• An interesting setting conducive to telling many stories in? Go!

  • Well thought out inhabitants in this setting with diverse cultural backgrounds? Go!

  • A proper noun for any of it? Houston, we have a problem....

This is a common problem for me. I can develop a world in every detail (or as little detail as a story demands), but I am usually left with documents full of <insert name here> or <come up with something alien sounding for this>. These placeholders take the longest time to fill, and what I fill them with is less than satisfying. I will spare you the examples. I will also spare you the output spewed by the never ending list of “random name generator” sites that purport to solve this problem.

As I am a monoglot, I do not generally attempt to design languages for other races; all the writing will be in English. It should be assumed I do not have in mind what any particular culture’s language sounds like.

What I would like is a technique for developing consistent-sounding, alien-sounding (or foreign-sounding) names within the context of a (sub)culture. Are there existing, documented techniques or tools for doing this?

Addendum:

Perhaps I should also be asking if 'not having in mind what the language sounds like' is an inherent flaw with trying to come up with alien sounding names.

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    I suppose you could always ask Tolkien. . . Excellent question. – HDE 226868 Nov 2 '14 at 16:31
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    @HDE226868 The difference is that Tolkien did design languages for (some of) his cultures. – Tritium21 Nov 2 '14 at 16:32
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    That's what I meant. What did I (accidentally) imply? – HDE 226868 Nov 2 '14 at 16:33
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    @HDE226868 That he had a technique that did not have that asset (a designed language) as a guide for the names he created. – Tritium21 Nov 2 '14 at 16:35
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    @Tritium Tolkien was very clever in the way he handled his languages. One of the techniques he employed was to translate "Common Speech" into English, along with many names current in Common. If you can grab a copy of the Lord of the Rings, Apendix F Part II "On Translation" is worth a look. Example "The name of the Shire (Suza) and all other places of the Hobbits have thus been Englished". Picking appropriately familiar or exotic historical terms, implicitly translated from whatever true language is spoken, is a useful technique that can be used to great informative effect. – DeveloperInDevelopment Nov 3 '14 at 4:14

12 Answers 12

up vote 69 down vote accepted

To not have anything in mind about a particular language is asking a bit much. If the names are to be spoken, and thus based on the sound of the language, you need to know something about that. Similarly, for written names, you'd need a minimal idea about the language's building blocks and their composition. This can't be avoided since it is at the heart of asking for consistency.

That said, many readers don't mind if you take short-cuts. They'd be satisfied with a small part of the language, just enough to make names and still sound like a credible part of a language. To invent names, you could create a set of similar names like this:

  1. Define minimal building blocks (and possibly combination rules)
  2. Create random valid combinations
  3. Filter the combinations for uniqueness, aesthetics, or other reasons for suitability

I'll call the building blocks elements, since it would be constraining to make assumptions about their complexity. They could be letters, sounds, syllables, or even whole words; either works but produces a different kind of similarity between the names.

That's already better than nothing. Personally, I'd season it with a little meaning, to create an illusion of depth:

  • Sketch a cultural background
  • Select some combinations and give them a concept or an association. When naming, use or exclude these situationally.
  • Create semantics for the usage of any meaningful components you defined (e.g. placement rules for titles, honorifics, adjectives)

Let's do a little example. I call my culture the Ahl, since one-syllable names are cool and I'm too lazy to go down the alphabet.

Building blocks and their combination

To give the words structure, I invent two types of elements to build words from: $a$ and $b$. For this example, they're combinable by the formal grammar $S \rightarrow aS; S \rightarrow ab$. (So valid words would be structured $ab$, $aab$, $aaab$, and so on.) This is not a general solution, but a set of rules specific to the culture we're creating names for.

