn't that be more than just a letter? – bilbo_pingouin Jan 26 at 7:24
    
@bilbo_pingouin possibly yes, but not necessarily; child on its own could be something like yi, and when used in a word, the 'i' drops off. It's also important to considre that perhaps this culture doesn't actually use the latin alphabet or anything like it really and that the short story is merely a translation/interpretation. – overactor Jan 26 at 7:34

Linguistic markers like that are common. Usually they are found at the end of a word (some times at the begining), but it could occur anywhere.

Such markers would occur when something is important enough to warrant spending a phonem on it to make sure there's no misunderstanding. My favorite example is from an aboriginal language that has 4 genders for its nouns:

  • Men and animals
  • Women and birds (birds are separate from other animals because women in the afterlife are associated with birds)
  • Objects
  • Small edible fruits

The last gender always made me smile, because it's so odd. However, it says something about the brutality of their life. The availability of foodstuffs was so scarce that it was worth creating an entire gender for foods, presumably so that the members of the tribe were constantly aware of them.

If you wanted to make a big deal about every character having a 'y' in it, I'd choose a society where the individual is a very important trait in society: important enough to have all names retain a linguistic similarity.

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7  
I like your example, but it's also important not to read too much into such things, since they could also just be random quirks of grammar evolution. For example, without knowing the specific language your example comes from, it's also possible that it e.g. just happened to have a common marker for small fruits (like the suffix "-berry" in English!) that somehow interacted with the gender markers (maybe it sounded like them, or created a phonological conflict) causing the conjugation patterns for those marked nouns to diverge. Or not; one really needs to look deeper into the context to tell. – Ilmari Karonen Jan 25 at 22:39
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@IlmariKaronen I would be tempted to say 100% of all fundamental features of our grammar come from random quirks of grammar evolution, though I'd be hard pressed to prove it was 100%. Perhaps 99% would be more conservative. So in that sense, you're right. However, you have to admit, it would be odd to say "there are very good and natural cultural distinctions between three of the four genders, but the fourth is just a random quirk that snuck in there." – Cort Ammon Jan 25 at 22:53
    
See here, especially section 1(3), on more information on the four noun classes of Tsez, a Northeast Caucasian language, than you probably ever wanted to know. For instance, class II contains females, but also berries, paper items, some clothing, some body parts, some tools, mountains, stones and rocks, some time terms and various other inanimates. – Stephan Kolassa Jan 26 at 15:33
    
I think you're overestimating the "sense" genders make anyway. The simplest example of this is how often languages differ in what gender is associated with what word. Some are very common ("woman" is probably always female), but others are pretty much random (what is it exactly that makes bridge female in german, but male in czech?). I'm no linguist, but I'd expect that most of the languages split off their ancestors with the basics already in place (where genders made sense), and only accumulated the divergent ones over time (some proto-german thought bridges are obviously female). – Luaan Jan 26 at 19:37
    
@Luaan I'm less trying to make the statement "genders are always defined along meaningful lines," and more the statement, "when there are obvious meaningful lines which happen to coincide with gender boundaries, there is a high likelihood that the gender boundaries are actually meaningful, rather than arbitrary boundaries that just coincide due to random luck." – Cort Ammon Jan 26 at 19:40

To expand on some of the existing answers and address some doubts raised in other answers:

I think that this phenomenon can be well explained by something similar (but not identical) to inflection with umlauts. For example, in German, the plural of a word can be formed by “umlauting” some vowel, i.e., by replacing it with another vowel according to some scheme:

Apfel → Äpfel
Garten → Gärten
Mann → Männer
Haus → Häuser
Bistum → Bistümer

Note how the modified vowel may be located in different positions, may be part of diphthong (Haus → Häuser) and the umlauting is always indicated the same way orthographically, namely by placing two dots above a letter (historically these dots originate from what was once the letter e). Yet, in all cases, the meaning of the umlaut in this context is to indicate the same thing, namely a plural.

Now, your names may originate from normal words of your language, where a “regular” vowel was replaced by y. Or with other word, the name-generating mechanism of your culture is (or was) to take a normal word and inflect some vowel to y.

