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In my story are non-human characters who naturally have their own languages and set of personal names. I have no problem devising interesting names like "Saþil Duqhuãn" (pronounced /sə.θil dʊ.χʷã/) with the help of the International Phonetic Alphabet, but I worry about the readability. So,

  1. How can I tell whether a name is too difficult to read?
  2. How can I make names easier to read?
  3. How can I better hint at correct pronunciation?

I know Stack Exchange frowns upon multiple questions per post, but I feel these three questions are strongly related and integral to the wider question.

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    Pronunciation really only becomes a problem when the work is transferred into an audio medium. As long as it is written, the reader will just make up their own pronunciation in their head. Whether it's right or wrong probably won't affect their enjoyment or understanding of the text. It could only get confusing if they start discussing the work verbally with other people. In which case you can probably clarify who is right and who is wrong with a public statement outside of your work.
    – Philipp
    Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 9:40
  • By the way, intuitively I would pronounce that name as written as "Sa-phil Duck-hu-an"
    – Philipp
    Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 9:45
  • I have a degree in linguistics so this isn't too unfamiliar to me but I will admit when names start getting to bizarre I just skip over the rest of the name after hitting weird clusters (an eye-tracking study of nonce names would be interesting ...). Commented Jul 14, 2023 at 20:51

4 Answers 4

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How can I tell whether a name is too difficult to read?

Your example name I find difficult to pronounce, due to unfamiliar characters. If anything, the 'pronounced' example is even worse. (I speak British English)

I don't know whether to say "Sah-Phil Duck-Whan" or "Sa-Bill Du-Quah".

How can I make names easier to read?

Use only English letters if you're writing in English. You can't rely on your readers to know about the International Phonetic Alphabet, or accents, umlauts and other non-standard characters.

How can I better hint at correct pronunciation?

You could get other characters to say their name phonetically in dialogue, or to struggle with it and have it explained. That'll get old pretty fast though if you do it more than once or twice.

I probably also wouldn't worry about it too much - I read plenty of stuff about ancient greece and I'm sure my pronunciation of some of the words would be shocking to a classicist. Some readers may be more bothered, it's hard to say.

Alternatively, spend a lot of time explaining to the reader how to interact with and understand your language system, possibly through the POV of a foreigner or a child.

You could have an addendum that explains this stuff - just be aware most people probably won't read it.


I know I've been pretty direct in my answer, and hope that comes across as helpful rather than mean.

Really, it depends on what you're trying to do with your book. If you want it to be broadly accessible to as many people as possible, then you may want to ask yourself whether your current approach is the right one?

Should it be "Sabil Duquan" rather than "Saþil Duqhuãn"?

On the other hand, if you're happy with a niche audience who loves language and tricky pronouciation, then go for it. Some people love the Elvish in Tolkien, but many bounce right off it.

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    I think the OP means the letter thorn, represented by the Greek letter theta in the IPA. Neither is familiar to the average reader of English. Ylahris, why not call him Sathil? Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 8:45
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    Another reason to avoid non-ASCII characters is that people discussing your work online might not know how to type them (which might result in gatekeeping) and that they might appear in fonts lacking those characters, resulting in mangled text.
    – Philipp
    Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 9:48
  • Thanks Kate, that clears that up. And yes, this is the exact problem - a majority of readers won't understand this, and will either resort to google, or give up.
    – Phil S
    Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 9:48
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    I don't think Sat-hill is the first pronunciation an English-speaking reader would think of. Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 15:40
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    @Ylahris As a writer, you might do well to not let the conlanger in you take too much influence. Because geeking out too much about languages can easily hurt the accessibility of your work.
    – Philipp
    Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 13:00
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How can I tell whether a name is too difficult to read?

I wouldn't worry as much about whether a name is difficult to read; I would worry about whether it's easy to distinguish from the other names in the book. If you have one character whose name is a string of strange characters and all the others use the Latin alphabet, readers will make up their own pronunciation for that one and all is well. If, on the other hand, you have three characters named Saþil, Såþil, and Sæþil, you will confuse readers. Focus on making the names different rather than on making them readable.

How can I make names easier to read?

Transliterate them or use nicknames.

"My name is [insert gibberish here]. In your language, it would be SharpTongue. You may call me that."

or

"My name is [insert gibberish here]."

"I'm sorry, but I can't say that. How about if I just call you Susan?"

How can I better hint at correct pronunciation?

The tried and true method is to have someone mispronounce the name in dialog and have the character correct them ("I know it's spelled Shithead, but it's pronounced sha-THAYD"), but as Phil S said, that gets old pretty quickly.

You can also include a parenthetical or footnoted pronunciation the first time the character is introduced. That's arguably less intrusive than the mispronunciation route, but it works for people that need it.

One of my favorite methods is to insert a dramatis personae (cast of characters) at the beginning of the book that includes the pronunciations and a short description (e.g., "Eldest child of the king") for each. In complex books, I always appreciate those (and often bookmark them while I'm reading), and people who don't care will just skip over it.

Yet another idea is to create a book trailer. Put it on the book's website, YouTube, and whatever social media you use. Direct people to it in the introduction. That way people will hear the name before they even start reading the book.

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Some of the things you can do include:

  • Test your characters' names on a beta audience.

Just show the written names to some friends, relatives, or random people you stop on the street, and ask, "How would you pronounce this name?" If they generally get it the same way you intended, you're good. If they don't, consider changing it to be more intuitive.

  • Include a pronunciation guide in your book.

A little heavy-handed, but hey, if Tolkien can, so can you. Just make sure it makes its appearance before the text of the whole story, and not at the very end on page 374. Or even at the end of volume three. (Side eye to my copy of those books.) Not so useful after one has already read the novel.

  • Make the names resemble a real language the pronunciation rules of which your audience is likely to be familiar with.

How would you read Jodri Wätschenger? How about Péchoit Ligneaux?

Did you read the first as if it was German and the second like French?

Well, I made them up as random clusters of letters with no relation to anything I know how to say in either of those languages, much less any known names. (Before you put names like this in your story, you should probably check you didn't just randomly hit some inappropriate words. I didn't do that, so I have no idea if these would be suitable names or something rude.) Won't work in all settings, though.

And of couse, the old and already mentioned...

  • Just don't worry about it.

How much does it really matter if your readers pronounce Voldemort with a silent t like you had in mind?

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One: DON'T use the International Phonetic Alphabet. 90% of your readers won't even know what it is. Most of those who are aware that it exists won't remember more than a handful of the symbols, if any.

My advice is: Yes, you need to give your non-human characters strange-sounding names. An alien named "Bob Smith" would only work in a comedy. But write them out using ordinary English letters (assuming that you are writing in English). No foreign language letters, no philologist professional symbols, etc. Make them reasonably pronounceable by sounding out the letters. Like you could call a character "Sathel Duekwon". Don't give a character some totally unpronounceable name, like "Xzytchsaldfk" (which I made by just banging on the keyboard). Arguably aliens or fairies or whatever your non-human characters are might have names that human beings vocal chords are not capable of pronouncing. But if so, humans would come up with some approximation, anyway. Just like we come up with approximations to the sound of foreign languages when they have letters that we don't.

Then don't worry about it. If you intended a name to be pronounced SAY thel but a reader reads it in his head as see THEEL ... so what? Unless the sound of a name is somehow important to the story, in which case you include a conversation where characters struggle over how to pronounce the name and someone explains.

If your story proves to be a cultural phenomenon, maybe you'll have fans asking about the alphabet and pronunciation of these names. More likely, no one will care much. They just want to get on with the story.

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