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I've been creating this fantasy world where many different races coexist, so most aren't human. I'm trying to write all the worldbuilding details down, and I'm stuck on a phrase "She is the goddess who blessed [redacted] with (...)". So, I can't say "humans", because there are also other creatures such as elves, dwarves, orcs, merfolks, etc. and they're all more or less humanoid, but not human, and saying "beings" or "beasts" sounds dehumanizing though, as if I was talking about animals. I'll be thankful for all suggestions haha :)

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    This reminds me a bit of this discussion: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/176450/…
    – Erk
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 21:37
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    Or use religion... sons of Adam, daughters of Eve has been used (by C.S. Lewis), children of... what is the name of that goddess? You'll just have to redo your sentence a bit to make it work...
    – Erk
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 21:45
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    Featherless bipeds? Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 19:06
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    Miserable piles of secrets?
    – Hearth
    Commented Jan 12, 2023 at 5:23
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    In a sci-fi setting, "sapient" is a good option. But it really doesn't feel right in a fantasy world.
    – Bobson
    Commented Jan 12, 2023 at 20:33

13 Answers 13

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Honestly, it sounds that the best word for the inhabitants of your world - humans, elves, dwarves, orcs, merfolk, all together - would be...

People.

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    Or "the peoples" Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 15:50
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    J.R.R. Tolkien agreed!
    – Davislor
    Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 19:18
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    @Davislor Though he didn't use the word "human" to refer the specific race either - they were called "men" regardless of gender... Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 20:35
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    @DarrelHoffman Tolkien called humans "Men" (capitalised) in his books. Which, if I recall right, clashed with the fact that he didn't capitalise Elves, Dwarves, Orcs or Hobbits. There's also the detail that the number of women in Middle-earth seems to average about one per country.
    – Divizna
    Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 21:04
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    I’m thinking of, “Learn now the lore of Living Creatures! / First name the four, the free peoples.” Tolkien did also use “Men” in the old-fasioned, epicene sense, but I don’t think the question is about that.
    – Davislor
    Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 21:09
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The word "mortals" would probably be a good fit in this context. "She is the goddess who blessed mortals with..."

Other words that could work in this context might be: living beings, entities, intelligent life, sentient life, flesh and blood, etc.

If this world has a specific name, such as "Terra", you could name them the "Terrans".

If these people are the descendents of gods in some way you could call them the Children of the Gods, the Children of the Divine, the Divine Descendants. You could also name them after the goddess herself. For real world example the Athenians named themselves after Athena, goddess of Wisdom.

You can add to the worldbuilding by tying the name to a creation myth.

Ex-A thousand years ago the Wolf Goddess lost a tooth. It fell from the the Heavens and landed on the Earth, becoming a mountain. The people believe their life force is tied to this Fang.

So they call themselves the...well, there are a lot of things they could call themselves.

The Children of the Fang. The Fangs of Heaven. The Sky Fangs. The Celestial Fangs. Etc.

There are lots of possibilities.

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    This might be a problem if one goes with the trope that elves are immortal. Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 10:54
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    But presumably "mortals" would include dogs, fish, trees, etc. ? (As well as Terrans?)
    – komodosp
    Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 11:06
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    @komodosp In most settings, ‘mortals’ is limited to what most people would call, well, ‘people’, with the implication being beings with at least human-equivalent intelligence who are specifically not gods. Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 14:45
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    @infinitezero Elves are usually a different type of immortal than what is meant when gods reference mortality. Elves are the type of immortal that means they do not die of old age, but usually can still be killed. Gods are usually the type of immortal that means cannot die at all. So in the context of deities, "mortal" means those creatures that can perish, which would include the typical elf. That said, this word choice would still make an amusing oxymoron that the author may prefer to avoid. Commented Jan 12, 2023 at 22:04
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Her Creation. This would include sentients (humans, elves, dwarves, etc), animals, vegetals, minerals, the sky above, the sea on the horizon, the ground below, everything. That obviously assumes a myth of creation where the goddess created everything, which is pretty typical in religion.

Her Children. This would typically include sentients, possibly animals as well, conceivably anything else depending on the core beliefs of the religion (e.g. trees are sacred, so trees are children of the goddess too). That largely assumes a myth of creation, although they could be adopted children.

Her People. This would typically include all sentients. This does not assume a myth of creation, it could just be the people the deity rules over.

Her Peoples. This is like the above, except it allows you to mark a distinction between all your sentients, on the basis of species, culture, or whatever else. This may be prefered by groups who consider themselves superior to others.