Since "Ahl" should be a valid name, let's say that "Ah" would be a possible $a$ and "L" a possible $b$. We need a few more, so here goes!

let aList = ["Ah"; "Riu"; "Ne"; "Iya"]
let bList = ["L"; "N"; "D"; "Sh"]

Feel free to ignore the syntax unless you want to computer-generate names in the next step. Of course, actual lists of elements should be larger. It might take a bit to come up with good elements -- these are just me typing in anything that first came to mind.

I am limiting myself to the Latin alphabet and common sounds here. That is, of course, not necessary. When using alien names, you often need annotations on how to read them anyway.

Combining

Now, just combine them and have a look! Easy to do by hand...

but this is Stackexchange, so let's add a program to output all allowed words of a given count of elements. But feel free to do it by hand instead. (The following is in F#. You can paste it, together with the element lists, on the website tryfsharp.org if it works on your browser, or any F# compiler or console.)

let aStep = List.collect (fun (s : string) -> [for a in aList -> a + s.ToLower()])
let rec allNames length =
    if length > 1 then aStep <| allNames (length - 1) else bList

allNames 2 |> List.iter (printfn "%s") outputs all two-element names (scroll up in the output if you test it on tryfsharp):

Ahl Riul Nel Iyal Ahn Riun Nen Iyan Ahd Riud Ned Iyad Ahsh Riush Nesh Iyash

For three elements, we get a longer list, with names like "Riunen", "Neriud", or "Iyanel". If the rules and elements are chosen carelessly, many combinations will be unusable, but that's not a problem as long as you can find enough usable ones.

The count of possible names increases rapidly when using larger element sets, shorter elements, or longer words. Choosing a large set of possibilities adds some realism, but might make the similarity of the names less apparent. You can use much more restrictive rules for making names than would be reasonable to make words of a language. (Seeing how similar names in some cultures are, this is quite realistic.)

Meaning

We need context before adding meaning, so I'll make up something. The Ahl are a mysterious society. Their cities are shrouded in thick fog; they have excellent hearing and can navigate by sound. In their view, strength is knowledge about one another: deception is defense and surveillance is offense, the cautious is wise and the noisy a fool and a nuisance.

Someone important in Ahl society would be a keeper of secrets or something along that line. So I just take one of the short combinations to create a title for that: Nesh. A Nesh is the one who decides what can and can't be told to outsiders.

Similar picks can be made for other important concepts: noisiness, listening, knowing, cartography -- things an Ahl might have a special word or phrase for.

Scaling the effort

This method can be used in a very simple way, say, by writing down a dozen syllables and combining them arbitrarily. Spending a little more time, one can think of a few rules on how to build words and how to use them. It should be easy to create names that are distinct from the names of other cultures in the same setting.

The difficulty lies in making the names credible as something alien, not something an author just came up with on a whim. There is, of course, much more to this; a major problem lies in sounds and phonetics. It is very unlikely that an alien language can be transcribed into an English text without an elaborate explanation how to read it. But that is a broad topic and this post is already too long. Also, I'd have to ask Nesh Ryunen if I may disclose any more.


Addendum: fast step 1-2 via sample text Markov chain

In this answer, evandentremont suggested a fast way for the first two steps if you have a sample for which you want to generate similar-sounding text. In a first step, calculate the probability for letters depending on the previous letter(s). Then, output random strings that follow the same distribution. (This is a Markov chain approach.)

Here is an F# program to do this with selectable amount of considered characters per character placed (order). An order of one produces results of limited quality, since the actual sounds comprising words are more than single letters. higher orders require longer samples to work well, but the output looks more sane.

This method has its downsides, as you aren't consciously creating the sounds and words. This makes it harder to interpret meaningful patterns into them and design distinct alien features. It is still fun to do and a very fast method. Here is what it does for an order of two:

Input: "lololololol zomg roflmao"

zomg zomg zomg roflmao lol lololololololol zomg lolol

Wow, it can speak online kiddie

Note that samples in real use cases should be much longer. Let's test it with an input that is a little closer to a realistic use case.

