Studying Manchu

Over the summer, an e-mail went around to the linguistics grad students and undergrads advertising a course entitled Qing History Through Manchu Sources. It was essentially a Manchu language course, being taught by a visiting scholar in the history department. The phrases “re-creating the pedagogical experience of a Qing Manchu class” and “the final examination will be modeled on the Qing translation examinations” were very enticing. I tried to persuade some of my colleagues to give in to temptation with me. And, long story short, I’m taking the course. The only other linguist in the class is my friend Isabelle.


Beginning of the bilingual 三字孝經 (Sanzi Xiaojing) (Three Character Classic of Filial Piety)

Manchu is a Tungusic (perhaps Altaic) language written in a beautiful vertical alphabet derived from the Mongol script (it was mainly because of the writing system that I wanted to take the class). It was (one of) the languages of the Manchu Qing Dynasty and over time lost ground to Chinese. Manchu is now extremely endangered (I remember reading this New York Times article about some of the last speakers of Manchu, and it’s nine years old), though the related language Xibe, spoken in western China, has many more speakers.

In the class, we began by learning the Manchu script. Since then, we’ve been translating short texts from primary sources, including dialogues about Manchu life (studying the classics, etc.) and a story about a bird that’s exactly the same as Aesop’s The Crow and the Pitcher. I’ve got the writing system pretty much down, but the grammar is still rather hazy. Class is fun, though, because it’s quite laid back. The instructor makes cracks about the Manchus and occasional asides in Mandarin, only half of which I understand. (As it turns out, just about everybody who’s interested in studying Manchu is either Chinese or speaks Chinese, and my Chinese is probably the worst in the class.)

Somewhat relatedly, I finally finished reading 紅樓夢 (Dream of Red Mansions), more than a month after I saw the opera in San Francisco! There were significant differences between the opera and the book. Now I can finally get to all the other books I’ve been waiting to read! First up is Monstress, which I bought when I visited Tr!ckster in Berkeley.

Angel Island and Muir Woods

Wildings just got a lovely review from Publishers Weekly!

The day after the opera, my parents and I visited Angel Island with some friends. We took the ferry from Tiburon to the island.


Angel Island was once home to an immigration station that processed hundreds of thousands of immigrants, most of them Chinese. Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese immigrants were detained for weeks, months, or even longer on Angel Island. They carved poetry expressing their hopes, disillusionment, melancholy, and despair on the walls of the detention barracks, and some of these poems can still be seen today.

I was particularly excited to find a poem written by a Yee (余) from Taishan (台山) because my mother’s surname is 余 (Yee) and her family is from 台山! I could imagine that this poem was written by a distant relative of mine.


The poem in Chinese


The English translation


The poem itself on the wall (the end and the signature)

For a lovely story about a character from 台山 who spends time on Angel Island, read S. Qiouyi Li’s “Her Sacred Spirit Soars” in Strange Horizons.

The following day, we visited Muir Woods, a pocket of primeval forest in the mountains north of the Golden Gate Bridge. We arrived just after the park opened and walked among the towering coastal redwoods before too many hordes descended upon the wood.


紅樓夢 – Dream of the Red Chamber

The second weekend of September, I joined my parents in San Francisco for the premiere of a new opera, Dream of the Red Chamber, based on the 18th century Chinese classic 紅樓夢 (Dream of Red Mansions) by Cao Xueqin. The Chinese Heritage Foundation, a Minnesota organization, commissioned the opera, and the San Francisco Opera produced it. The music was composed by Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng, and Sheng collaborated with Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang on the libretto.

This was my third trip to San Francisco this year, and this time, instead of flying, I took Amtrak’s Coast Starlight up the coast. It’s an 11-12 hour journey one way between Los Angeles and Oakland. I brought the first two volumes (out of three) of Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi’s English translation of A Dream of Red Mansions to read on my trip.


