A character’s name will be the trait most often referred to in a book, so today I’d like to talk about historical and fantastical names, as well as literary usage.
We’d start with a quick review of some interesting naming conventions from history (Romans, duh, but also others), then touch on fantasy and science fiction literature and hopefully spark a discussion that might prove useful to both history aficionados and authors.
Roman Naming Conventions
As anyone with even a passing knowledge of Roman culture knows, they were all called Marcus. Jokes aside, a comparison of Roman-era records and inscriptions shows the most common first names — and that 59% of the population was named Lucius, Gaius, or Marcus. So how did they know who they were referring to?
Note: I am not a historian nor a classicist. This represents my best understanding as a layman of Republican Roman naming conventions. If you spot an error, please correct me! I always appreciate the opportunity to learn more.
The three names
Romans used a combination that was known as the tria nomina, the three names. However, bear in mind that changed over time. Let’s start with the most “common” (or rather, simple) arrangement, and work back and forward in time from there.
First there was the praenomen, the first name as mentioned above. There were only about 30 or so names, only half of which were in common use at any given time. Some, naturally, got less or more popular with particular ethnic groups over the centuries. For example, the deceased in Murder In Absentia is named Caeso. It’s a slightly older name, that became infrequent in the later republic and imperial era.
Not only was the pool of available first names small, some families tended to restrict themselves to only a handful. The Julii, for example, used Lucius, Gaius, and Sextus almost exclusively. Appius is found mainly in with the Claudii in Rome (and some regional families). Families might also have a naming convention where the oldest would receive one name, the second son, the next, etc. So if Sextus and Lucius Julius were brothers, their eldest children would both be Sextus Julius, followed by two cousins names Lucius Julius, with the toddlers Gaius Julius running all over the place. Confusing? You betcha!
Moreover, most people start to abbreviate the first name to just a letter or two. Why sign a full name, when everyone knows? So it’s L for Lucius (easy), but C for Gaius and K for Caeso — because G became a distinct letter from C in the middle republic, and Caeso used to be spelled with a K which by then fell out of favour.
Side note: J for the consonantal I came a few centuries later, but G was already extant at the period of Rome I based Egretia on. I also find it funny when people insist on spelling the name Gaius as Caius. Yes, the abbreviation is C and it used (early on) to be spelled Caius. But the sound it made was always a hard-g, Gaius. People around the middle republic just got tired with one letter (C) having two sounds (K and G), so they started to add the little ‘leg’ of the G. It also corresponds to how K fell out of favour, and how both C and G always had a hard sound (so the classical pronunciation of Caesar is “KAI-sar”). The letter I had less of a dramatic change. Though, for example, I went with naming Jupiter as “Iovis Pater” it was probably slightly archaic for the middle republic, and would have been more commonly written and pronounced as Iuppiter.
Next came the nomen — the family name, formally the nomen gentilicum. That’s pretty straight forward, right? The gens, or family (plural: gentes), used as we’d use it today, inherited from father to child. Family names were always in the female. So Julius is the name of someone from the gens Julia. (The form Julii is just the plural form — used often as “of the Julia family”).
Some names evolved from personal names: there gentes for Marcia (from Marcus) or Titia from Titus. Mamercus was an archaic first name that got preserved as a cognomen (see below), and Iullus was an archaic first name that wasn’t in use — but related to the gens Iulia (Julia).
Still, when you have so few name combinations and so many people you need to distinguish between it needs something else. Enter the cognomen, the nickname. These were given to people based on origin (the town the came from), or notable achievement, or adoption, or physical trait (and Romans had scathing humour with little inhibitions when it came to applying them).
So you have Sabinus for a Sabine origin, or Naso for big nose. Problem was, these became hereditary too. You’d be very proud to descend from Marcus Valerius Corvus, so you kept the name. That led to two things. First, stirpes was the terms to distinguish between branches of the family: The Valerii Messallae vs the Valerii Flacci. Second, since you still needed a nickname to distinguish between people, that sometime led to the agnomen, the fourth name.