Input: 70 names of planets and moons in our solar system

Lysida Calia Cara Epinopa Amassa Aritanus Laranus Kalyke Chaliel Tethea Theus Porax Elasiphalia

These sound pretty real, don't they? This may be more of a language analysis tool than a language creation tool, but it sure is a quick way to enlarge a set of fantasy names.

  • 1
    I am interpreting this answer's gist as "Bite the bullet, develop a phonology and morphology at the vary least, and use that to build your names". Is this a correct characterization of your answer? – Tritium21 Nov 3 '14 at 11:58
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    @Tritium21: Yes, though you only need to partially develop them. You could do just enough sounds to build names and be done with it. Maybe names are very similar in this language, it's not a big deal. Minimal effort could be to punch in eight syllables or so and combine them at will. Not very sophisticated, but it's not a big leap from listening to Japanese names without knowing how they're written. (I'll have another look if I can improve the answer, it was late when I posted that.) – Vandroiy Nov 3 '14 at 12:24
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    If you can get your hands on them; the old Alien modules for the roleplaying game Traveller have examples of this kind of approach done reasonably well for each of the races. – Jack Aidley Nov 3 '14 at 13:39
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    An aside: the "combining" method is how J.M.S. came up with Minbari names for Babylon 5 (and possibly others, but a comment he made on Minbari names is the one that sticks out) – Izkata Nov 3 '14 at 20:42
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    A point to add is the more text you throw at it the better the results. – evandentremont Nov 4 '14 at 16:17

The easiest way to do this is just to pick a sound or a theme for each culture/race/etc and then use that.

Some examples:

Clicks

Alien insectoid race communicates using clicks, so their words tend to be very harsh and certain sounds they just don't use.

For example letters that use the lips and tongue a lot like m, n, f, g, h might be gone but there would be a lot of k, x, t, and similar letters.

The resulting names tend to be things like Kixstex, Takxas, Vakt, Gatrex

Hisses

A snake like race might tend to use long syllabic words and favor hissing sounds.

Sourassan, Moarasseen, Hashouss, veehamon

Meaning

A lot of place names in English actually have meaning. Many of these are obvious such as "ford" or "bridge" in a name (i.e. Watford, Cambridge) but others had old-english meanings. For example "ton", "by", and other sounds at the end of a name actually meant something. So you can pick a few sounds that mean something for these aliens and then end all place names with one of those sounds.

Other sounds

Perhaps they use something like a click or a stop in the word, Tr'lk, Ptr!nk, etc. You need to be careful doing this though as readers may well not know how to sound out the word if it's written like that.

One partial technique is to create an a posteriori language - that is, to base it off an existing language. Here, J. R. R. Tolkien is quoted explaining how he was inspired to create some of his languages:

  • Elvish:

    But it was his discovery of the Finnish language that truely inspired him. Tolkien wrote about it many years later: “It was like discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavor never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me.”

    “The ingredients in Quenya are various, but worked out into a self-consistent character not precisely like any language that I know. Finnish, which I came across when I first begun to construct a ‘mythology’ was a dominant influence, but that has been much reduced [now in late Quenya]. It survives in some features: such as the absence of any consonant combinations initially, the absence of the voiced stops b, d, g (except in mb, nd, ng, ld, rd, which are favoured) and the fondness for the ending -inen, -ainen, -oinen, also in some points of grammar, such as the inflexional endings -sse (rest at or in), -nna (movement to, towards), and -llo (movement from); the personal possessives are also expressed by suffixes; there is no gender.”

  • Dwarvish:

    Tolkien based Dwarvish on the Semitic languages, due to his observation of similarities between Dwarves and Jews: both were “at once natives and aliens in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country, but with an accent due to their own private tongue…”. Tolkien also commented of the Dwarves that “their words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic.” Like the Semitic languages, Khuzdul has triconsonantal roots: kh-z-d, b-n-d, z-g-l. Other similarities to Hebrew in phonology and morphology have been observed.