Ocean view on the Coast Starlight

The evening before the opera premiere, there was a Chinese banquet for the Minnesota delegation to the premiere. I tried abalone, sea cucumber, and bird’s nest soup for the first time. I was also seated next to Kevin Smith, former director of the Minnesota Opera and current president of the Minnesota Orchestra! He played a crucial role in making Dream of the Red Chamber a reality.


My banquet place setting

The morning of the premiere, we went to the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park.


Japanese Tea Garden


Lotus painted on the ceiling of the gate

In the evening, we arrived at the War Memorial Opera House for the performance. I said hi to David Henry Hwang in the lobby! The production was spectacular, particularly the sets. The score was Western, but there was a qin in the orchestra. The libretto was in English, and there were both English and Chinese surtitles. I amused myself during the opera by attempting to read the Chinese and comparing it with the English. Now and then I could read an entire Chinese sentence, and I also noticed places where the English and Chinese differed (e.g. while the singers said “Red Chamber” the Chinese might say 大觀園).



Opera togs


On our way from the opera house back to our hotel, we wound up in the cab of a (white American) taxi driver who turned out to speak Mandarin. He kept up a stream-of-consciousness monologue about the Dowager Empress Cixi selling Taishanese people to the U.S. to build the transcontinental railroad, Ho Chi Minh, and his college Chinese professor’s hatred of 廣東話 (Cantonese). That is, when he wasn’t asking us to explain the character , the second character of Cixi’s name, to him.

I had only read about 26 chapters of the novel when I saw the opera. Now I’m on Chapter 59. I hope to finish one of these days!

Georgian Yodeling and the Cave Temples of Dunhuang

Last Tuesday, my advisor e-mailed the members of our Georgian chorus from Montreal to tell us that a Georgian yodeling workshop was taking place that evening in Los Angeles at the Machine Project. It was very short notice, but my friend Isabelle and I decided to go. At 8:00pm, we found ourselves in a mostly empty storefront with white walls and a wooden floor. Around the edges of the room, there was some sound equipment, a cooler of beer, and a collection of potted cacti. The workshop leader, Linnea, greeted us.

Once about sixty people had shown up, we all stood in a big circle, and Linnea taught us yodeling patterns for an orira, a type of Georgian song made up entirely of nonsense syllables. She also taught us the melody (meure) part. Isabelle had done some yodeling before for one of our choir’s songs (a different orira), but I’d never tried it before. The patterns all consisted of the interval of a fifth, plus the minor third below, with the top note sung in head voice and the two lower ones in chest voice.

After we’d learned all the patterns and done some antiphonal singing, in parts, the second half of the evening commenced: collaborating on a group improvisation with loop machines. This was not really my thing, so I dropped out after a while and went to talk to people out on the sidewalk. Somebody told me there was a theater in the basement of the Machine Project, so Isabelle and I went downstairs to check it out, and indeed there was a theater, with a little raised stage, movie theater-style seating, and an old upright piano. Before we left, we told Linnea about our Georgian chorus.

Last Thursday, I took the day off to go see an exhibit at the Getty Center entitled Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road. My father used to travel to Gansu Province, where the caves are, for work, so I’d heard of them before, but I’ve never been to China, nor had I ever read much about the caves. I got to the museum bright and early and got one of the first batch of timed tickets for the replica caves. Yes, they actually built and painted replicas of three of the cave temples, one from the 5th century, one from the 6th century, and one from the 8th century, and you could walk into them to see the statues of Buddhas and the detailed wall paintings and the intricately decorated pyramidal ceilings. The only drawback was that we were only permitted to spend about five minutes in each cave.


Dim photo from inside one of the replica caves

Next I went into the virtual immersive tour of Cave 45, for which we had to don 3D glasses. That was interesting because it was narrated, so our attention was drawn to various details of the sculptures and paintings. Then I went into the gallery exhibition, which featured manuscripts, sketches, banners, and European-drawn maps of western China. Many of the artifacts came from the Library Cave and are owned by the British Museum or the Bibliothèque nationale de France. My favorite pieces were four manuscripts (all from the 9th or 10th century, I believe) meant to showcase the religious diversity of the materials found in the Library Cave. There was a Chinese Christian text, a Hebrew text, a spell book in Turkic runiform (the oldest extant text in this script), and a manuscript written in Brahmi with Sogdian transliteration (I’d never even heard of Sogdian script!). There was also a beautiful Chinese manuscript in gold ink on indigo paper. I could pore over these kinds of objects forever. I also liked the depictions of musical instruments in one of the cave paintings, including what looked like a sheng!