To give a more specific scenario how this may have happened: In your language, inflecting a vowel is a way to derive words of another word class from existing words. Compare this to the English appending of an y to a noun to obtain an adjective, e.g., as in sun → sunny or juice → juicy. Now, in our language inflecting a vowel of an adjective to an i is used to form a noun which describes something holding that property. For example:

mora = brave → mira = somebody who is brave

alatho = red-haired → alitho = somebody who has red hair

This was also used to name people. When orthography was invented, your people considered it useful to make an orthographical distinction between person names and words regularly formed in the above manner (they did not have a capitalisation paradigm allowing for this) and thus they replaced i with y in person names.

An analgous (if not the same) mechanism may have happened to place names, if your culture like to name places by their properties. For example:

sung = cold → sing = a place that is cold

While umlauting is not done as rigourously as required by the question, languages are generally capable of handling such matters rigourously. For example there are only very few exceptions to the Latvian naming scheme. If the culture in question values consistency or being able to distinguish names, this may very well be a mechanism to prevent exceptions from this rule.

This should address some of the doubts brought up in other answers, namely the placement of the vowel, the vowel being part of a diphthong and the fact that this is an orthographical feature.

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That's possible, but for this to apply to literally every name still seems unlikely to me. Umlaut is one way of forming a plural in German, but not all plurals in German use umlaut. Adding "-y" is one way to form an adjective from a noun in English, but not all adjectives in English end in -y. This is a good explanation for why these 4 names would share this feature in common, but the overall scenario described in the original post ("all people and places in their land have a "y" in their names") still strains my suspension of disbelief. – sumelic Jan 25 at 20:01

If they are all from the same country, then yes. It could be a custom in their nation to give children names with Ys in them. However, customs vary from area to area, so if they live in a large country, like the size of the US, then it is not likely. The same goes for different European countries. After all, Spain and Portugal are on the same peninsula, and have similar cultures, but they speak different languages and other things are different as well.

To sum it all up, yes, it makes perfect sense if it is a cultural or national custom.

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I realize this answer was provided before a big edit to the question, but as it stands now, it contains no argumentation that isn't already present in the question. (See Other arndom information in the question.) – overactor Jan 25 at 15:32
    
Well, he asked for an answer, and I gave him one. He asked for the answer from a linguistic point of view, and I pointed out that cultures do this kind of thing all the time. People have voted it up, so it seems that they approve of it. – XandarTheZenon Jan 25 at 15:40

In medieval Europe, names often (albeit not always) represented one of three things:

  • Where you (or your family) were from
  • Who you (or your family) were from
  • What you (or your family) did

For instance, the Scotts and Irish used the Gaelic word Mac to create clan names such as MacDougall (literally: "son of Dougall") while the Scandinavians used the suffix -sen or -son; the French used the word de (and its cognates) to say where they came from, such as d'Orléans ("from Orleans") or Dupont ("from the bridge" -- not on its own highly descriptive); and all over you had names like Smith (any of a number of "smithy" trades such as blacksmith), Sawyer ("wood cutter"), and La Forge (literally "the forge", i.e. "blacksmith").

It's conceivable, then, that the letter 'y' in your names could be the demarcation between given and family name, where the family name could be any of these (and more): Myra could be from a house founded by someone named Ra; in the Old Tongue, maybe "tho" meant "carpenter", making Alytho something akin to Al[ice] Sawyer; Syng's family might come from the region known (or formerly known) as Ng. Sometimes names became more simplistic, literally meaning "son/daughter of [mom/dad]", so Theyna might be the daughter of Naytra, the son of Trayvis, the son of Visytra, etc. (In this form, you might conceivably have an Arabian-style "formal name"1 that strings all of that together: Theynaytrayvisytra.)

None of this implies a stringent structure to the parts of their names. For instance, Syng could have a brother named Jokitryng, and their friend down the street might be named Sytrovalliance. You could even conceivably have a clan/house that took the full name of the founder, such that Myra's name might more accurately be Myraytro.

Using the 'y' in this form doesn't necessarily require that it always be pronounced the same, either. For instance, at least in modern usage (and at least here stateside) the names McDonald and MacDonald have slightly different pronunciations, even though the former is technically just an abbreviated form of the latter. As far as constructing and pronouncing the names go, 'y' is just another letter and follows all the rules it otherwise would; there might have been a time when it strictly had a single sound, but the language has evolved, as languages do, in a way that makes these names easier to say and more natural to hear.