  • Languages of Men:

    Taliska, based on the Gothic language, was an early interest of Tolkien.

    Soval Pharë, also known as “Common Speech” or Westron in English, comes closest to being a lingua franca in Middle-earth particularly during the time period of The Lord of the Rings.

    Other less developed languages included: Dalish (derived from Old Norse), and Rohirric (derived from Anglo-Saxon), Rhovanion (derived from Gothic), as well as Haladin, Dunlendish, Drûg, Haradrim, and Easterling.


Another method is to find a set of letters - may it be a dipthong, a few consonants, or just a random combination - and use it in different names, possibly as a prefix or suffix. Again, drawing on Tolkien's work:

  • Theoded and Theodred
  • Eowyn and Eomer
  • Faramir and Boromir
  • Aragorn and Arathorn
  • Hobbits in general (see the family trees in the appendices of the books); a good example is the Baggins family, with Balbo, Bungo, Biblo, Belba, Bodo, Bingo, etc. - though I just picked ones beginning with "B".

Need I mention the dwarfs (Balin and Dwalin, Fili and Kili, Bifur, Bofur and Bombur, Oin and Gloin, Ori, Nori, and Dori - as well as Thorin, son of Thrain, son of Thror)?

By the way, there are many more fantastic examples here.

  • 1
    Btw, the dwarf names Tolkien heavily copied from the Völuspá, the "Prophecy of the Seeress" in the Poetic Edda. Cf. sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe03.htm verse 10 and following. – fgysin Apr 20 '16 at 13:08
  • Some of these names reflect the dithematic pattern that was formerly productive in most IE languages (but not Latin): most personal names were coined from two roots, one of them typically shared with a parent. Many names in Gondor (e.g. Denethor) are taken from Elves of the First Age—and I wonder what the Elves of the Third Age thought of that. – Anton Sherwood Jul 24 '16 at 4:22

An Involved Way to develop the aural feel of your language

The IPA chart show below describes every sound that the human body uses in verbal languages. Every language uses a subset of these sounds. (Other sounds are possible such as Mongolian throat singing.)

IPA Chart(2005) There is a newer 2015 revision but I couldn't find a good legible copy.

Of this huge set of possible sounds, each language chooses some to use. Below is the English IPA chart.

English IPA Chart

As you can see there are a great many sounds that English just simply does not use and, if you are targeting an English audience, you shouldn't expect them to pronounce your new names "properly". They may not even be able to hear the difference.

Have a look at the IPA symbols with pronunciations.

Language Feel Development Process

Here we go:

  1. Look through the GMU Accent Archive where the IPA charts for many many languages can be found. Familiarize yourself with the languages / dialects / accents you are most familiar with. If you find a particularly interesting IPA sound set, go find examples of it on YouTube (or your favorite video site).
  2. Take some time to learn what the IPA symbols mean and how they sound. Wikipedia has lots of sound samples for consonants and vowels.
  3. Pick a collection of random consonants, at least 15, at most 25. (But go nuts if you want to) It doesn't yet matter if your target language uses or can even hear those sounds, we'll get to that later. (For example, a monoglot English speaker most likely won't be able to tell the difference between a plosive glottal and a fricative glottal. Right now, we don't care.)
  4. Choose some vowels, probably no more than 12 but no fewer than 5.
  5. Decide on a few rules about which sounds can or can't follow other sounds. For example, maybe you want a really fast sounding language, so have a rule that says consonants must come in threes with no intervening vowels. Or, each consonant must be followed by a vowel and vowels are never allowed to start a word. Go as crazy as you want but remember that you will need to rein in any craziness here when you get to the transliteration step. Don't make yourself work any harder than you have to....unless you really want to.
  6. Create some candidate word examples using the symbols you've come up with. If the randomness is weak with you, assign each symbol a number then choose a random integer from Random.org. Sometimes the resulting words won't make sense, such as if you get 5 consonants next to each other (unless you're Czech, in which case, go for it!). Use your good judgement here.
  7. Evaluate the emotional feel of your words. Note that every culture places an emotional value on a particular kind of sound. I'm sure you can think of a language that always sounds angry (to you) for no other reason than the sounds of that language, even if the speaker isn't angry. This step is highly dependent on your needs and the needs of your audience.
  8. If you're happy with your sound set, go ahead to the transliteration stage. If not, go back to step 3 then refine your sound set or choose new random names.