From there, I went to the current illuminated manuscripts exhibit, Things Unseen: Vision, Belief, and Experience in Illuminated Manuscripts. I love looking at these too! The margins of all these psalters and books of hours are filled with intricate leaf and flower patterns, with plenty of gold. I like the ancient paper and staring at the texts in Latin, English, French, German, and even Ge’ez!

Before leaving the museum, I got another timed ticket for the replica caves and went through them again, this time lingering as long as I could.

Nüshu, Laotong, and Gemaecce

The other day, I was pondering how two characters in a new story I’m working on might communicate secretly with each other through an exchange of notes. It occurred to me that they might use a women’s script. I knew that there was a real women’s script derived from Chinese characters, so I looked it up again. It’s nüshu (女書), and it was used by women in Jiangyong County in Hunan Province.


Nüshu text (Source)

In the course of reading the Wikipedia page on nüshu, I came across the concept of laotong (老同). In the nüshu article, laotong are described as “sworn sisters.” On the Wikipedia page for laotong, it’s described as a formal relationship/bond between two women, established in childhood or even before birth and meant to endure for a lifetime. Like nüshu, the custom of laotong is from Hunan Province. I was immediately struck by the practice, and particularly by its resemblance to the concept of gemaecce that Nicola Griffith developed for her novel Hild. In Hild, which is set in Anglo-Saxon England, a girl is formally paired with a gemaecce, another girl who will be her friend/companion for life. As far as I know, there is no evidence that women in Anglo-Saxon England actually had gemaecce, but laotong are real. So much story fodder here!

African Linguistics at Berkeley

Like last year, I spent the end of my spring break at the Annual Conference on African Linguistics. This time, instead of camping in Oregon, I stayed with my friend Andrew, a grad student in linguistics at Berkeley, where the conference was held.


The Campanile

I presented a poster on Maragoli, the language I worked on in Field Methods last year. Famous Linguist #2 (see last year’s post) came to my poster, and we spent some time discussing the data and the way I transcribe the vowels of Maragoli. I discovered I enjoy explaining my research to others much more than I like actually attending poster sessions myself.

Poster 1

Me presenting my poster (Photo by Andrew; Logoori is another name for Maragoli)

I had a good time at the conference in general. It was fun to see many familiar faces and to reconnect with friends in graduate programs across the country. I was particularly looking to attend talks on tone that might help me with my work on Efik, the Nigerian language I worked on in Field Methods this year. My greatest work-related success of the trip might’ve been managing to ambush a Cameroonian visiting scholar late on Friday in order to ask him the questions there hadn’t been time for me to ask during his talk on downstep in Babanki.

On Friday evening, I tarried a while in a Half Price Books and ended up buying three books. Then, walking back to my friend’s house, I discovered bookcases of free books on the sidewalk outside Black Oak Books. The store was closing, sadly. Most of the free books seemed to be cookbooks, and I didn’t take anything.

On Saturday, I went to the morning session of the conference and then took a bus to Oakland Chinatown to meet my friend Miyuki. I loved Oakland Chinatown. Every restaurant seemed to have hanging roast ducks and piles of zongzi in the window. We stopped in one for a lunch of wonton noodle soup, bok choy with oyster sauce, and pork liver steamed rice rolls. Then Miyuki took me to the Oakland Public Library–Asian Branch, which has collections in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and more.

From Oakland, I went on to San Francisco to meet yet another college friend, who had also been at the conference. I celebrated Easter with him before returning to Los Angeles.

