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Feminine Naming Conventions in Middle-earth

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PostPosted: Fri Aug 22, 2003 3:56 am    Post subject: Feminine Naming Conventions in Middle-earth Reply with quote

Feminine Naming Conventions in Middle-earth, or, why you will never meet Serella, Elanna, Callysta, Savina, Vedilia, Carelia, Analae, Telperion, Sydney, Hoshi, Zoe, Faith and Friselle anywhere north-west of Mordor...

...Also why it's highly unlikely you'll ever encounter Kalen, Dileriyen, Alesia, Ariana the daughter of King Arien, Tess of Syarrwood, Nimuay, Aireromen, Lunan, Alakreiel, Alyssa Jade, Mira, or Princess Ranil, either.

(Or, alternately, what not to name your Original Female Character.)

By the Philosopher of Large


A/N: All of the above-mentioned names are indeed the names of fanfiction characters garnered entirely from ffnet, none of whom are supposed to be transplants from our era and universe, all of whom are supposed to be native heroines -- but cannot be. Here, very simply, is why. (I'm assuming familiarity with The Lord of the Rings here, and not just the Fellowship movie, which may be overly optimistic, but not necessarily with the Appendices at the end of Return of the King, nor the Silmarillion, nor any of the other volumes of the History of Middle Earth.)


Most of the proper names in Middle-earth are derived, in some way or other, from Elvish languages and names. This means, naturally enough, that they follow the linguistic conventions of those languages, Sindarin and Quenya. Most of the rest follow those of Westron and the language it was derived from, Adûnaic. Some of those conventions can be deduced simply by considering those names that are given in Tolkien's works, without ever venturing deeper into the original languages. Let us look at authentic feminine names from The Lord of the Rings:

A certain pattern -- or lack thereof -- should be striking: that is to say, the total absence of any name ending in -a or -ia. This is born out further by examining the names of historical characters from the Appendices to LOTR:


Those names that we see which do end in -a are almost without exception masculine names. For example, Háma and Herefara, both of whom are men of Rohan killed in the War. In the Appendices, those of famous historical characters from the chronicles of Gondor and Rohan which end in -a/-ia -- Vidugavia, Vinitharya, Brytta, Walda, Folca, Scatha -- are kings and lords, with the exception of the last, who was a Dragon.

In fact there are only two significant exceptions to this trend. The first which I will consider is Varda.

This is the "name" of one of the Vala, or divine Powers, who take the place of "the gods" in the mythology of Middle-earth. She is also called Elbereth Gilthoniel. However, these are not really names, strictly speaking, but titles. The Powers have names only because the people of Arda give them to them: among themselves, being spirits, they simply have identities. This is rather a confusing notion, but it hinges on the fact that since we can't interact on such an elemental level, we need language, and names by which to communicate and indicate each other to ourselves. The Valar don't, except when interacting with material beings. The "names" they bear are descriptive ones: Varda means "the Exalted", while Elbereth means "Star Queen," and Gilthoniel "Star-Kindler, and refer to her role as maker of the stars.

Then there are the names of Hobbits:


These do follow, it would seem, western Earth naming conventions. In fact, they even look downright English. --This is because the Hobbits are the viewpoint characters in the Lord of the Rings, and their names and the proper names as well as their style of speaking, is translated (in the fiction of its origin in the Red Book of Westmarch, Frodo's original manuscript) so as to most closely resemble that of our own. Feminine names in the Shire were often floral in derivation, and so have been converted to the equivalent flowers in English.

But the fact that they follow modern western feminine naming conventions in the translation does not mean that the conventions are the same -- nor are they for masculine naming conventions, either. This is all explained in the Appendices found at the end of Return of the King. For example, Merry's real name is not Meriadoc at all, but Kalimac, shortened to Kali, meaning "cheerful," in the real Hobbit language, and so a near-equivalent was created for the "translation" of the Red Book of Westmarch. Elanor is not related to our Eleanor, which derives from "Helen", but from the Middle-earth flower of that Elvish name. And Frodo's name has been "anglicized" from Froda, which original reflects the kinship of the language of the Shire with that of Rohan.

Further examination of the mythos of Middle-earth, starting with the Silmarillion, reveals some more feminine name conventions from antiquity, but still no -a/ia endings -- except in the "names" of the Powers. To Varda is added Yavanna, Nienna, Vána, Nessa, -- all of which are again descriptive titles, not names strictly speaking. And still, those which end in -a are in the minority: those known to belong to other female Powers, greater and lesser, follow more usual forms:


Note how they end in -n or the archaic -ë, which is common among the older Elven names. However, few endings will be found to be exclusively masculine or feminine:



But you will also find masculine names ending equally in -ë/-wë, -n, -r, and only -wen, -iel and -ian/-ien (and possibly -th) seem to be exclusively feminine. How do you know the difference? Context, ultimately. There are a number of place names which end in -a, like Rómenna, but you will not find any women in the lands of Middle-earth itself with names like Aura, just going by the statistical odds.