So we have the sounds and a few words, but they are in a language that are probably only pronounceable by you. Let's fix that with a little transliteration:

  1. Map each of your chosen symbols to the sounds that closely match your target language. There may not be any close relationship, so you'll need to approximate and get close. You may lose some vocal nuance such as if, for example, you have to collapse a voiced and unvoiced dental fricative down to just a voiced dental fricative. If this is a problem, go back to step 3 and refine your sound set.
  2. Now, take the sounds in your set and assign them to the letters and letter combos of your target language.
  3. Translate from your IPA symbol set to your target language for each name you need to generate.
  4. By this point, you should have some very unusual sounding names that aren't based on any single Earth culture but have the emotional feel you want.

Maintaining Pronunciation

As you can see, it's incredibly easy to choose a selection of sounds that are completely unpronounceable by your target audience. Don't make that mistake. If your audience can't even say your character's names, they are less likely to talk about them.

Extended Language Exercises

This same process can be used to generate a new language too though that will require generating an entire new set of words. Just start with translating the ten hundred most common words of Up-Goer Five.

You can approach this algorithmically. Look into Markov Chains.

I once built a random planet name generator using them. Basically, analyze a body of text for patterns and procedurally generate new words.

For example

This is a sentence.

You see that given a t, it can be followed by h or e. I can be followed by s, or s.

Starting with a random letter keep the chain going. For example start with t and you have a 50:50 chance of h, or e following it. Start with I, and you have a 100% chance of s following it.

The larger the corpus of text, the better the results. You can (and should) also group letters. The larger the group, the more realistic the words sounds. If the group is too big, it will fail to generate new words. I find two or three usually works best.

Now, for sounding alien, find a set of words that have the same 'tone' that you're looking for. For elvish words use a list Lord of The Rings words. For alien, use a list of Star Trek planets. For foreign sounding, just use a book written in that language.

Here's an example written in python

  • 1
    That's a neat idea. +1 – Epsilon Nov 4 '14 at 2:36
  • This is fun! I took the liberty of referencing you, adding a description to my answer, and writing an example program. It seems this is allowed and encouraged here. I hope you don't mind. (Huh, I just noticed you also wrote one? Didn't see that before. Oh well, more variety, I guess.) – Vandroiy Nov 4 '14 at 15:57
  • That's not mine, just found one online. – evandentremont Nov 4 '14 at 16:09

Names are labels used to identify particular people and places.

If you have no interest in linguistics, or the specific characteristics of the aliens' language, then all you need is a convenient way of generating these labels. Each name is a sequence of sub-elements -- basically, syllables. So "Obi-Wan Kenobi" breaks down as OBI WAN KEN OBI. You need to identify some syllables as your building blocks, and string them together. The basic requirements are:

  • Names should be pronounceable to the average reader. If all the aliens are called things like Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, most readers will find it annoying.
  • Names should not obviously be from our world. An alien called Juanita who comes from the planet Barbados is no good.

If you want to get slightly more advanced:

  • Ideally, names from the same culture should have some elements in common. Certain combinations of sounds are more common in particular languages -- so French names sound different from Japanese ones.
  • The sub-elements can have their own meanings. This can be as complicated as you like, especially for aliens -- names can identify family relations, place of birth, social rank, stage in life cycle, or notable features/achievements. "Thorgrim the Unruly, son of Hardgrim of the Bear Clan, Earl of Mudtown" is a name which contains a lot of information about who Thorgrim is.