Lunar French

In my 2015 year in review, I mentioned that I had helped create a dialect of Lunar French for a conceptual artist. At the time, I promised to write more about it. Now I’m finally getting around to it.

Thanks to our proximity to Hollywood, the UCLA Linguistics Department occasionally receives requests from folks in the entertainment industry to create languages for film or TV. (“Simple but not imbecile” dialect for a Clan of the Cave Bear TV show, anyone?) Last fall, Los Angeles-based conceptual artist Glenn Kaino connected with a phonetics professor in our department, who passed his request on to me and my friend and fellow grad student Isabelle.

Glenn was planning an installation involving a crescent moon automaton that would sing “The Internationale,” the famous socialist anthem, in a kind of French spoken by the descendants of lunar colonists. After discussing the project with him, Isabelle and I agreed to devise the Lunar French dialect.

The premise was that the French had colonized the moon around the same time they were colonizing North America and Africa, so Isabelle and I decided to base the French of the original lunar colonists on that of Jean-Antoine de Baïf, a 16th century French poet. De Baïf was useful to us because he wrote his poetry in an idiosyncratic phonetic orthography that allowed us to determine the 16th century pronunciation of French words (at least as de Baïf pronounced them). We relied primarily on his psalter, a versified French translation of the psalms.

De Baïf’s orthography is pretty strange-looking, though, and although there was a key that gave correspondences between his symbols and the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), it was still sometimes difficult to determine what modern French word de Baïf’s 16th century pronunciation represented. Thus we started out proceeding in a rather inefficient manner. I would think of a psalm I had memorized (if only partially). Say, Psalm 121. We would look it up in the online version of de Baïf’s psalter:

Screen Shot 2016-03-12 at 12.54.39 PM

I would look for keywords like “Lord,” “eyes,” and “hills” in his versified translation. Then we would note both the French word (“Seigneur,” “yeux,” “monts”) and its pronunciation according to de Baïf’s orthography.

After a lot of this, we discovered that one only had to hover over the first letter of each line to see it rendered in modern French orthography.

Using de Baïf as a reference, we turned the 19th century French text of “The Internationale” into 16th century French. The original refrain of “The Internationale” is the following:

C’est la lutte finale
Groupons-nous et demain
Sera le genre humain

The 16th century version is not too different, except that all the consonants that are silent in modern French are pronounced.

Next we had to decide how the lunar colonists’ French would change over the three centuries between their arrival on the moon and the writing of “The Internationale.” Since the text of the song was fixed, we implemented only phonetic changes, not syntactic ones. Glenn was interested in the effect of technology on Lunar French, so we merged /f/ and /s/ into /f/ on the grounds that the two sounds would be hard to distinguish through whatever spacesuit microphones the colonists were speaking through. A possibly bizarre line of reasoning led us to make word-final /s/s [θ]s, however ([θ] = “th” in “thin”).

We also denasalized nasal vowels but retained the nasal consonants that made those vowels nasalize in Earth French. We simplified certain consonant clusters. We collapsed the vowels /o/ and /ɔ/ into /o/.

In the end, the refrain looked like this (spelled like normal French with IPA inserted to show where Lunar French is different):

[fɛt] la lutte finale
G[upon] nou[z] e[t] dem[ɛn]
[f]era le g[an]re hum[ɛn]

Then, since we knew we would be teaching the Lunar French version of “The Internationale” to a non-linguist (but French-speaking) singer, we converted the text to a pseudo-orthography Isabelle designed. It’s meant to permit someone who already speaks French to pronounce Lunar French. In the pseudo-orthography, the refrain looks like this:

Fète la lutte finale
Goupaune nouz éte demène
Fera le janere humène

In preparation for teaching the song, Isabelle and I recorded ourselves both reading and singing the Lunar French text. In my case, this meant learning the tune of “The Internationale” (apparently nearly all French people, including Isabelle, have heard it before). (Let me just say, once you’ve learned the melody, it’s an insidious earworm. It’s been stuck in my head the whole time I’ve been writing this post.) We shut ourselves up in the phonetics lab sound booth and did many, many takes, because we kept dissolving into laughter at the weirdness of the changed French.