Do bear in mind that this reflects the people we know about — which is invariably mostly the people who had records about them that survived, i.e. the rich and powerful. Some plebeian families are known only from a single inscription or side reference. It’s quite possible that amongst the lower class families there was more variety and less rigidity in naming.
Women originally had first names corresponding to the male ones: Gaia for Gaius, Lucia for Lucius, etc. By the Middle Republic era, when the usefulness of praenomina in general was declining due to their hereditary use, they seem to have been dropped completely for women. Women were called after the gens, the family name. This practice became common across most communities in Italy, with a notable exception of the Etruscans who kept the female praenomina.
So all the aunties of the dictator were named Julia, as was his daughter. Bit of a problem, if you have more than one daughter. Two is easy: maior (elder) and minor (younger). Three can be unimaginatively called prima, secunda, and tertia. Take that, women rights movement! Still some women, especially from the early empire (Principate) onwards, got their own nicknames and unique names.
Adoption, Manumission, and Citizenship
These three aspects deserve a special mention when it comes to naming.
Adoption was very common between adults, done for legal reasons (inheritance, usually, to keep the family line going). The adopted would then take on the name of the adopter, as a sign of now belonging to the same family branch. They’d often take their original nomen as a cognomen, to denote which family they came from.
So Gaius Octavius, after his posthumous adoption by the dictator became Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (later just referred to by his conferred agnomen-slash-title, Augustus). My favourite example is when when Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica (which you can already tell by the four names came from an illustrious family) was adopted by Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius — and became Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio Nasica. That’s OK, everyone just called him Metellus Scipio, because ain’t nobody got time for that.
Manumission, the freeing of slaves, was another case. The freedman took the name of his or her former master (who also became their patron), and often tacked their original name at the end. So Tiberius Claudius Narcissus was a freedman of Tiberius Claudius Caesar (the emperor), and served in the latter’s court.
You’d very often find Greek names in this context (remember that the Greek-speaking world encompassed Greece, Turkey, and most of the Eastern Mediterranean).
Another case of patronage, unrelated to the freeing of slaves, was when citizenship was granted to foreigners. These took a “Roman” name from the patron who gave them the citizenship. That’s how you get so many Gauls in the senate named Gaius Julius Something-or-other, wearing pants and sporting a moustache. How un-Roman.
So how do you call someone? Going to the pub with “Ave, Gaius Iulius Caesar! Fancy a beer, mate?” is a bit much. There were grades of familiarity of social status with how you addressed someone.
This changed over time, naturally. I’ll start with the Middle Republic, the cultural background for Egretia, but will try to expand a bit for the general history buffs.
The formal way to address someone would be their first and family name. It’s very correct, but very formal. When you’re close to someone (close family or friend) you could use only the praenomen. If you’re a bit more distant, you might publicly refer to someone by their family name and nickname (omitting the first name, cause we all know who we’re speaking about, and the firstname doesn’t add anything). If you’re army buddies, you might use only the cognomen (nickname). Where both a father and a son were alive, active, and sharing the first name you might add pater and filius to distinguish between them. In other cases, especially where there was a generational gap between two notables of the same name, you could use maior (the elder) and minor (the younger) — as with the Catos or the Plinys.
Here’s an elided excerpt from In Victrix, that shows this:
“Felix!” Crassitius’ voice boomed as soon as we entered. “Come here, you bastard. I see you took my advice about Betucius and avoided getting drowned in shit. Cause for a celebration, eh? Just in time. Gnaeus,” he turned to the barman, “get us some wine, will ya?”
“Thanks for that advice, Marcus. It did help me get the better of Betucius, or at least get from him what I needed. The mentula is still at large, causing pain. Which is what brings me here. You remember Aemilia?”
“How could I forget?” He bowed his head to her. “Not many women beat me at dice and cheat me of a kiss.”
“Marcus Crassitius,” Aemilia smiled back, “it’s a pleasure to see you again. I trust business is well?”