Basically, that's all there is to it. Choose your name-elements and combine them as you see fit.

A couple of useful links:

  • There are a number of fantasy name generators on the Internet, such as this one, which basically automate the name construction process.
  • This is an entertaining rant by a linguistics graduate about everything that is wrong with fictional alien languages.

Good luck and happy naming!

Two quick-and-dirty methods that I have used myself, or have seen used. These are not suitable for conlanging, or any story dealing extensively with concepts of language or communication. They are, however, suitable for monoglots and/or English speakers.

(1) Simple names made up of a small number of consonants. Repeating certain consonants with regularity emulates the look and feel of a distinct phonology. Certain vowel or vowel combinations, when placed regularly in the same part of a word, also create a sense of regularity. Choose four or five of your favorite consonants and make sure that at least one of them appears in each name you create. If you're a fan of the Avatar-verse, think of the water tribes' names, almost all of which contain the letter K. Quick and dirty, as I said.

Vowels are only slightly more complicated. Q&D rules like 'lots of names ending in A' or 'lots of double vowels for extended sound' can make a strong impression on a reader. With regards to both vowels and consonants, what makes the strongest impression is that which seems least familiar. If you are writing with an Anglophone audience in mind, hard consonants like K and Q create a feeling of alienness, as does liberally sprinkling the least-common tiles in Scrabble.

(2) An even simpler (but dirtier) trick is to generate a series of prefixes and a series of suffixes, and mix and match them as appropriate. This is actually a pretty common way of generating new names IRL, and not just in the last century, either. You can populate your lists with morphemes taken from rare or archaic names, or take common morphemes and swap out one consonant for a similar-sounding one, such as N for M. This can create names that are vaguely familiar, but not on a 'my next-door neighbor' level.

Don'ts: avoid apostrophes, diacritics that you're not sure how to pronounce, ligature letters that you're not sure how to pronounce, and capital letters in the middle of names. These are also quick and dirty tricks, but they lack the versimilitude of the others and tend to stick out like a sore thumb.

I am going to take a simpler route than some of the other answers here, though I have an insane amount of respect for the linguistically talented out there that really get into the sounds and sound combinations that create names.

Something that I have noticed, is that if you go back far enough, most names have literal meanings. So most of my names do the same. Here is more or less the system I use.

  1. Pick a language or a group of languages you would like to base your names on.

I usually choose a language for each area or culture so that my names have some kind of similarity. I have used Spanish, Latin, Greek, German, and other western languages. (I have little experience with eastern languages, but have been dabbling a bit recently).

  1. Find a name or attribute for the character, place, or thing to be named.

For example, I chose my name, "Logan", for a character. For a country I chose "hard-lands" and chose "longbow" for the name of an ocean bay there.

  1. Find suitable words that match the name in your previously chosen language(s).

I discovered Logan meant "small hill" in gaelic. I then looked these up in Latin: "parvus" means small and "tumulus" means hill. For the hard-lands and longbow bay I went with Spanish. Some translations for hard are "arduo" and "dificil". Bow translates to "arco".

  1. Modify the foreign words until you think they fit.

I left my characters name as "Parvus Tumulus", the great paladin. Latin suited him well, and I didn't feel like I needed to change it. My country became "Arduin" and the bay became "Aargol Bay".

I find that if I modify the words enough they make pretty good names most of the time. If not, I'll try other languages or synonyms.I've also created my own language before and named things in that language, but with my limited linguistic skills they were not quite as good as this method.

The one noticeable mistake authors sometimes make is that groups of names will be too obviously related, too samey. If everyone's called Vunar, Logor, Zenil, Wozan, Terat etc., it's the vocabulary equivalent of the cheap cardboard sets on 60s sci-fi shows.