In November, we went to Glenn’s studio in Hollywood to teach the Lunar French “Internationale” to the lead singer of the band YACHT, who was going to be the voice of the moon automaton. We got to see the moon sculpture too, with its tracking eye and its Pierrot figure with the face of postcolonial philosopher Frantz Fanon.

In December, Glenn’s piece, entitled The Internationale, was exhibited at Art Basel Miami Beach. You can see a video of the automaton and hear the song in Lunar French here.

Over the holidays, Glenn asked Isabelle and me to convert the first ten pages of Frantz Fanon’s Les damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth) into Lunar French. I’d never read Fanon before, so I was glad to have the opportunity, though it’s hard to concentrate on content and implementing phonetic changes at the same time.

In January, Glenn’s piece, now entitled L’ènetènafionale, went to the Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth as part of his new show there. You can read more about that exhibit here.

Lunar French is definitely the most unusual use to which I’ve ever put my linguistics knowledge, and it’s been a lot of fun. Inventing a dialect of an existing language is less work than creating an entirely new language, which I have in fact tried to do for a certain fantasy world… But the conlanging post will have to be for another time!

Linguist Problems

Last Friday, I turned in my latest draft of Book 2. It’s been sent to copyediting! I promise I’ll tell you something more substantive about Book 2 one of these days.

In revising the manuscript, I was occasionally distracted by particular sentences that caught my attention for linguistic reasons. There was little reason for me to dwell on these sentences from a writing perspective, but my linguist’s brain would latch onto them and wonder. Now you get to see what sorts of things I get hung up on (and you can offer your judgments and/or ridiculous sentences too!).

First up is this sentence:

Their gazes never lingered on each other.

Somewhere between Drafts 2 and 4, it struck me that this sentence was ungrammatical. It violates Condition A of Binding Theory, which says that anaphors must be locally bound. What does that mean? Anaphors include reflexives (like himself) and reciprocals (like each other). For an anaphor to be locally bound, it must have an antecedent (the thing it is co-indexed with, or refers back to) that is sufficiently close to it, where sufficient closeness is defined in technical linguistic terms. To give a quick example, Will likes himself is good, but *Will thinks Lyra likes himself, where himself is meant to refer to Will, is bad because Will is somehow too far away to serve as the antecedent of himself.

What does this have to do with the sentence from my manuscript? First, the meaning this sentence is supposed to have is something like:

A’s gaze never lingered on B, and B’s gaze never lingered on A.

That is, the things the gazes are not lingering on are people, not gazes. In other words, the anaphor each other refers back to they (the people), not their gazes. The intended antecedent of each other is they. For this to be grammatical, then, they must locally bind each other (in order to satisfy Condition A). But it can’t.

To show why, I’m going to pretend I haven’t forgotten most of my syntax and draw a tree.

If you don’t already know X-Bar Theory, this tree probably doesn’t make much sense to you. The point is this: While the whole chunk their gazes is able to bind each other over under the T’, the pronoun they cannot do so (if you really want to know why, it’s because they doesn’t c-command each other, while their gazes does). Consequently, my sentence cannot mean what I want it to mean. Not technically. It can only mean:

A’s gaze never lingered on B’s gaze, and B’s gaze never lingered on A’s gaze.

And maybe this is fine. Gazes can linger on other gazes as well as on people, right? Why not?

If the technical discussion did nothing for you, consider my sentence with some words swapped out for others:

Their dogs never bit each other.

This sentence must mean A’s dog never bit B’s dog, and B’s dog never bit A’s dog. It cannot mean A’s dog never bit B, and B’s dog never bit A. It can’t be about two well-behaved dogs who never bit each other’s humans. Do you agree? Similarly, in Their gazes never lingered on each other, each other cannot refer to two people, it can only refer to the gazes.