Naturally, you can use another pronoun than "Her".

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A few examples of how other speculative fiction has addressed this:

  • X and Y: If there are few enough groups of sapient beings in your world, you can just have a stock phrase that enumerates them. In The Elder Scrolls setting, the phrase "men and mer" is used frequently to refer collectively to all sapients (men being humans, mer being the setting's various kinds of elves and elf-derived folk like orcs and khajiit). Strictly speaking, argonians are sapient and neither men nor mer, but this is often ignored.
  • Sophonts: Used frequently in sci-fi to refer collectively to sapient beings, this will come across as a reference to its use by other writers like Poul Anderson and Vernor Vinge, but that could be a good thing depending on how you want your setting to feel.
  • Kith: Used in the Pillars of Eternity games' setting to refer collectively to sapient peoples. Derived from the English word meaning something like "friends, relatives, acquaintances, neighbors".
  • Bodies: Used in D&D's Planescape setting to refer to all embodied sapient beings. You probably don't want to actually use this one, since it does the opposite of emphasizing their personhood, but in the setting, that's a feature, not a bug - it emphasizes both how little the planar travelers of Sigil care about "superficial/cosmetic" differences between different types of people, and also that they don't tend to hold individual lives in high regard. Take this as inspiration for how the word your setting uses for this can emphasize to the reader how people in your setting tend to think about other people and the value of lives.
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What about "folk"? It's a commonly used synonym for people, and it sounds suitable for a typical fantasy setting. The one downside is it sounds a bit informal for a religious document, but I think you can get around that if you use it consistently to differentiate from "humans" as just one type of "folk."

You could also use it as the root for a coinage. "She blessed all the hainfolk, the elves, dwarves, humans and fairies."

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Are you trying to get at humanoid? That would be critters that are basically similar to humans. Elves, dwarves, orcs, hobbits, etc. Even such things as dryads, giants, and some things I've forgotten just now. A head on top of a body, with two arms and two legs, a face, more-or-less mammalian, some hair of some kind, etc.

The border between humanoid and otherwise is somewhat fuzzy in fantasy and science fiction. There will be disagreement on mermaids (because of the fishy bottom), werewolves (because of the phase with four legs), vampires (because they are undead), and robots (because they are not biological). Undoubtedly you can come up with other cases that are difficult to categorize.

Presumably any other species besides humans will have something in their language that does the same job. Elves, for example, will have some word that means "elf form."

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    Even if it’s technically apt, humanoid would be pretty jarring in a typical fantasy setting.
    – PLL
    Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 8:41
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    @PLL - especially if "human" is just another race like "elf", "orc", etc. I am not sure the others would appreciate being referred to as "humanoid"....
    – komodosp
    Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 11:09
  • @PLL with 'apt' you mean.. what? (I think of the util in linux apt for software management) Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 14:05
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    @WilliamMartens: I mean ‘apt’ in the sense of the ordinary English word, i.e. ‘suitable’, ‘fitting’.
    – PLL
    Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 14:22
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    @AustinHemmelgarn No, it still applies when translation convention is in place. Translation convention covers tone, style and connotations as well, not just the strictly technical meaning of words.
    – Divizna
    Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 21:32
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Maybe the answer is already hidden in your question? How about creatures?

Collins has:

You can refer to any living thing that is not a plant as a creature, especially when it is of an unknown or unfamiliar kind. People also refer to imaginary animals and beings as creatures.

That should include all the elves, dwarfs, orcs, etc.

In your case you could write: "She is the goddess who blessed all creatures with the gift of language/..."

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You’re looking for something formal and solemn, but there have been a lot of funny ones over the years. Most famously, the story about how Plato defined human as, “featherless biped,” so Diogenes plucked a chicken, and the Academy added, “With flat nails.” That particular one doesn’t work here, though, if there are mer-people. Or maybe that’s what they call everyone else. “Naked apes,” is another.

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Earthlings, as opposed to divine beings.

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    this I totally agree with! earthlings ! :D brilliant Commented Jan 12, 2023 at 11:23
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    "Earthling" only really works if the planet in your fantasy setting is still called "Earth", which probably isn't the case, but using the setting's demonym ("Earthling", "Martian", "Alderaanian", etc.) is a pretty good suggestion.
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Jan 12, 2023 at 11:27
  • note that in many languages the word for "human" (sometimes later specialised to "man" specifically) literally means "earthling" (not in the sense of someone from Earth, but someone from the earth/the ground). Human is an example of this (from Latin humus "ground"), but also Irish duine, Welsh dyn, Latin homo, Lithuanian žmogùs, and the Old English guma (surviving as the groom in bridegroom) all from the same Indo-European root
    – Tristan
    Commented Jan 13, 2023 at 9:54
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According to Wikipedia, the word "Human" refers to all species in the Genus "Homo" of which only Homo Sapiens are extant... however, over the course of prehistorical life, there were possibly 18 different species of within the "Homo" genus.

