11 November, 2014

Worldbuilding 101 - Part 3: What's in a name?

One of my pet peeves is lazy naming. By this, I mean giving things names just to sound exotic, or giving things names from other existing settings. I feel this way about character names, place names, faction names, and just about anything else that can be named. I’ve got similar feelings about the laziness of writing fan-fiction, and I’m pretty sure I’ve ranted n that before so I’m not going to get back on my high horse about that topic again. If you’re going to create stories in an existing world, just use that world…and admit that you are doing so. If you’re going to create a new world, do it logically, consistently, and properly. Don’t just take a bit from here, a bit from there, and hope they’ll work together…the stories you’ll get out of such a setting will be similarly unfocused and disjointed.

Another form of lazy naming has arisen in many young adult fiction works over the past few years. This is the allocation of inconsistent naming stuctures. A case in point is the “Divergent” novels, five factions each named: Abnegation (a noun), Dauntless (an adjective), Erudite (an adjective), Amity (a noun), Candor (a noun). There’s no consistency in the naming structure with nouns and adjectives randomly scattered among them. It’s a pet hate, but it bugs the crap out of me.   

I know that I’ve been a bit guilty of this in my cultural faction names so far with the following: Colonial/Imperial (both adjectives), church (a noun), settler (a noun), pirate (either a noun or adjective), privateer (a noun), native (either a noun or adjective), and cult (either a noun or adjective). But I haven’t formally published this work, and the cultural faction names have always been placeholders while I develop specific evocative names for the setting. Racial names indicated so far are also placeholders just to keep conceptual ideas attached to the racial traits I envision. That means it’s time to attach proper names to the factions and races, which in turn will give us ideas for how to name other things in the setting.

Typical steampunk uses the conceit of a pseudo-Victorian-English world, but when you consider that one of the great speculative fiction writers of the era is Jules Verne, then there’s no reason why you couldn’t base the names and aesthetic on a French pattern. Similarly, we’ve got elements of “high seas” piracy in the setting, so that means we could easily follow a Spanish or Portuguese pattern. If we wanted to push things further, we could look at the pirates of the South China Seas, and the comparable imperial might of the Chinese, but the presence of an institutional Church (especially an evangelical one trying to convert the natives) implies a more European setting. We could also conlang a brand-new language for the setting, but that’s an entirely different series of posts, and a brand new language can introduce a new barrier of entry for new players. I’m trying to keep this simple.

I’m liking the idea of a Spanish naming scheme and general vibe for the Colonial/Imperial forces. But with an Imperial force like this, and a native race with ancient secrets, it would be easy to fall into a trap of retelling the story of the conquistadors. While that’s an interesting historical period in its own right, and I could cut corners by pulling in ideas from the Lizardman/Amazon setting from the Warhammer (since this has steampunk-ish elements in its mix), it’s not quite what I’m after.

Using a Spanish analogue for the Empire, I think it becomes more interesting to make the “church” more of a hybrid of the Spanish Catholics and the Arabic faiths that fought over the Iberian Peninsula. I’m going to have to go into some detail regarding the theology of this religion, so these two faiths give me some good goalposts to work between.

Since the privateers and pirates in the Spanish Main were a mix of cultures, but were often sponsored by the English authorities, it would make sense to use English names for the naming schemes associated with the Pirate culture.

Applying the concepts of existing cultures to the game can be useful as a shorthand, but if you stick to the culture too strongly, you’ll get complaints of stereotyping or “cultural appropriation”. No matter what you do, you’ll end up with someone complaining about our work, but if you pick two cultures to work from then you can generally gain the benefit of an easily accessible vibe, with the side-benefit of originality. You can also deviate from here without too many people saying that you are simply misunderstanding or parodying the core culture that you based your ideas on.

Here I’m thinking of the “Rokugan” setting used in Legend of the Five Rings. The original setting was a mythic fantasy twist on Sengoku Era Japan, but with a different geography and a more supernatural environment, but it incorporated a “great wall” and a few Chinese elements here and there. I now know of a lot of people who say that the setting was racially prejudiced, especially in those early days, but I think there were actually two forces at work here. On the one hand it might have simply been designers picking and choosing “cool Asian stuff” to throw into a setting with no real thought. On the other hand, I think that people just didn’t look for connections between the “cool stuff”, and since they only saw the “cool stuff” that’s what they complained about. Since the setting was basically 90% Japanese-origin, with a few Chinese and other Asian bits (The Wall which was basically Chinese, The Unicorn Clan who were basically Mongols, The Naga who drew Indian/South-East Asian forms) it was easy to pick holes in, but it was one of the first coherent “Fantasy Asian” settings to hit the gaming mainstream. I thought it was great, but then again I love Japanese stuff.