Okay, so that’s what the principles of grammar say, but really, is it that hard to get my intended reading? I don’t think it is, which is why it took me so long to notice this sentence was probably ungrammatical. Gazes, unlike dogs, are not sentient, so we accept that each other refers back to people rather than to gazes. Semantics are powerful enough to get around what the syntax is telling us. I’m curious to see whether the copy editor flags this sentence.

Next up is this exchange:

“These remind me of our cook’s cinnamon buns,” says Hilah. 

“Are hers as good as ours?” I tease.

I later changed the second line of dialogue to avoid the problem I’m about to get into. Here’s why this sentence gave me pause: I meant ours to mean our cook’s cinnamon buns (the ones the girls are eating in this scene), but one day I realized it only meant our cinnamon buns. Rivka (“I”) is comparing the two cooks’ cinnamon buns, but the sentence doesn’t quite mean that. The issue is that our cook’s cinnamon buns has two possessive morphemes in it (compare Rivka‘s cook‘s cinnamon buns). This is obscured because in English we + ‘s = our. For ours in the dialogue above to mean our cook’s cinnamon buns, it also needs to have two possessive morphemes and look something like ours’s.

That got me wondering whether English allows the stacking of ‘s. I’m still not sure what the answer is. I think it is worse to stack them when they both have to be pronounced as ‘s, as in Eleanor’s’s. However, when ‘s combines with pronouns, it goes away, making stacked possessive morphemes sound better, as in mine’s.

I posed the question about stacking ‘s on Facebook, and my creative linguist friends delivered. Chris offered the following, quite good-sounding example:

Your laptop is older than mine, but mine’s battery doesn’t last as long.

Erik offered this one:

Speaking of political views, a certain friend of mine’s are off the wall.

(Side note: I think this above example sounds better because ‘s isn’t just attaching to mine, it’s attaching to a certain friend of mine.)

Then Michael got more daring:

Speaking of books, a friend of mine’s’s pages are falling out.

And then he went off the deep end:

Speaking of books whose pages are higher quality, a friend of mine’s’s’s quality is amazing.

That’s it for morphosyntax, but there are a couple of other places in my manuscript that made me stop and think about language:

With trembling hands, I open the drawer at my waist and find myself in the right part of the alphabet. But when I find the place where Kadmiel should be, there is nothing.


He moves his hand in a series of shapes while Caleb looks on, amused but also pleased. The string of signs seems too long, though.

“Is that Elisha?” I say.

“Oh. Yes. But I learned [redacted] too.” He shows me. “And I guess Rivka would be…” He starts my name, using the signs from the middle of his own…

(For context, the above excerpt is about fingerspelling names in sign language.)

So, here’s the thing: both these scenes involve the alphabet. But what alphabet? In the world of the novel, nobody is speaking English. Their spoken (as opposed to signed) language is Ashari. So when Rivka finds herself in the right part of the alphabet to find Kadmiel, where is that? It shouldn’t be the English alphabet, but in fact the way I wrote the scene sort of assumes this. I envision the drawer at Rivka’s waist to be a middle drawer of a file cabinet, and K is roughly in the middle of the English alphabet. Should it have been the Hebrew alphabet1? Kadmiel begins with ק qof, which is toward the end of the alphabet, so in that case Rivka ought to have been opening a drawer at her feet. But in fact, the Ashari alphabet can have whatever order I want it to. I just haven’t invented it.

In the second scene, the characters are fingerspelling. But as I wrote the parts about a name looking too long and two names sharing certain signs/letters, I started to wonder about alphabets again. What does this fingerspelling alphabet look like? Does it have signs for consonants and vowels, like American Sign Language, or does it omit signs for (at least some) vowels, the way I believe both Hebrew and Israeli Sign Language do? I managed to write this scene while remaining agnostic on this question, but I did make sure that the statements the characters make meshed with a fingerspelling system based more on Hebrew than on English.