It could be that your fantasy species are all of the "Homo" genus but may not be of the "Homo Sapien" species. This would require you to get creative with latin names, but you could say something like "The term "humans" covers all creatures within the Homo genus, including the Common Human (H. sapiens), Elves (H. alfitis), Orc (H. orcneas), Dwarves (H. dhreughitis) and Merfolk (H. maritimus)* as well as the hybrid offspring of different species of humans. Often, to distinguish the collective genus of humans from Common Human, the term "humanoid" will refer to any member of the Homo genus, while "Human" will refer to Common Human but all terms are valid in the academic world."

In Law, the word "Human" is rarely used as modern law already deals with non-human legal entities, such as corporations, governments, and other legal entities that may not be human in nature. Thus the law will usually refer to "legal persons" which covers a singular individual, or collective entity. More archaeic but terms would refer to "people" such as in the U.S. Constitution, where "people" referred to the body of ordinary citizens in all instances of use in the original document AND the Bill of Rights. This distinction in law that ignores biological humanity already makes the law and legal rights of non-humans much easier to protect, since you already do not have to be a human to participate (for example, the U.S. government routinely sues for violations of civil law, and in general legal theory, only the legal entity of "the state" may bring up criminal charges against a criminal defendant (only a legal entity who is actually a human may be penalized with jail time, but all legal persons can suffer fines for criminal behavior).

This can also be an expression of language differences, as happens already in real life where languages may not use the same words when describing nationalities. For example, in the English Language "American" refer to someone or something that is from the United States, however, in most of Spanish speaking, the translated word of "American" refers to someone or something that is of the American Continents (North America, Central, Caribbean, and South America) and "estadounidense" refers to those who are from the United States of America (It's literal translation is United Statesian). On the other side, in the English-speaking world, the word "German" is used to denote people or things from Germany, but in the German Language, the equivalent word is "Deutsh", and the equivalent country is "Deutschland".

Similarly, in your setting, each race could have a race centric name for humans in their own language and their own language uses their race as the basis for all others, so the elvish word for "humanoid" is effectively "elvenoid" and the Orcish word for humanoid is "Orcoid". Since English is a human language, when elves and orcs speak English, they would use humanoid because that is the correct term. One problem bound to arise is that a human suffering from "Dwarfism" is still referred to as a Dwarf in real life, so you might have to work with a member of the actual Dwarf species being offended by this, but the easy work around is that the stereotypical Dwarf culture would not see anything associated with a Dwarf as an insult.

Depending on how your setting works, the "human" species might cover some non-human looking things. In D&D lore, there are several unique races that are human but have some very non-human features (most famously, the Tieflings are typically born to human parents, who's family line at one point interacted with demons or the abyssal plain from which demons come from... and this could be several generations from that interaction and the child's birth. It's explicitly stated that Tieflings need not be the product of a sexual union between a human and a demon, so it could be some peoples are true humans, with some magically induced differences in phenotype.) There may still be other species that may be further removed from humans than the genus level but still retain humanoid features (in some lores, when they appear, gnomes are humanoid, and in others they have no relations to humans (being minor fey creature). Additionally in many fantasy systems, one can be a standard playable race but not be a "humanoid" with the option to play goblinoids (which includes goblins, hobgoblins, and Bugbears) and the distinction between humans and goblinoids is such that the rules system does give them immunities to mechanics that only effect humanoids. In real life, Humans are one of 8 extant "Great Apes" or Hominidae, which include the Homo genus (Humans), the Pan genus (Chimpanzees and Bonobos), the Pongo Genus (Three different species of Orangutan) and the Gorilla Genus (Two separate species). It could also be some human-like races are not Homo but would fall into a broader "Great Ape" category. All animals in the Hominidae represent some of the most intelligent animals in the world, even if you don't count the bell curve wrecker that is Humans.

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There are any number of ways you can express the concept, including the various answers already presented, depending on what you're trying to convey. There are a few questions that affect which one fits best.

