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When you are writing a story that is set in a fantasy world (maybe our world with just one made-up element, or a completely different world), what is a good way to come up with names for species that aren't just names of Earth species with minor variations? It's easy to call a bird of prey a Tlkachtian hawk, for example, if you have a region in your world named Tlkachtia, but it's not particularly imaginative, and lots of people are likely to focus on the "hawk" part when it might in fact be very different from a hawk. And what if there is nothing in Earth's fauna or flora that is similar in the respect that you want to emphasize?

I found a number of questions and plenty of good answers and resources centered around naming characters and places, but essentially nothing about naming species.

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    I do not understand from your question what's missing for you from the suggestions made for character/place naming. – John Smithers Jun 25 '12 at 18:39
  • @JohnSmithers, what works well for the name of a character only rarely works as a name for a species of plant or animal (sentient or not). Yes, some do work, but other than going through lists of possible character names trying to sift out species names, what techniques other than invoking Earth species do people use for coming up with species names? – a CVn Jun 25 '12 at 18:45
  • Sorry, but I still don't understand why e.g. my suggestions here shouldn't work for species. Maybe you have to choose a different starting point, put what else is missing? – John Smithers Jun 25 '12 at 18:52
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    Quite a long way but here goes: you do know that most animals and plants have long Latin designation names because it's a relatively-known-yet-dead language, right? Following that model, I'd suggest making something like Na'vi Lang. (of Avatar), creating the long scientific names for your species from it, then making the names smaller by any language evolution means you see fit. – Mussri Jun 26 '12 at 14:54
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    Who's doing the naming? A professional zoologist will take care to make the bird's name unique; but colonists will likely call it a hawk, because the word is descriptive and they're not using it otherwise. (Precedent: an American red-breasted thrush is called robin after a red-breasted but unrelated Old World bird.) – Anton Sherwood Jul 24 '16 at 3:46
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Any species you invent will have characteristics. Find yourself a creature with similar characteristics, get a good dictionary, and follow the etymology.

Using you 'hawk' example, the etymology says that the OE was habuc or heafoc; midle Dutch was hawic or havic, High German was habuh and Middle German habech: the Norse was hauk-r.

Take any of those, and form your species name from it. Your hawk could, as an example, be a hauch'r, a heafic, or something similar.

There is no special reason for using etymology. I happen to like it, that is all, so you could adapt it for personal taste (foreign words, random Scrabble tiles, etc) as long as it serves to get ideas flowing.

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Rather than focusing on generating names - a process that's usually somewhat arbitrary - perhaps examine the purpose of these names in your story. There's a school of thought that goes like this:

World building is an exercise whose purpose is to help the writer tell a good story. Correspondingly, the design of a species in SF or fantasy should contribute to the story, and its name should also do so.

The names of characters can contribute to the flavor of a narrative. Bilbo Baggins is a good example. It's a silly, bumbling name, and it serves a good purpose: We underestimate the character, and his eventual bumbling triumphs are the more valuable because of it. Thomas Covenant is another good one - the character is serious, dour, important. (You may not want to be this blatant, of course.)

The name you choose for an entire race, therefore, can serve a story purpose.

If you want the story to feel very down-to-earth, then using earth-based names would serve your purposes, unless you want to put an extra layer between your tale and anything earthbound. If you want things to seem truly alien, then you'll want names that feel odd, maybe even a little bit wrong.

There are plenty of etymological dictionaries, name-generating tools, and thesauri. All of these can be good tools in naming your fictional races. But, in the end, just use something and get the story written. You can always make changes later on, when you're clearer on what story purposes your names should serve.

  • I like the suggestion to "just use something". After all, search and replace is there for a reason. Since I had to choose one answer to accept, though, I picked Roaring Fish's answer (which I liked slightly better), and upvoted this. – a CVn Jun 29 '12 at 8:17
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One important aspect of naming creatures is onomatopoeia and ideophone -
the name should give an impression of what the creature is.

For example:

  • A buruk can sound like a large, powerful, lumbering beast
  • Fleep may give the impression of a small, flying rodent.
3

You can jumble the characters of the existing species names. For example, in Pokemon, you have Ekans and Arbok, which are the reverse of Snake and Kobra, respectively.

Or, you can use equivalent names from some other languages. Like, the Japanese equivalent of Hawk.

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I have been thinking about creating an imaginary world, too. In fact, I have been creating them in my mind. I have to find time to put them down in writing or at least dictate into the recording app of my phone.

Evolution of species.

A story is more intriguing if it has background of how various species evolved from a couple of common roots. It's more believable when you invent the history together with how they became known by what they are known. Then your story could prequel respectively into why they are what they are called.

Evolution of Language

It's not difficult to invent a language - if you have been exposed to a number of languages. You could have all these historical evolution of languages that is hidden beneath your world/universe that the audience does not know about. Every conversation - you drop a little hint. And you name their race and species based on the linguistic evolution you have concocted - which you could plan to reveal in bits and pieces as the story progresses.