1 In ancient Arabia (possibly modern as well? not sure when or even if it fell out of fashion) a person introducing himself formally would for all intents and purposes lay out his entire geneology, stringing together the name of each father, father's father, father's father's father, etc. with the word ibn, meaning "son of", such that (for instance) I might introduce myself as:

Travis, son of Richard, son of Robert, son of Robert, son of Robert, son of Jacob, son of... [Yes, this is accurate, as far back as I can remember off the top of my head, though we actually know our genealogy as far back as the Normans, pre-invasion of England.]

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You've already followed one naming convention from your own culture: both your female names end in -a. While not all English female names end in -a, virtually no male names do (and indeed -a is commonly added to male names to mke a female equivalent.)

Others have mentioned the endings on surnames that refer to the person's father or ancestor: -son in English, -ez in Spanish or ov/ova in Russian (Russian surnames change according to the gender of the person, and again we see the addition of -a to make the female form.) But I think you were more interested in given names, so I will consider that.

In Chinese families, it is common for cousins of the same gender and generation to have similar given names. Thus all my (singaporean) ex girlfriend's cousins where called Whui something (female) or Wah something (male.)

But the one factor which could cause a whole country to have a common feature in their names is religion. In Spanish the first name Maria is so common that most women called Maria go by their second name (the initial Maria often get abbreviated to Ma. in email signatures and similar uses.) There are many Spanish female names that refer to some aspect of Mary, even though they sound nothing like Mary. Lourdes and Carmen (named after holy places) and Angeles (short for Maria de los Angeles) are examples. I understand the Franco dictatorship made it obligatory for all girls to be named after Mary in some way or other, but I can't confirm this.

For male names, I've heard more than once that Mohamed is the most common male name in the world, and I can believe it.

Hebrew names for both genders (both those that are in current use and those that now sound old fashioned) often contain el meaning God: Daniel, Michael, Joel, Ezekiel, Elijah, Elishaveh (Elizabeth), Eliana, Batel, etc.

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Dana, Ezra, Joshua, Ira :) But they are definitely rare. – Tomas Jan 26 at 9:47

Although many good points can be found in previous answers, and in particular, with Kromey's, I think we could devise a way to get it. And Spanish could be a source of inspiration.

I don't need to come back to the whole "son of" thing. There are plenty of examples throughout the world, and those have already been presented. Furthermore familly names (particularly) derive from

  • names of familly members (e.g. Johansson),
  • location,
  • profession (e.g. Smith),
  • animals (e.g. Wolff),
  • common objects (e.g. Stone)

But it can result of association of different words (e.g. Livingstone). All that is clear from before, but one can also think that sometimes the original meaning gets lost. So back to Spanish, if Martinez is the son of Martin, Fernandez the son of Fernando, of whom is Saez the son?

Linguists and some scholars might know, but the general population does not.

And in Spanish, the word for and is y. So consider a tradition which names their children from both their parents (true for last names in Spain): the son of Maria and John could be Mariayjohn, or maybe in some contracted form: Mayjo.

Note that instead of names, other inspiration could be taken for combination: a star and a planet, an object and an animal, a place and an animal, etc.

Now, one could object that without the contraction it sounds weird, and with it, it seems far fetched. Ask Russian speaking, how they shorten first names. Valerii becomes Valera, and Alexander becomes Sasha. Japanese or similar ideograms-based languages tend to drop one or more of their characters to form nicknames, which would make surprising contraction.

Another effect which is observed by linguists could act: people are lazy and tend to deform words to make it easier to say, and given enough time, some mutation may appear. In some languages some letters disappear or some mutate depending on the other words around. So Syng could be an evolution or Syynig stemming from Sylvia y Nigel.

And if you give it enough time, people would recognise them as names and not for their original meaning. Only the most curious of us look up the original meaning of their first names.

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You say:

I'm not asking for people to come up with some weird societal situation; I'm asking from a linguistic point of view.

Well, and I’m going to argue that this question cannot be answered without examining societal issues.

I’m not a linguist, but still I’m pretty sure that it would be perfectly valid for a language to only provide names with an ‘y’. Why, unless you’re going pretty deep into the linguistics in your writing (as J.R.R. Tolkien did), I think you’ll be perfectly well with just setting up the rule as a characteristic of you language.

However:

Here come the societal issues. How big is your country? Even more importantly, how secluded is it?