What feature do all of the included species have in common? From the list you've presented - a classic short-list of fantasy humanoids - there are a couple of features, but the important one is this: they're all intelligent, to some degree or another. All of them are capable of rational thought, even if the orcs (and probably many of the humans, if we're being honest) generally aren't very good at it. Technically, in the jargon, they're all sentient or even sapient.

What is your speaker's target audience? If they're delivering a dissertation at a conference then technical jargon is the norm, but anywhere else it's a bit weird. In most cases "sapient species" is not only out of place, it's just going to confuse most people. It carries a tone of pretentiousness that even those who understand it will likely be turned off by.

So let's tone that down a little. In a lot of fiction, both fantasy and scifi, people don't talk about species. Instead we tend to use the (technically inaccurate) word "race" to describe other people, even if we don't share compatible genetics. OK, in a lot of fantasy fiction hybrids (half-orcs, half-elves, etc.) are fairly common, so perhaps "race" is technically accurate in those cases, but you get the point.

So rather than jargonizing, let's settle for more common speach: the intelligent races.

This encapsulates the important parts without "dehumanizing" (for our meaning of the word; perhaps "depersoning" might be a better fit?) anyone. Using "race" implies that there is a fundamental commonality between all of the included people; whether or not we can breed with them, they're just another type of person who happen to have radically different phenotypes. The elves are a race of tall, delicate people who live a long time. Orcs are a race of strong, brutish people with green blood and emotional control problems. But both are people in those descriptions, not animals, not monsters and definitely not things.

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In a world that contains many creatures such as humans, elves, dwarves, orcs, merfolks, etc., there will inevitably exist many, many words describing different subcategories of creatures, depending on how inclusive or how racist (specist?) the speaker is.

I don't think this topic can be dodged realistically.

For instance, perhaps a common belief amongst some people is that humans and elves are superior to other creatures. Another common believe amongst some other people is that humans, elves and dwarves are superior to other creatures. Another common belief is that hybrids (like merfolk and werewolves) are only half-way between humans and lowly animals. Perhaps a common belief amongst many people is that orcs are inferior to all other humanlike creatures. Perhaps another common belief is that creatures with magical powers, such as elves and merfolk, are superior to creatures without magical powers, such as humans and dwarves.

Every group which believes that some particular subcategory is superior will have a particular term for that subcategory.

Inevitably, some terms will be ambiguous and depend on who is saying them. For instance, "person" refers to anyone that the speaker considers to be a person, which might or might not include orcs depending on the speaker.

Some other terms will be more technical / scientific, or simply more vivid, and thus will be less ambiguous. For instance, "hybrid" or "taur" refers to all creatures which look half-human half-animal, like merfolk and centaurs. But maybe some creatures consider the word "hybrid" to be offensive, because it suggests that a mermaid would be the offspring of a human mating with a fish, whereas obviously that's not the case (or is it?).

Unless you want to bowdlerise your text, I think this topic and this ambiguity of vocabulary is unavoidable in a world populated by many humanlike species.

Vocabulary that might be useful:

  • Human;
  • Sapient, sentient, intelligent, superior folk, elevated folk;
  • Person, people, folk;
  • Humanlike, humanoid;
  • Hominoid, Hominid, Hominin, Hominina, Homo, Homo [Something];
  • Biped, anthropomorph, anthros;
  • Being;
  • Mortal;
  • Creature;
  • Children of [insert name of god or planet or land]
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It depends on the reason why you need to use that word.

If you just need it rarely in a general throwaway manner like in your example, without having any need to draw any attention to it, then the word "people" or something similar would be the best choice.

However, if the differences between your sentient humanoids and non-sentient or semi-sentient beasts is an important part of the setting, or if the similarities between your humanoids is an important plot point, then it might be useful to make up a fictional word to use it in your setting.

There are examples for both cases:

  • Kith, as used in the Pillars of Eternity, is important because the concept of a soul and reincarnation are central to the setting, therefore there is a strong need to differentiate creatures which do have a soul and can reincarnate, from those which can not.

  • Hnau, in The Space Trilogy from C. S. Lewis refers to sentient beings, even if they live on different planets. Humans are the only hnau they know of before first contact, therefore most of them don't value alien lifeforms and are only loyal to the interests of humanity, not having much issue with the idea of wiping out other species to settle humans on other planets. However, with planets where multiple hnau species live and coexist, they learned to respect other species on the same level as their own species, and they regard members of other intelligent species the same as their own, no matter how greatly they differ.

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