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I'm currently developing a fictional species set in a fantasy world, and I want to name it, but I don't want it to sound too... scientific? For example, our scientific name is Homo sapiens, but we don't call ourselves like that, we call ourselves "humans". A cat is not Felis silvestris catus, it's a cat. This doesn't mean I don't want to give a scientific name to this species, actually I do, but I also want it to be used only in a specific context, like a biology class. Besides, how can I avoid using Latin or Greek sounding words when giving these names? The name of the species I came up with is "Dracanthropos", which is composed of both draco and anthropos, being "dragon" or "snake" and "person", respectively. But soon I felt uncomfortable with this, since in this world there is no Greek or Latin.

On the other hand, how do I describe them without taking humans as reference?. There are no humans in this world, so the statement "they have a humanoid form" can't apply to them.

I know they're some silly questions, but they're really driving me nuts, so please, I need some help. I have a few more, but these are the most concerning to me right now.

Thank you very much.

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To me it seems that your main issue is not having decided a common background-language for your story. In fantasy novels, either you

  • Invent a whole new language (cfr. Tolken)
  • Borrow languages from the real world

Since the Lord of the Rings, a lot of authors have tried the first approach with various degrees of success (keep in mind that Tolkien was a philologist, so he was a little more equipped for the task than your average nowaday writer). With "various degrees of success" I mean that in the worst case, you can tell that the author is just making up words, with little care or sense for phonetic or grammatical coherence.

The second approach is equally viable and doesn't require you to be skilled linguist. You wouldn't be the first to use Latin in a setting were latins didn't exist. Language is a mean to an end: most readers will accept that you are using Latin-esque names to give off an aura of authority. Latin are greek are already used in scientific contexts, so your readers will fall in quickly.

It's not different from your characters talking in English, even if there is no reason for them to do so.

Of course, you're not stuck with latin or greek. If you want there are plenty of other languages to borrow - from arabic to sanskrit.

So, going back to your question:

How do i properly name a fictional species and describe it?

Either:

  1. Invent your own language and use it coherently

or

  1. Borrow from an existing language (and use it coherently)

With coherence here is that you have to take choices and stick with them. The readers will accept, for example, that the book is written in English and that most words will be English words. They will accept a foreign looking language used in a particular context, also. Those will be implicit rules between you and them.

If you start breaking those rules, eyebrows will start to rise. I can give a good example from your issue:

On the other hand, how do i describe them without taking humans as reference?. There are no humans in this world, so the statement "they have a humanoid form" can't apply to them.

Either accept "humanoid" as a term, or replace it with another term. If there are no humans in this world, probably the term "humanoid" could be replaced by whatever is the prominent race with four limbs and an head (Elfoid or Elfish for Elves, Goblinoid for goblins, and so on ...). But beware that if you ban terms like "human", you should avoid terms like "man" "woman" "mankind" "anthropomorphic" and so on, because they may not have sense anymore in your setting.

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Let's start with description: how to describe a living creature, without referencing other living creatures. What does it have - scales, tail, wings? How many limbs? On how many does it walk, if at all? Describe what is. For example, if I described a creature as "covered with soft brown fur, possessing a bushy tail as long as its body and curling at the end, sometimes running on all four legs, other times standing up and holding nuts in its forepaws", you'd recognise it as a squirrel. I don't need to mention that it's "rodent-like", or "the size of a rat, but with more points in Charisma and less in Intelligence".

If your world doesn't have humans, you'd be telling the story, and describing individuals, from a non-human POV. That means that general physical features would be taken for granted by them, just as having one head, two hands, two feet is taken for granted by us. You'd need to introduce whatever features your creatures have in such a way that it wouldn't be comparable to "John had two eyes and one nose". Consider instead:

Tom looked at Alice across the classroom. Her scales were pink and glossy, her fingers were green and delicate. He would so much like to hold her hand, and then slide his hand down her long tail, to caress the golden tuft on the end. If he could summon up the courage to ask her to the spring dance, and if she said yes...
(No reason Dracanopi can't be creeps, OK?)

In this example, the reader understands that at least the females of the species have scales, hands and a tail with a tuft on the end, that pink, green and gold are considered pleasant colours for those features (respectively), and that other colours exist.


Now to the name. In many of Earth's languages, at least one of the words for 'humans' just means 'people'. Basically, when we say 'humans', we mean 'us'. So it stands to reason that your creatures could also refer to themselves as 'us', 'people', unless there is more than one species in the story. I remember reading a fantasy short story, in which you very gradually realise that the first-person POV character is a dragon, and that the enemy, who's described as sort of disgusting and worm-like is human. No species names were given at any point - only "us" and the "others".