Names have history behind them, and except in the most boring cultures, that history will include waves of immigration and war and other things, which you can easily see by just looking at lists of names from different real-world countries. So, if you need a lot of names, use the techniques above to generate languages, but generate more than one, and mix them up occasionally. If my list above included someone called "q,,qxul", that would immediately make a richer world because you're wondering about the story behind it.

I'd be inclIned to say, don't try.

Humans all share a common vocal tract architecture. So we can universally hear all the communicative noises made by another human. And yet ...

Our mental processing of noises made by other humans into language involves filters developed in early childhood. I have watched film of a man speaking an African "click" language and parsed it as a man speaking a language I did not know with something in the background making clicking noises. It was then pointed out that the clicks were part of the language. Another example is that in English, voice pitch is a side-channel to speech which carries emotional content and question-marks. In Asian tonal languages the pitch is part of the language, and the same syllable has four or more meanings depending on how It is pitched.

Few people can ever become fluent in a language from a different language family which they did not experience in their childhood. They don't have the right mental filters and acquiring new ones in later life is far from a universal ability.

Now consider nonhuman aliens. There is no common vocal tract. No common brain architecture. Do they speak with sound only? Maybe they have chromatophores on their cheeks. Maybe they use ultrasonic frequencies. Maybe they have specialized appendages and sign, exclusively or in part.

We will need translators. Machines, maybe, or highly trained people raised in a hunan-alien mixed society who are bilingual by birthright.

How do humans deal with very foreign names? They adopt new ones. Orientals in English universities very often adopt an English name, since nobody here can pronounce their own name correctly. Sometimes the name is a near-translation or a "soundalike". Sometimes irs just thst they like the sound, say, Sonia. In other human societies all names are capable of translation. But some may not be socially acceptable when translated! Others may simply be useless. Ae49245ef3 translates into decimal but would promptly be forgotten.

Note also what happens when two people with the same name share a workplace. One or the other will rapidly acquire a nickname or name qualifier to avoid confusion.

I'm almost certain that aliens or their translators will use English-human names for talking to English-humans, and vice versa. A name is basically a label to identify an individual.

Tell your story with hunan names. If you want to distinguish aliens from humans by name, pick names from a non English name book. Avoid those which do not have an obvious (if wrong) English pronunciation, because someone may want to read your story out loud. If you feel the need, explain somewhere that alien given names and human tongues and brains are not compatible.

On a similar note, it annoys.me when someone introduces (say) a pakori with a paragraph describing a not-quite mule, which plays no further significant part in the story. Just call it a mule. Maybe a sentence about its green coat and blue eyes on stalks if you must.

(Added) This was all about naming aliens. For humans I would suggest doing what Vernor Vinge does. Assume that certain aspects of certain cultures including names will persist, even light-years and milennia away from Earth. So in A Deepness in the sky one group has a strong flavour of Chinese and Vietnamese -sounding names along with English (I've always assumed Trixia is Tricia via Chinese). Another group has many seemingly Dutch names and presumably origins. Frank Herbert did something similar in Dune and sequels. By all means invent a few names but don't assume all or most current names will have vanished.

Great discussion! As a more linguistically inclined reader, I am pretty sensitive to situations where the author clearly didn't try, and I like that people are making an effort here. It takes a surprisingly small amount of text to reveal at least a couple of grammatical rules that readers can pick up on, especially for heavily inflected languages (those with lots of markers for case and tense, e.g.), and even less for phonetic patterns, even if it's a completely fictional language. Maybe work out what parts of speech or concepts you'll need to represent and develop a few basic rules, and then go crazy with an unfamiliar phonetic veneer. You might come up with the meanings you want first (I need a word that will mean "Yellow Town", and later on I need a "yellow-gold dress", so maybe these can have the same adjective? Maybe adjectives need to have a certain sound or prefix?) and build up only the parts of the language you'll definitely need. Or you can come up with a few sounds you like, then assign them meaning (this one is a verb tense marker, that one means the noun "house") and expand outward. If it's completely random or far too simplified your readers will notice, and, as others have pointed out, you want the middle road between too familiar/derivative and ludicrous.