If your country is large enough, than most likely inconsistencies are bound to show up. Your language will be divided into local dialects, and some might start providing names without this magic ‘y’.

Then, if your country is reasonably open to the outer world, then your language will be exposed to other languages. Foreign words might start appearing, and these foreign words, of course, don’t conform to the rules of your language. People from other countries, even other cultures will start settling in your country; they might have names without this ‘y’. These names may be passed down through generations, and sooner or later may become “normal” or “regular” even among the natives of your country.

Still:

I think that these rules of your language might be strong enough to withstand all of the above. For example, AFAIK Spanish has something with the ‘s’ consonant, they like to precede it with the ɛ vowel in the pronunciation some cases. If a foreign word violates this rule, then they simply insert this ɛ. For example, they don't pronounce Smaug the dragon’s name or the word ‘snowboard’ like English people; rather, they put this ɛ in front of the word. See Google’s speech synthesizer to get an idea: https://translate.google.com/#es/en/Smaug https://translate.google.com/#es/en/snowboard Following this idea, your language speakers might start inserting these ‘y’s to any name that doesn’t have them.

Edit:

Following your edit.

To my intuition, again not backed up by any serious linguistic knowledge:

  • A mediaval setting means less communication among different societal groups (no phones, no Internet, few written letters, lots of illiterate people); therefore, in a country of size of Iran I’d imagine lots of different dialects popping up, both based on regions and on societal status. Peasants will speak differently than the aristocrats, and more, peasants from the North of your country will speak differently than peasants from the South.

  • Even if your country is not a pot of immigrants: what are its neighbours? How secluded is your country from its neighbours? You don't need to be a pot of immigrants to still have some mixing, which is inevitable at least near the border.

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I think it's kind of silly, linguistically speaking. Most personal names predate the invention of writing and come from various sources. It's true that, as Overactor says, some languages have common elements in names that carry meaning, like a suffix -son or like gender affixes in many European languages. But you aren't doing that: the names you list all have the y in different places, and apparently pronounced differently in some cases (I'd assume it's a vowel in "Syng," and just the second half of a digraph in "Theyna"). That seems implausible to me; what kind of mechanism would cause that? Extending it to place names just makes it even worse; often, place names are borrowed from other languages, so there's no good reason for them to all follow a single rule like this.

Jane Yolen did this with "kk" in most people's names in her Pit Dragon Chronicles, and I found it a bit distracting there.

If you want to provide some connecting factor to the names in a more realistic way, I think it would be better to come up with a short list of the various allowed sounds in their language, how they can be arranged, and how they are written in the Latin alphabet. There might be some suffixes or prefixes that are common, but not universal. You can decide what they mean (for example, "this is a female name," or "Junior," or "this person comes from this place").

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That seems implausible to me; what kind of mechanism would cause that? – See my answer. – Wrzlprmft Jan 25 at 19:56

The most well known canonical example of this is probably that of Vulcan naming conventions. Although the rule was never taken seriously and has been clearly been violated.

The treatment of Vulcan names has been erratic throughout Star Trek's production history. Early on, female Vulcans were typically given names beginning with "T" followed by an apostrophe then a "p". The earliest reference to Vulcan names following a set pattern dates back to a May 3, 1966 memo from TOS producer Robert H. Justman to Gene Roddenberry (later reprinted in the book The Making of Star Trek) in which Justman recommended that all Vulcan names begin with "SP" and end with "K", and have exactly five letters. (It is clear from the context of the book, however, that the memo was intended as a joke, as the series of memos ends up discussing the pronunciation of such names as "Spook", "Spilk" and "Spork".)

Vulcan personal names actually follow a more complex set of rules that do not limit themselves as much as this question requires, but it does show a similar linguistic basis.

How many people even notice that there were any rules associated with Vulcan naming conventions? To me this seems quite credible if based on some logic (never revealed) that forms the basis for the naming conventions. Vulcans would be very resistant to violating the logical basis for this naming convention.

As for the logical source for a naming convention, I would conjecture that it would most likely be related to Surak, the father of Vulcan logic, the greatest vulcan that ever lived. Once a Vulcan demonstrated the infallible logic of personal names to be chosen to honor Surak and the logical basis of Vulcan society, Vulcan names would follow the convention on an on-going basis.

This is of course not a linguistic solution, but a cultural one.

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