1. I’ve written about my naming choices here and here.

In Which We Wave At Canada

After leaving the Boundary Waters, we drove back to Grand Marais and had lunch at the Angry Trout on Lake Superior. We bought some smoked trout and walleye cheeks from the fish market next door, then headed further north to Grand Portage, at the very tip of Minnesota’s Arrowhead. The actual Grand Portage, or Gichi-onigamiing, is a 9-mile trail that bypasses 20 miles worth of rapids and falls on the Pigeon River near where it flows into Lake Superior.

We stopped at Grand Portage State Park, almost at the Canadian border, to see the waterfall. On the way into the visitor center, there were signs giving the English and Ojibwe (Anishinaabemowin) names for various animals. I later learned these seven animals were clan names of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.



We walked the extremely accessible trail to the High Falls as thunder rumbled in the distance. These falls (there are more) are about 120 feet tall. They’re on the Pigeon River, which at this point forms the border between the U.S. and Canada.


Part of the High Falls


In case you can’t figure out where it is…


The U.S. (Minnesota) is on the left and Canada (Ontario) is on the right

Back in the visitor center, I found this sign listing helpful Ojibwe words:


And then we turned back, not having actually visited Canada.


On Naming and Diversity, Part II

Yesterday I talked about my discomfort with Louis Sachar giving his main character a made-up, generically ethnic name in his new novel, Fuzzy Mud. I wanted to talk about making up names in fantasy too, but that post was getting way too long, so I decided to write a Part II.

I objected to Sachar making up a pseudo-Indian last name in a novel set in the real world, but what about in a novel set in an invented world? There, I think it would have been okay, particularly if it was clear that the characters weren’t intended to be Indians transposed into a fantasy world but instead lived in an Indian-influenced society. Does naming a character in a fantasy novel Tamaya Dhilwaddi contribute to diversity in literature? Maybe. This question is trickier in fantasy because languages, cultures, and skin colors don’t have to align the same way in a made-up world as they do in the real world. The way the concept of race is constructed in a fantasy world may be totally different from the ways it’s constructed in the real world, but of course readers will still encounter the fantasy world through the lens of their real world understanding of race. Probably the best way to increase diversity in fantasy is to write explicitly non-white characters, but I think giving characters names that real world readers will code as non-white can help too.

In essence, I think fantasy writers should feel free to name characters however they want, including giving them names that sound “vaguely X,” but we should do it with our eyes open. One option for naming characters in a fantasy world is to simply pick a real world language/culture and draw names from there. Maybe the world itself is inspired by a particular real world culture and you want the names to match, so to speak. An example of this is Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix, which is set in the Chinese-inspired Kingdom of Xia and features characters named Ai Ling and Chen Yong.

Once it’s firmly established that a fantasy culture and its language have real world counterparts, a name that doesn’t fit the pattern and has no good reason not to will be jarring, at least to readers who can tell the difference. I once read a fantasy novel in which characters from a certain country spoke Mandarin Chinese. It wasn’t called Chinese in the book, of course, but the one example phrase of the language given in the text was actual Mandarin, not a made-up Mandarin-inspired phrase. The problem was the names of the characters who came from this country, and indeed the name of the country itself, were in extreme violation of Mandarin phonotactics (permitted sound combinations). I just couldn’t believe that the characters could simultaneously have the names they had and speak the language they were purported to speak.

That’s not to say I don’t think fantasy authors have the freedom to change things up. It just has to make sense. For instance, maybe you want Chinese-sounding names, but your invented culture has different naming practices, so family names come after given names instead of before or given names always have three syllables instead of one or two. Why not? Or maybe your fantasy world/culture and language come from two different real world sources. Say, a Chinese-inspired society where the language and names are Italian. It might seem weird to readers, but it doesn’t make your world internally incoherent. You can also have multiple influences for both culture and language (an Indonesian/North African-inspired society with a language that looks both Germanic and Bantu!), but here you do have to be careful not to combine incompatible elements (whether cultural or linguistic). Once you’re doing something like devising a Germano-Bantu hybrid language, you should probably figure out the rules for yourself so you can make sure your names and any phrases you put into your book are consistent and make sense.

