Let’s say you’re just finishing up writing your first session for your new DnD group. It’s a fairly standard setup - several wandering adventurers meet in a tavern. But, oh! What shall you name your tavern?
In the interest of predictability (and in keeping with your setup), you go with “Ye Olde Tavern”. Standard, easy to understand, and even in Old English! It perfectly sets the mood and tone of your little game. Right?
D&D “Common” as Old English
First of all, “Ye Olde Tavern” is not Old English. It’s not even an affectation of fake Old English.
“Ye Olde Tavern” is an affectation of Middle English, and fairly late Middle English at that. In actual Old English, “The Old Tavern” would be read as “Þæt wínhús ealdlic”, written in runes carved into a stone.
Yes, there are letters there which are no longer in use (they’re pronounced ‘th’ and ‘ay’, respectively, in case you were wondering).
No, your player’s wouldn’t have a clue what you’re saying.
These Old English runes were used almost symbol-for-symbol by JRR Tolkein for several of his languages in Lord of the Rings! This means that, to a geek’s eye, they look more like Dwarven than Common.
It’s no secret that the English language has a long and convoluted history - one that cannot be easily summed up in a single article. Suffice to say, you can safely assume that anything that you can actually read is not Old English, but later Middle English, which developed long after.
In fact, much of the difficulty that comes with the English language, even in its modern form, comes from the fact that it developed out of a pidgin (a sort of makeshift language cobbled together to allow for trade and interaction between two groups that do not share a similar language)l. In this case, that pidgin bridged Old English and French. Influence from Latin, alongside each language’s own tendency to simplify and change over time, further added to the confusion, and we’re left with a hundred little rules and words that don’t actually make much sense anymore.
What Does This Have to do with Tabletop Gaming?
Obviously, unless you’re a massive nerd like me (and I’ll admit that it’s possible you aren’t, even in the tabletop crowd), you don’t really need to understand the history of the English language to give the right atmosphere to your game.
Middle English was in use throughout the Middle Ages and Medieval Eras - its perfectly appropriate for use in your campaign, no matter what you refer to it as. In fact, the Forgotten Realms, Faerun, and Eberron are all set in such a period that would not be using Old English at all. Its safe to assume that “Common”, if it existed, would likely have been some sort of Middle English.
So why am I even bringing this up?
Old English, and all of its rules and norms, has had an effect on our modern speech. Mostly subconsciously, but enough that I’ve always found it very useful in making believable names, references, and settings for my games.
Telling an engaging story is all about controlling the perception of your audience - in this case, your players. There’s a reason that DMs are so often referred to as “control freaks”. To be able to predict the impression and opinion that your party has of the places, items, and people that they meet is invaluable, and understanding just a couple little things about the English language can be a significant help in doing so.
Fantasy Naming and Word-Creation
In essence, what you need to know is this:
If you want to make something sound like an item of everyday use, use Old English grammar. This means plenty of consonants, combining short words to make new ones (like warpdrive or powercore), and using double negatives (in Old English two negatives do not, in fact, make a positive).
You’ll end up with names that sound clearly fictional, but are still perceived as more ’down-to-earth’ than they might otherwise be.
If you want to make something sound exotic, unusual, or particularly valuable, use Latinate rules, like Modern English does. This means combining Latin and Greek roots to make new words, lots of vowels, and careful use of grammar and context.
You’ll end up with names that sound formal, mystical, and altogether more valuable.
The difference in feeling that you’ll get from the naming styles comes from the subconscious instinct that Old English words are for ‘simpler’ concepts (“edge” and “precipice” mean much the same thing, and yet the latter word taken from Latin roots sounds much more complex and important). The sound is more ‘everyday’, more approachable. Latin words, while plentiful in our language, are simply viewed as more ‘educated’ and formal.
An Example Naming Magical Items
Here’s an example.
Let’s say that you’ve just given your players a new wand - it generates up to 30 feet of magical light (that may or may not have some extra, unknown properties)! Depending upon how you want them to view this wand, you’ll want to name it different things.
Want them to think of it as a goofy toy (maybe to pull the rug out from under them later on when it proves invaluable?) - just go ahead and call it a Sparkle Stick. The alliteration sounds whimsical.
Want them to think of it as a functional item that they could find stocked in the local magician’s guild? Maybe a Light Wand. Functional, but still clearly a fantasy item.
If you want them to think of it as a strange and valuable item, which should be guarded and used sparingly? Call it a Lusunum (combining the latin roots for ‘light’ and ‘stick’). An ancient and valued technology, that is.
Notice the difference?
You may even feel like the first two options feel more ‘fictional’ than the last one - Lusunum could be the name of a plant or a gemstone, while Light Wand cannot be anything but a fantasy prop. That’s because, as mentioned above, Modern English follows a Latinate naming pattern, and doesn’t just combine words to make new ones. This means that when you break the pattern, they don’t sound quite ‘real’.
Forget the Fantasy Name Generator (or at least boost its stats)
No matter what you’re naming, it helps to be able to control what your audience’s first impressions of that this is. These guidelines help with that.
Some examples of things that you can name with this formula:
- Magical items
- Noble Surnames
Basically, anything that needs a proper noun!