So, for instance, if your alien civilization has cities named Brh;oijg and RI'fhi'fj bn, that might work, but if you add much more into the story than that you'll want to make sure it doesn't look like you tripped and faceplanted on your keyboard like I just did to create them. They look different, but they also look silly, so you have to justify their existence. You can use context to show how these are functional words that are transliterated for your reader-- the alien language probably has a fundamentally different writing system-- and are to some extent comprehensible, even if you don't explain their meaning. Perhaps a semicolon represents a sound not found in human languages. ("Can you tell me how to get to, um, Brah OY-jig?" Janet asked doubtfully, looking at the handwritten instructions. The concierge snorted and read the note over her shoulder. "Ha, no! It's VREE-qhooyik." "Vree-KOY-ick?" "Nah, VREE-qhooy-yik, or something like. We humans have to sort of approximate that middle sound with a loogie-hawking noise, sorry. A Qhhhuuuh sound, you know?")

Or maybe ";oijg" means whatever the alien equivalent of ferry or bridge would be, a location where people can cross an otherwise impassable geological obstacle, so you can have towns named Brh;oijg and Xata;oijg along the same feature. And you can get fancy: where that river/canyon/noxious thicket crosses a cultural boundary you might have a varied spelling or pronunciation to indicate a dialect shift but not a completely different civilization with its own language: Guris koijik.

Even if you don't go that far you can look for patterns in human languages and try to come up with your own variations to make words with a certain feel. English is often tricky because we have strings of consonants in our Germanic words and ridiculous vowel pronunciations. Greek likes long words with extra-long strings of vowels or consonants. French has loads of silent letters and elided sounds. You could drop articles and most personal pronouns like Latin. Asian languages use tone to indicate word meaning in a way that English really doesn't, an idea which would be cool to incorporate into a new language but would be very hard to represent in an otherwise-English text. Body language and intonation figure heavily into interpersonal communication and likewise don't show up much in written language, but you could tell your reader that only half the meaning comes from the sounds, and verb tense or sarcasm are all about the movement of the antennae.

You don't have to slave over making it completely consistent-- English is a great example of a language where all the rules get violated all the time. Just throw your readers a bone and have SOME patterns that don't insult their intelligence-- avoid having every word end in "ees" without reason, e.g. Syllables that don't helpfully contribute to meaning inevitably get dropped in language evolution.

Try to use lots of q's without u's after, x's, z's, and other unused letters. Try to use symbols for weird names (Ex. ' Xl√h*i ' ) and underuse vowels. Try using apostrophes after x's(Ex. ' X'dravl '). However, make them easy to pronounce- don't use ' jfdhvhfdughdi'f9dv89•¥ç•¨hçüfvgidjvid ' as a name.(X'dravl = X + gravel with a d instead of a g). If you want not so weird names, ram lots of consonants together with little vowels, or vice-versa(Ex. ' Klcamt ' or ' Ugaeuys '). DON'T make the name completely out of consonatnts. Use a 3 to 1 ratio. Hope this helps!

  • Gene Wolfe recommended creating alien or foreign names that were pronounceable by English speakers. Your suggestion of adding vowels helps. Geinmiech Waolaufei or Gene Wolfe with added vowels and consonants. Spoken with balanced accents, as in Japanese and it's pronounceable (with a little practice anyway). – a4android Feb 2 '17 at 4:18
  • I added a whole part on that. :-( – KingraHoundoomJazz Feb 4 '17 at 2:38
  • WAIT: someone removed it. :-( :-( ]:-( – KingraHoundoomJazz Feb 4 '17 at 2:39
  • Thought bubble filled with question marks (if this was comic panel). Huh! he said perplexed and feeling confused. – a4android Feb 4 '17 at 4:03

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