Hello all! Welcome back to this series of articles on how to design a real-sounding naming system for your scifi/fantasy culture. In the last article we talked about designing a phonological system for your culture, which decided what sounds the members of your culture can make, followed by deciding what sounds they do make.
Today we’re going to design the syllable structure your culture uses. Once you know how your language’s syllables work, you’ll be able to design a few (or a lot) of them and begin stringing them together into a coherent-sounding set of names. Sound fun? Let’s do it.
A syllable, you might recall from school, is a string of speech sounds. They’re pronounced all at once, as a single gob of noise. In school you may have been taught that they tend to have a vowel sound at their middle (though this isn’t always the case) or you may have been taught that a syllable is the unit that gets assigned a poetic beat. However you want to think of them, the way a language builds them is a defining feature of the way the language sounds.
Before we continue, I’d like to remind you of the IPA chart, which you’ll want to refer to as you work. You’ll also want to have the phonological inventory you picked out for your culture, which you made after reading the previous article.
Have those? Good. Let’s go.
Natural languages show a ton of variation, and linguists have come up with a ton of theories of how syllables are structured. Some languages have whole parts of syllables that other languages never have. At the root, though, syllables consist of:
An onset: the first sound of the syllable, which is usually optional (meaning it can be left off of some syllables), and which consists of a consonant or a string of consonants.
A nucleus: the middle of the syllable. This is the only non-negotiable part of a syllable; it has to be there. No nucleus, no syllable. A nucleus is most often a vowel sound, though nasal and approximant consonant nuclei are common, too (in American English, work has an ɻ for its nucleus). Some languages even allow plosives to be nuclei. English allows fricatives to be nuclei for a few onomatopoeic words like shh and zzz.
A coda: the end of the syllable. Again this is often a consonant or group of consonants, and it is optional.
In addition, tonal languages have a tone for each syllable, which is considered to be part of the syllable structure.
Of course, a lot of languages do more complicated things than this. If you want to dive really deep into syllable structure and come up with something really complicated (and awesome!), I recommend you visit the Wikipedia article on syllables. There you can read about variations. Keep in mind that it is perfectly possible to build a complex, realistic, and beautiful language with only the basic structure, though. Only go deeper if you’re really interested.
Now let’s continue to design your language. Which of the syllable components does it include?
Onsets are optional but very common. They can consist of any consonant or string of consonants, though your language will have rules about precisely which strings of consonants are allowed. English allows st-, sp-, tr-, and str-, among others, for example, but it doesn’t allow sr- or tl-. Onset clusters tend to consist of sounds that are made around the same point of articulation. St- is two alveolar sounds, for example, and str- is those two alveolar sounds sliding into a retroflex, which is practically next door. Sp- is an alveolar followed by a bilabial—all near the front of the mouth. Kr- and gr-, both allowed by English, start with velar noises and roll them forward into that ever-friendly retroflex.
Take some time to consider what kind of onsets your language allows. Make a list. There is nothing wrong with making every consonant in your inventory into a possible onset.
Now to the nucleus. Your list of legal nuclei will include every vowel you chose from the IPA chart, including diphthongs and triphthongs. It can also include some consonants, though realistically, probably not all your consonants. Approximants and lateral approximants are common nucleus consonants, as are nasals. As I said earlier, a few languages even allow stops and fricatives.
Make a list of everything that can be a nucleus in your language.
Now for the coda. Like the onset, this consists of consonants. Like the onset it can be optional, either for some syllables in your language or for your language in general. Like the onset it can consist of a string of consonants as well as single consonants, though you need to define precisely what strings are acceptable. Again, there is nothing wrong with saying that every single consonant in your inventory is fair game for the coda—but there’s also nothing wrong with excluding some.
Make a list of everything that can be a coda in your language.
Lastly, is your language a tone language? Decide what tones it has. Rising, falling, high, low, and flat-but-whatever-the-previous-syllable-ended-on are common options.
Okay. Guess what you do now?
That’s right. You start to build syllables according to the rules you’ve just designed. Then you string the syllables together into names (or just leave them as single syllables.) You have a limited phonological inventory to work with as well as limitations on syllable structure. As you compose names by following these rules, the names will begin to have a characteristic look to them (and I say “look” because we’re only reading them at this point), just the way names from real cultures have characteristic looks to them.
As you design names, keep in mind that many names mean something. Prefixes and suffixes that indicate who a person’s parents are, what clan they belong to, or where they come from are very common. Think about your fictional culture. What do they value? What’s important about a person in that culture? Are those things likely to be represented in some of the culture’s names? Or maybe in all of the culture’s names? Think of the Mc-/Mac- prefix in Scottish and Irish culture. Think of -ovich and -ovna in Russian, of -son and -dottir in Icelandic.
Think of how many names a person likely has. A given name, a parent’s name with a prefix, and then a clan name, maybe? A family name with a suffix that indicates which branch of the family the person is from, followed by a personal given name? There are so many possibilities. Tap into some of them.
So there you go. You designed a phonological inventory and a syllable structure; now all you have to do is generate names, baby, all day and all night! You’re finished! You’re done! That’s all there is to it, huh?
For one thing, if you’ve been working in IPA you’re going to have to decide how to translate your names back into the Roman alphabet (or whatever other writing system you use.) But before that, you need one more lesson followed by a final, but dead important, exercise: PHONOLOGICAL TRANSFORMATIONS.
See you next week. Class dismissed.
Okie dokie. Time for me to design my syllables.
I don’t know any tone languages, and I foresee difficulties in representing tones on the page using the Roman alphabet, so I’m not going to make my language a tone language.
My two inspiration words were “Wampanoag” and “Momoa”. Wampanoag is written with a consonant at the beginning, but the sound “wa” is actually a dipthong…which means it’s the nucleus of that syllable and not the onset, so I made onsets optional. I included all the single consonants as possible onsets, and a few likely-looking combinations.
For my syllable nuclei I included all the vowels (the way one does) as well as the retroflex trill and lateral.
Lastly, because I made the onset optional, I decided to go ahead and make the coda required just so all my syllables have heft. I added all consonants as options as well as a few combinations.
With all that established, it was time to start building syllables and names. I like the idea of names indicating someone’s hometown, so I made a suffix that indicates that. People in my culture have a given name and a surname that consists of the name of their hometown plus that suffix.