Felix and Crassitius are old army buddies. Crassitius doesn’t have a nickname and Felix just calls him Marcus; Aemilia addresses him formally as Marcus Crassitius. In turn, he refers to Felix simply by his nickname (err, Felix) rather than the full name. He calls his bartender (whom he works with closely, and also no one in the book cares about) simply by his first name, Gnaeus. When they talk about about the gangster, they refer to him simply by his family name, Betucius. That last’s full name is Titus Betucius Barrus, and at other places of the text they refer to his cognomen, which means elephant, when that is the important aspect (he’s fat, and no one’s concerned about sensitivity).
Moving on, later in the Republican era it became common to sometime use just the first name and the nickname (Marcus Crassus — though crassus appears as a cognomen in several families, we all know we’re referring to the Marcus Licinius Crassus). Then in the empire, especially with the imperial family, names just got more convoluted, the traditional praenomina were sometime completely omitted or even other nomina/cognomina used as first names, and there genarally was a lot more spread and variety in names.
I’ve mentioned above that addressing someone by their first and family names (the praenomen and nomen) is the very formal, correct way to address someone. That’s because Latin had a very interesting peculiarity:
There were no honorifics in Classical Latin.
Every time I read an historical novel of the period, and out of respect one characters addresses the other as ‘sir’, it makes my eye twitch. Barring some specific exceptions (noted below), the concept was just foreign to republican Romans. It went against the grain of the who Res Publica to have such status distinctions (even though the society was very stratified). Citizens were, at least nominally, all equal.
What are the exceptions?
A slave would address their master as domine / domina (dominus is the noun, but the conjugation above is for when addressing someone). A very low class citizen might address someone else that way as a way to ingratiate themselves, but it wouldn’t be common. It certainly raised a lot of hackles when Domitian (after a century of emperors who referred to themselves as princeps — first among equals) insisted he should be addressed as dominus et deus, master and god. It got him a knife in that back, that’s what.
I’ve seen some authors have a low class working citizen refer to another higher status as ‘consul’ in a blanket usage. i.e. a translation of the modern ‘guv’, or governor. You’d address someone as if they were a high-office holder, to accord respect regardless of actual job positions. While we don’t have any surviving evidence (with the exception of graffiti, all the writing that survived is from the higher classes, naturally) I can certainly see that as a working idiom, precisely due to the modern usage. It doesn’t add something that was culturally anathema, but shows a class distinction and people’s willingness to play with language in a context-appropriate way.
In my books, I also have Felix occasionally use the term ‘lady’ when referring to a high-class woman. That’s because Latin had a very clear social distinction between mulier, wife/woman, and femina, high-class woman. Otherwise he refers to people either by their name according to context (as in the excerpt above), or with “friend” or “my good man” when talking to people to whom he’s not close but trying to build a rapport.
Side note: another peculiarity of Latin is that it had no straight words for yes and no. You’d reply by repeating the verb (Do you want wine? I want), or by certain exclamations (it’s true, it’s so, etc). I chose to omit that in my writing and use yes/no, as otherwise it just makes the prose too cumbersome. I write in English, after all, for an English readership. I hold that the yes & no would provide the appropriate ‘translation’ of the Latin idioms, but without introducing something like the honorific that was just alien to the culture.
There are Roman name generators out on the internet, but they seem to suffer from the same problem: they just take all available first names, family names, and nicknames, and generate a trio.
But as we’ve seen above, certain families only used a small subset of first names, and nicknames too were inherited and common to particular families. So you get names that just don’t “feel” right to those who are familiar with the period. (At least for Republican Rome — might be more appropriate when talking about much later era, where conventions have drifted).
So for generating name (without going with the historically-accurate option of naming everyone Marcus), I built up my own generator. I trawled lists of gentes, extracted the first names and nicknames, and built a script that generates plausible named for the era. Furthermore, I enhanced it so that first names are done according to realistic-but-still-reader-friendly distribution, and added annotations for the various cognomina. It also suggests alternatives so I don’t have to run it repeatedly, and can make my own judgement if the name is for pleb from a more obscure family or a dignitary that I’d like to be closer to real history, or an adoption detail, etc.