If you do insist on the creatures having a name, it should be in the language you're writing in. Consider: no people on Earth routinely use another language's word for 'people'. (There is a scientific name, in the language that's most associated with science, but that's separate.) Sure, your creatures won't really be speaking English, that's a translation convention. And you should be using it throughout, unless those creatures are not the ones from whose POV you're telling the story (in which case, use the name the POV species gave them, perhaps inspired by whatever they call themselves in their language.)

It's not a bad idea to use the 'Draco-' element in your species' name, if you use a name at all: it conjures an image of something dragon-like. Such an image would be helpful to the readers. I wouldn't, however, use any 'antropo-' element: it implies that humans not only exist, but are sufficiently dominant for a sapient species to be comparing themselves to humans. That's a bit strange.

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The closest I can think of is dinosaur books for children, where the scientific names are often too long and complicated for kids to pronounce, so they replace them with something that describes either a physical or a behavioral aspect of the animal (for example, the long-necks, the egg-stealers, the sharp-claws). Try to think if there is anything that sets the creature apart as a species (whether their eyes shine in the dark; whether they have a distinctive call - think of a cuckoo; whether they nest or abandon their young; whether they ambush their prey; whether they are infused with a certain type of magic or they steal magic etc.)

Another thing that came to mind: someone gifted me a bird-watching book, albeit... in German. Almost all of the names are something like the lesser-black-and-white-spotted-woodpecker-with-a-red-chest-spot. In German, that's a single word. It works because German allows compound nouns, whereas Romance languages are a bit different in their construction. Figure out which type your fictional language is and if it allows such names.

Also, try to see the common names of various living creatures in different languages and see if you can draw inspiration from the naming system. For example, creatures that have been known for centuries carry common names, whereas creatures that have been named during scientific expeditions may carry the name of the famous person that discovered them or the name they tried to honor - a monarch, a relative, an actress, a book character etc.

Edit: I missed the description part. While you said that you don't want to get scientific, it might help you to see the reasoning behind Linnaeus' classification, which stayed in use for about two hundred years. He uses common physical traits (fur/skin covering for hot-blooded mammals; feathers for hot-blooded birds; skin for cold-blooded reptiles etc.) and then goes on to see their shape, size, dentition, locomotion type etc. Now we know a lot of his classification is wrong thanks to genetics and evolution, but since he didn't have that data back in the 18th century, he based his classification on observable aspects only.

Another thing that might help you in drawing inspiration for descriptions is to browse medieval bestiaries (there are plenty online). These were drawn by monks that had never actually seen the creatures they heard about. You'll see depictions of tigers or elephants that look nothing like the real thing. Most of these have hilarious descriptions and there are plenty of magical creatures (unicorns, demons, gargoyles) around too.

Another thing... your species doesn't exist in a void. See if you can describe it by the relationship it has with the other creatures and with the environment (whether it is friend or foe, whether there is a conflict of territories, what strategies that species adopted to survive etc.)

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A name for a common thing should be relatively short and easy to say

If your fantasy creature is commonly spoken of, the name for it should be simple.

Remember that words evolve over time. If there is a thing that has existed for at least as long as the current language, and which people regularly talk about, its name will naturally be shortened until the length and difficulty match its usage.

Notice that up to this point I have only used three four-syllable words (relatively, regularly, naturally, difficulty), and each of them has a shorter form. Common words which are unwieldy will fall out of favor and/or be replaced. A word that is only used rarely can be less practical.

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In my opinion you should always have at least three names for a species/culture:

  • What they call themselves.

  • What outsiders call them when they're being polite.

  • What outsiders use when they're being, shall we say, less than polite. There will be more than one of these if there are multiple species involved.

The first two can often be the same thing while the third is open to all sorts of latitude and potential scatology and reflects how that particular group of outsiders views them rather than necessarily being about any trait the creature actually possesses.

Scientific names created by humans are going to be Greek/Latin because that's the language of science as we use it. When it comes to creating a scientific name for creatures from a non-human cultures though there no real limit to what you can use. The language of science will be different in a non-human culture so you can make up whatever sounds fun to you, but you will probably want to codify some basis for creating such names for consistency. Also the average member of the culture should probably consider the language used to codify lifeforms as archaic and incomprehensible if not outright arcane.

When it comes to describing the humanoid form without saying humanoid you can use the term "bipedal tetrapod" to describe a creature with an upright stance and a total of four limbs.

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