That leads me to the natives. I could draw direct inspiration from the Aztecs, or other New World Cultures, but it would be more interesting to combine cultures here as well. Drawing on the notion of the noble savage could be a path to take…but which “savages”. Remember that we’re dealing with cultures here, not races. We’re flavouring the way our cultural factions tend to look out on the world, not applying stereotypical physiological traits. With that in mind, and still trying to avoid the “cultural appropriation” apologists, we’ll develop a unique islander culture with elements drawn from the Maori, the Hawaiian and the Caribbean People. Not cannibals, not lazy fishermen, but people who were making do living their lives according to traditions that had lasted as long as anyone could remember. Linguistically, we’ll draw more from the Maori, in homage to the fact that they were a native group during the Victorian era who fought back reasonably well against higher-technology colonial forces.

Settlers in the setting would generally follow the imperial scheme (and thus would use a Spanish naming scheme), but those in regular contact with the natives might be closer to a pidgin or creole in their language forms. 

The Cult has no language pattern of their own, instead carefully infiltrating the other cultures and societies of the setting.

Generally, we’ll use Spanish names for the formal titles and names in the setting, English names for the colloquial terms, and draw on a Maori creole for the names used by natives. Google Translate will be used for deriving the Spanish and Maori terminology, it’s quick and does a reasonable job.

Formal Name for the Culture: El Imperio del Sol (The Empire of the Sun)
Colloquial: The Empire (Group Noun), Imperial (Adjective for the Members)
Native Name: Te Kingitanga (The Empire)

Formal Name for the Culture: La Santa Orden del Profeta (The Holy Order of the Prophet)
Colloquial: The Church (Group Noun), Holy (Adjective for the Members)
Native Name: Te Ra Tohunga (The Sun Priests)

Formal Name for the Culture: Los Corsarios (The Privateers)
Colloquial: The Privateers (Group Noun), Imperial (Adjective for the Members)
Native Name: Nga Heremana Ke (The Foreign Sailors)

Formal Name for the Culture: Los Lobos del Mar (The Wolves of the Sea)
Colloquial: The Pirates (Group Noun), Imperial (Adjective for the Members)
Native Name: Nga Heremana Kaipahua (The Bandit Sailors)

Formal Name for the Culture: La Colonia (The Colony)
Colloquial: The Settlers (Group Noun), Imperial (Adjective for the Members)
Native Name: Nga Whakaeke (The Invaders)

Formal Imperial Name for the Culture: Los Salvajes de la Isla (The Island Savages)
Colloquial: The Natives (Group Noun), Native (Adjective for the Members)
Native Name: Te Parakore (The Pure)

Formal Name for the Culture: La Orden de la Luna (The Order of the Moon)
Colloquial: The Cult (Group Noun), Cult (Adjective for the Members)
Native Name: Te Fifi Atarangi (The Shadow Cult)

More often than not, when someone introduces themselves in this setting, they will do so by first introducing their name, then town where they are from, and then their culture.

If we name our settlements after the most popularly spoken language among the populace, then the main town to the north could be named after a fictional monarch at the time of its founding. Thus its formal name becomes “El Puerto de Isabella” (The Port of Isabella), while pirates and privateers might have a tendency to shorten it to “Port Isabel”, and natives might call it “te paowa nui” (The Big Smoke).

The southern town being filled with pirates and privateers would be known by its locals with an English name. Since it is a neutral haven for the trade of privateers and pirates, far from the gaze of legitimate Imperial eyes, it would be colloquially known as “Trader’s Port”. The Imperial forces might refer to it in a similarly colloquial manner as “Puerto del Traficante”. Formal maps might refer to it as “El Puerto del Rey” (The Port of the King), in honour of Isabella’s dead husband, but while pirates and privateers are prevalent in the town, they will not desecrate the name of their king by calling it that. Natives call it “kāinga o te kaihokohoko” (Village of the Trader).

The westernmost town is predominantly known as “Kāinga kākāriki” (Green Village) due to its native population, and maybe the mossy stone that forms most of the permanent structures. Privateers and pirates might slightly anglicise the title to “Kakariki Village”, the settlers, imperial forces and church might call it “Ciudad Kakariki”, they probably don’t care to know that the literal translation might be “Ciudad Verde”.   

You can see how a simple name starts to give even more character to a location, and starts to add a bit of history without going into hundreds of years of carefully written fantasy history.
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