Since it also outputs the meaning of the nickname, it usually gives me an immediate character angle to play around with. Postumus Rupilius Bestia? The man’s a rude beast, probably because he grew up without a father. Treblanus Crassipes is limping (club-foot), and Betucius Barrus (elephant) is a fat kingpin of crime.
Other Historical Naming Conventions
Now that we’ve thoroughly covered Roman names, let’s touch about a few other interesting cultural naming conventions. These are by no mean comprehensive or providing any sort of social commentary — they are simply systems I am more familiar with, and thus feel more confident to comment on.
Russian Names with Patronymics
The usage of patronymics isn’t uniquely Russian. Examples are European names ending in ‘-son’: Michael Jackson is Michael, son of Jack. This got shortened in surnames such as Peters, Williams, Evans, etc., but the origin is the same.
Vikings used that, and also used ‘- dóttir’ for girls. Matronymics were less common, but extant. For sample, Snorri’s son and daughter would be referred to as Snorrason and Snorradottir — both after the father. (Side note: Vikings also had a penchant for alliterating first names: Snorri son of Sturla, Hallbjorn son of Halldor, etc.)
Russian’s pretty funky when it comes to names. Like how they have lots of endearing nicknames for each base name — some of which are actually longer than the original name. For this discussion, I want to highlight a few points:
- Each person is referred to by First Name – Patronymic – Last Name
e.g. Ivan Ivanovich Smirnov, or Ekaterina Ivanova Smirnovsa
- The patronymic and last name had different endings based on gender
- How you’d address someone again depends on familiarity. Similar to French, though, you’d use the plural you (vy) to show respect to your seniors or unfamiliar people, and the singular you (ti) to address closer people.
Ekaterina (Catherine) would formally be Ekaterina Ivanona (when your teacher is scolding you). To your friends you’d be Katya, or even Katen’ka to close friends. Kat’ka is a bit of a derogatory nickname. To your grandmother, on the other hand, you’ll always by Katyushka (or Katyushechka, if she was feeling whimsical). Similar with Maria being called Masha by friends, anything from Mashenka to Marusya as a term of endearment, but Mashka is vulgar.
Alexander, on the other hand, is known as Sasha, Nikolai as Kolya, Gennady is nicknamed Genya, and both Valentin and Valentina can be called Valya. Because reasons. Your teacher will use the singular-you, but you’d better refer to them in the plural-you or risk expulsion.
Again, the important aspect is how a culture structures their names, and how they use different parts of the name, how they show respect, how they make a distinction between genders, etc.
Jewish First Names
In Judaic tradition there is an odd habit of giving first names after animals. Ze’ev (wolf), Dov (bear), and similar are very common to this day. It was even more so in biblical times, from Caleb (dog) to Pishpesh (flea). The same was for females names, like Rachel (ewe) or Deborah (bee). You can find a short list here, and a longer article here. There are also the equivalent names in Yiddish.
As I understand it (or at least as it was explained to me by my grandma — not necessarily an historically accurate source), this was a superstitious way to ensure that when the angel of death came for a person, they’d be confused and call out animals rather than the person. This is probably apocryphal, as most names in Hebrew are based on word stems with meaning. It’s interesting to note how some cultures/languages have meanings behind names, while others (modern English) do not maintain it.
Occupational, Regional, and Clan Origins Names
We all know what John Taylor’s ancestors did, (or Thatcher, or Chandler, or Smith, or Miller, etc). Jason French obviously came from the other side of the British channel, and anything ending in -ham likely refers to a town. Brown and White referred to hair colours and complexions that stuck with the family, and Hill, Brooks, Green etc referred to local places people lived.
In Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries, a person would have two first names and two last names (from the father and the mother). Three last names might denote royalty, but a single last name would mean you’re a bastard (no father).