Somewhat in the same vein of the Germano-Bantu language, maybe you want your character names to sound French but not actually be French, or maybe you just want them to sound vaguely French. You’re going to be making up names, but if you want readers to get a French vibe from them, you’ll have to make sure you’re using the sounds and sound combinations that French actually allows. Depending on how far away from French you want to get, you may decide to break some rules governing how French words and names can be constructed, but you should decide exactly which rules these are before you start throwing names together.

Of course, you can always decide to invent character names (and perhaps a language) from scratch. You’ll probably inadvertently have some real world influences, but they may be so deeply buried that your readers see nothing but a fantasy name. If you do this, you should probably still establish a sound inventory and make some rules about how sounds can be put together so that your names will feel like they come from the same language.

No matter which approach you take, but especially if you draw inspiration from real world cultures and languages, readers may criticize the way you named your characters. This is something you have to accept, and if readers have a point, all you can do is acknowledge it and try to do better next time. It’s not only errors in linguistic consistency that readers may take issue with. Names taken from real languages will have real world resonances even when given to invented peoples. If the only characters in your world to have, say, Chinese-inspired names are all servile and buffoonish, readers may object.

In Sparkers, I chose to use real world names. I’ve talked about this a little before, but basically I made an aesthetic choice to give north landers Hebrew names and Xanites Arabic names. If I were building the world all over again, I’m not sure I would make the same choice. I think this naming scheme almost inevitably evokes Israel/Palestine, even though the names and the axes of power line up differently in my invented world. Moreover, I know I’ve been accused of appropriation at least once for giving the majority of my characters very Jewish-sounding names despite not being Jewish myself. This is a legitimate criticism.

Although I haven’t heard of any complaints, I also played around with naming practices and flouted the principle of internal consistency. Firstly, the last names of the characters in Sparkers are actually first names (though some can probably also function as last names in the real world–I don’t know as much as I should about the distinction between Hebrew and Arabic given and family names). This was a deliberate choice I made, so even if some readers find it odd, I hope they don’t think I did it out of cluelessness.

Secondly, I tried to make the characters’ names closer to the original Hebrew or Arabic and less Anglicized (though I retained some Anglicization, for instance by omitting the glottal stop in Leah and in Yakov, which should also have another a), but in some cases, I blatantly violated my own principle. The most notable case is Caleb. If I had treated his name like the other characters’, it should have been something more like Kalev, but I decided I wanted his name to look more familiar to English-speaking readers. I took some liberties with Marah’s name too. The girl’s name Mara actually ends in a glottal stop, not an h like Sarah or Leah. Marah with an h is a place mentioned in Exodus, but not a given name. Nevertheless, I spelled Marah’s name with an h because I liked it. Melchior’s name is another one that doesn’t quite fit; while it has Semitic roots, it’s not really Hebrew or Arabic, so in the world of Sparkers it’s actually an odd name for him to have. This is something I know, but it’s not something that’s on the page, so readers might well think I didn’t know what I was doing.

Finally, I made up some proper names in Sparkers, some of which are not linguistically coherent with the rest of the naming scheme. For instance, people from Xana have Arabic names, but the country name Xana is made-up and doesn’t look Arabic, particularly in its orthography, since the x represents a [ʃ] (sh sound).  I could explain away this inconsistency by saying that the name of the country is a holdover from an earlier civilization, but that’s not in the book. Ashari names I made up include the surname Imael, the covered market called the Ikhad, and the school name Firem. Some of these invented names may not be possible Hebrew words. Firem is the only one I know is probably phonotactically bad; outside of loanwords, I believe Hebrew doesn’t permit initial f. By the time someone pointed this out to me, though, I was so used to the school being called Firem that I didn’t change it.

In Sparkers, I took the route of drawing almost all names directly from real world languages. I made a few mistakes with linguistic consistency and also broke my own rules a few times out of personal preference, but I take responsibility for all these choices and recognize that people have the right to critique them.