I don't think we need to come up with whole vocabs for the languages. Just bits and pieces. Not trying to invent languages, but fragments of linguistic and cultural history in order to name your characters and their villages/cities and races.

Analytic languages (English, Indonesian) are easier to concoct than synthetic ones (Greek, Latin, Sanskrit) or idiomatic/ideographic languages. Synthetic languages require you to synthesize whole complex paradigms of grammar - which would be to complicated for a readers more interested in the story.

You start with inventing the primitive sounds - let's say rr, vv, hh, gg, mm. Threatening sounds, soothing ones.

For a very simple example,

Associating rr=exposition of power, gg=food, vv=ecstasy, mm=fear. And then the vowels would indicate intensity u e a i.

So ruve gami would be someone with some power exhibiting it in mild ecstasy over those who have strong need of food and extreme fear of losing their source of food.

You should try to be consistent. For a particular tribe/race - is it "house my" or "my house" to denote possessive. But not overly consistent.

Then the race/species gets splintered evolutionarily. Or a less developed tribe encounters the first tribe and adopts their grunts - but they could not pronounce r because of their biological limitations and all the r sounds become y sounds. And they had mixed up the vowel intensity. Instead of four intensities, they only have three.

So the new tribe says yaba hhene rather ruve gami. And they have a different culture - more aggressive. So ruve gami=village mayor becomes yaba hhene=fearless king.

You could name species after the places they are associated with, using the various grunting languages you have developed - for example, the house on stinky river = giba ngonle. n being negation of food = stinky.

And then their names get evolved thro diversity until the present day of your story. And when you form the conversations (in English of course), their manner of speech (which you translate in English) and the body language you describe of each tribe or species hint very strongly of their past linguistic and cultural and adversarial evolution.

It's like the shampoo advertisement telling you to give body to your hair - give body to your story - when the epic of story is woven with the names of the races and cities, geography and languages, with its linguistic and historical evolution. And why they are fighting or are in uneasy alliances.

Because of the simplified analytic language you concoct, your readers will be able to learn them quickly. And when a race or city is called Ngandi-Kopsela - your audience would get a hint that species had been named pejoratively by another race. And they would more likely want to find out why that race has a pejorative name and who amongst the subtribes gave them that name and why.

Because your universe is so rich of untold history (all hidden in your foundations scrap book) thro its names and simplified languages - it could make readers crawl the episodes to find out, to decipher or to wait for the next installment.

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I feel that species names should not distract from the piece too much. To that end, they should be fairly simple, and ideally easily pronounced. They should also be 'realistic', although exactly what that means will vary to each reader. I like Tlkachtian hawk, particularly if you also introduce Tlkachtia, although as a native English speaker I'll admit that 'Tlkachtia' itself gives me a little difficulty.

Now, given your point that it's nothing like a real-world hawk you might want to choose a better analog, but not necessarily. If all things you refer to as 'hawks' in your world are similar to your Tlkachtian hawk and not real hawks, that is fine. Even then there is room to vary - you can call velociraptors and their kin 'raptors' just as well as you can call all accipitriformes raptors and no one will bat an eye.

If you're dealing with common names (which I would - my friends complain when I try to explain the full taxonomy of my fantasy species), look at real-life species names. They are often very direct. A grey squirrel is grey. A sapsucker eats sap. There are four species called sapsucker, and they're the red-naped sapsucker (because it has a red nape), the red-breasted sapsucker (red breast), the yellow-bellied sapsucker (yellow belly), and Williamson's sapsucker (first identified during an expedition lead by a fellow named Williamson).

Other than the general name of the animal, (dog, rat, duck, etc), which have long been in the language, common names tend to pretty much just be descriptions of what the animal looks like or what it does.

Of course, that works best in your stories that are "like our world but slightly not". For a wholly fantastic world, you might be tempted to say "Ah but they don't have hawks!" This is possibly just a personal preference, but in a fantasy story I still expect animals to be pretty much normal world animals along with some mythological beasts, and some magical-ish variations on normal animals. Inventing new species would make me feel like the work has a bit of a science fantasy vibe to it - though that's a perfectly valid genre in its own right, so I wouldn't necessarily balk at it.

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In my fantasy series set on another world I feature a Hawk as a main character. In my mind, the bird shares some physical characteristics of the creature we know here on Earth, but it does have differences, which I have mentioned in the texts. For me though, these are not all that important. What is important is that the creature a) is a hunting bird, b) is intelligent, c) develops a relationship with my protagonist, and d) has its own story arc. These traits can be seen as the scenes which feature her develop and move on. As to naming the creature, I decided to keep her actual name as 'Hawk' as this puts an immediate picture into the mind of the reader as to the nature of the bird. This is then subsequently amended slightly in their heads when they read about how she differs physically from the earthly version.

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    I think the OP was asking about the naming of whole species, not individual characters. – Monica Cellio May 12 '17 at 1:37

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