Similar to places, clans were a common naming. The Gaelic Mac prefix or the (Irish) O’ would denote those. I believe they originally meant “son of”, but as time wore on they acquired familial connotations.
Interestingly, for lords and such, sometimes the name of the castle or holding they occupied (Windsor) or the clan (MacGregor) would be used for referring the lord himself as form on honorific. PC Hodgell does this wonderfully in her Kencyrath fantasy series.
There are about as many naming conventions as there are cultures. If you just google it you’ll get plenty of articles with varying level of information for the culture of your choice, though they usually describe the conventions as they are today. Still, it doesn’t take a lot of research to find the historical origins of such conventions, nor indeed to find many varied conventions to use as inspiration. Which is a neat segue to…
How many times have you seen Fantasy names generated like the advice below, with an added generous sprinkling of suggestive umlauts and uncomfortable apostrophes?
As someone who has a constant narration running in his mind and that has to sound-out the names of characters (and people) as I read them, this just gives me a headache. Especially if you add the aforementioned suggestive umlauts and uncomfortable apostrophes. Please don’t try to stick them in my personal space.
I don’t care how alien you want your character to appear, we as readers connect to the human condition and emotions in the novel. That just makes Ìwü’Rǧf just a pain to identify with. Linguists use IPA rather than accents as the sounds are well defined, and everyone else just glosses over it. (Heck, they even gloss over my perfectly-reasonable, human-pronounceable Roman names!)
So even if you want to ConLang because you believe that’s the secret behind Tolkien’s eternal success, allow me to suggest that perhaps naming conventions based on culture construction might give you a better bang for the buck. You can create something that is both immediately understood by readers (i.e. not slowing down their reading), and stresses the difference in cultural expectations.
And for that, history is a wonderful place to start looking.
Side Note: Historical Fantasy
Obviously when using a specific historical culture as a basis for your fantasy, then using that language’s culture, name, and alphabet makes perfect sense. From Bjørn to François, from Sørina to Zoë, they are just as much part of the fabric of the fantasy world as taking a strigilus to the baths or how you ferment your fish.
Still, my personal experience (or perhaps just preference) is to give each character a unique name. Even when using the tria nomina, use one aspect as the most-often moniker, and if you’re using anything else it has to be crystal clear who you’re talking to. Terms an such are best used where there is no good English translation, or when it adds to the ambience rather than distracts from the story. (Then again, I’ve seen David Wishart try to avoid Latin terms almost exclusively, which I found diluting of the Roman experience in his otherwise excellent prose; it was interesting to observe that in later books in the series he started to slip more terms in).
Constructed Naming Conventions
So here’s my suggestion. Instead of focusing on the sounds of a constructed language, try to focus on the cultural implications. Can you answer these questions for your aliens / fantasy race, not thinking about sounds but of meaning?
- What’s the base pattern name? One word or multiple? Or perhaps specific parts (prefixes/suffixes)
- Do the names have meaning (or are associated with a meaningful word/stem), or are they just sounds?
- What’s the cultural connotation, in terms of group association: family, tribe, other sub-groups? Which part of the name are inherited, and which are individual?
- How would you differentiate between people with the same name of a closely related group?
- How are different genders treated? Again, not (just) in terms of sounds, but what are the cultural implications of gender names?
- Is there a concept of nicknames? How would they be assigned?
- What about honorifics, pet names, etc. used in addressing or referring to someone?
Once you have an idea of the cultural forces and drives behind the naming conventions, adding the language sounds will be much easier, and arguably less important. Gjhĩdd Flub’Rath is an odd sounding character, but Froggy Soupmaker is clearly the bow-legged bastard cook of the orc clan (highly respected, cause the horde can’t march on burned steak and veggies, dammit!). It can add a layer of humour, or cultural allusion, or whatever else you may desire.
Which one would you find more evocative?
What do you think? Did you come here for the Roman history lesson, or as an author of fantasy? What are your views as a reader? Does this affect how you write novels? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!