Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What's in a Name?

You would think that I'd have at least a few simple tasks; like names. Just a line on the character sheet and you're done, right? I wish! This is what E. Richard Sorensen wrote about names in "Preconquest Consciousness":

In these preconquest regions of New Guinea names were rarely binding. What one was called varied according to time, place, mood, and setting. Names were improvised, not formally bestowed, and naming (much like local language flexibility) was often a kind of humorous exploratory play. New names could be quickly coined, often whimsically from events and situations, with a new one coming up at any time. One young boy running in a peculiar way was affectionately dubbed ‘Grasshopper' It stuck. Another was called ‘Kaba’ (short for the prized embokaba beetle) because, during an episode of biting-mouthing play, a friend proclaimed his skin was as delicious as that savory beetle’s flesh. One girl was called 'Aidpost’ following her excitement about the first one in the region; another was called ‘Sleepgood’ by a new friend who liked sleeping with her. A boy from a distant hamlet in the south who tagged along when I went north to the new Australian Patrol Post fled into the jungle in crouched, zigzagging panic when an object he believed to be a metal house abruptly growled and moved. His name became ‘Land Rover’

Names were nicknames. They stuck for a while, then a new one came along. Only when the new (Australian) government began insisting that they use the same name for official dealings, especially in the annual census soon instituted, did formal names emerge. Otherwise, individuals responded to whatever name they knew they might be called.

But even this doesn't go quite far enough, because those informal names come and go so easily because they don't act like nouns at all: they're really verbs. As Willem Larsen wrote:

Because animist languages base themselves in movement/activity, you’ll commonly see the world in terms of verbs, and rarely (or not at all, depending on the particular language) in noun-entities. In Mohawk green also means herbs/greenery/grass; it describes a pattern of appearance, not an entity. In Mohawk, one points out a "hunter" by saying "ratorats," literally "he-hunts." Civilized languages innovated the professional class, thus labels like "Hunt-er," "plumb-er," "farm-er," etc. "He-hunts," "he-plumbs," "she-farms," etc. Notice the difference between calling someone an "artist" and saying that "they create art." Many of us can finally let go of civilized conceptions of success once we click into this thinking—"one day, I’ll be an artist/writer/tracker/hunter-gatherer." Do you make art? Do you write? Do you track? Do you hunt and gather? Only that can we honestly describe. "When will I grow up? When will I feel like an adult?" Do you do adult things? Do you do activity associated with "grown-ups"?

One famous Iroquois speaker, whose name we mistranslate as "Cornplanter," would correctly require us to call him in his native language "He-plants-corn." Your ear has probably picked up on all the Native American names that fit this model, and the few that don’t, which we can easily explain as a similar mistranslation.

In playtests, we ran into a problem where all the names led to confusion. In the new versions, names become boons. You have them in the context of relationships--the name your mother calls you, the name you hold in the tribe, the name you have in dreams, and so on. Hopefully, making names mechanically significant, making them speak to the kind of character you make and the relationships that character has, will both put names more in line with that traditional line of thinking, and make it easier to remember all the different ones you might have.


Willem said...

Dude! I love it. Check out pages 4, 5, and 6 of Jonathan Walton's alternate Exalted freeform rules. The stuff on Character Concept and Name really rocks.

Also, on pages 8-9, the stuff on Excellences really rock as a way to describe skills. Essentially, for each level of skill, you use one capitalized word. So say, "Archer". Then you have an experience where you substantially improve. So, two words, then "Unerring Arrow". You improve again, so three words: "Bowstring Snaps with Thunder". Each time this changing descriptor comments on what happened to improve somehow; where the archer came from, where they will go.

Fun food for thought. Check the pdf out here:

Bill Maxwell said...

Great idea! And I second Willem's suggestion for adding words...

Jason Godesky said...

So, the $1,000 question: I have "Bowstring Snaps with Thunder." Awesome. What does it do? The latest iteration I'm working on takes tapping out of the gifting cycle entirely. Do you gain will? Does it block dares? Do you get Genius loci? What could it do?