There's another linguistic reason disbarring names like Aura, Callysta, and Alyssa Jade, and that is the same one that prohibits Zoe, Faith, Sydney and Tess. Middle-earth has its own cultures and traditions, and names which come from Greco-Roman lore or English literature simply do not belong there.

--Unless you're writing strictly about Hobbits in the style of the Red Book of Westmarch "as translated by Professor Tolkien from the Westron" -- but still you'd never get Sydney, which is a name from a very specific historical background and doesn't fit into the Shire's traditions, nor Faith, which is a Puritan name, and doesn't belong in the chronology of Middle-earth either. Hobbit girls aren't named after the Virtues.

Sapphira would work, and so would Campanula (but not Forsythia, because the plant forsythia is named after a guy named Forsythe who classified it) but even Campanula is getting close to the other problem -- which is that names and words in Middle-earth are signally easy to pronounce. Hence you don't get a lot of names longer than three syllables, and those which are four syllables are rhythmic and not clunky.

So you won't meet Dileriyen or Aireromen probably, even though the -en ending is all right, nor Alakreiel, despite the terminal -iel, because they're funny-looking (yes, I know this is not a technical linguistic term) and thus hard to pronounce, as Galadriel is not.1 Also there's a problem in that k is not generally used in Elven languages, though it's found in words and names from Dwarvish and Adûnaic, and mixing two different languages in one name is not very likely. So, no Kalen either.

Hoshi and Friselle both flunk the linguistic probability test, too: though a few feminine titles end in -i this is because they derive from the word meaning "queen" in the High-Elven language: "Elentári", Star-Queen, (for Varda) and "Kementári," Queen of the Earth (for Yavanna, who's responsible for the Ents.) Whether it is or isn't, Hoshi sounds Asian. And -elle is a specifically French feminine ending, and isn't used anywhere in Middle-earth.

But why not Princess Ranil? After all, there's Idril, who's an Elf-princess. --Well, for one thing, there just aren't a lot of Princesses in Middle-earth at any one time, and never were. Kingdoms are few and far between in any Age of its history, and fewer still by the time of the War of the Ring. So mysterious princesses from kingdoms not marked on the maps are extremely unlikely.

But Ranil is actually a workable name, otherwise. And I'll explain why it's plausible. Ran- is a word-root meaning "wanderer", as in Mithrandir, and -il as a feminine name ending, as in Idril, is actually -ril, meaning "brilliance" as in mithril -- but the second r could be conceivably dropped, according to the rule of pronunciation that goes: If it's too hard to say, people won't, and eventually they may even stop writing it, too. (Like "castle".)1 "Bright Wanderer" is an okay etymology for a heroine's name.

And this brings me to the final point in naming your Original Female Character, who is most probably an Elf, but might be a Ranger instead2 -- all the names in Middle-earth come from real words and word elements, which all mean something. They're not just randomly thrown-together syllables. So, for instance, Míriel means "jewel-lady", literally; while Glóredhel actually means "golden Elf" (even though she wasn't one of the Eldar.) It's quite possible that you could make up a name that would "work" technically but might accidentally be quite funny. Such as Delwen.3

One way to avoid this is to study the Appendices at the end of Return of the King; a better way is to study the Index of Names and the Appendix following the Silmarillion. The website Ardalambion [http://www.uib.no/people/hnohf/] has a lot of linguistic information online, but it does assume a high level of interest and devotion to the topic. (However, be careful -- if you start grabbing bits and pieces, you might still end up with something that is funny because of the historical and legendary context.)

Why do I qualify the title with the phrase "northwest of Mordor"? Because Middle-earth, proper, is only those lands up to Mordor. The rest of the continent isn't, strictly speaking. So it's conceivable, just barely, that in the distant lands on the other side of Harad, ruled by Sauron, where the people who lived there never were culturally influenced by the Elves and have been so long divided from the other groups of Men in Arda that after thousands of years their languages might bear no surface resemblance at all -- you might, after all, find Vedilia, Carelia, Elanna, Nimuay and Mira.

But you'll still never, ever meet Telperion walking around. Or Ariana, the daughter of King Arien.4 Trust me on this -- or better yet, start reading. (Do I have ulterior motives for such recommendations? You bet.5)


1 Examining the linguistic history of Middle-earth provided by JRR Tolkien, we continually see that letters and sounds that would be hard to pronounce or otherwise clunky are dropped -- just as in our earth's languages. Even if they're "supposed" to be there. Arndor becomes Arnor, Sindacollo becomes Singollo becomes Thingol, just as Londinium becomes London and Aethelintone becomes Elton and Giselibertus becomes Gilbert.

2 She can't be both. I'm sorry. She just can't. --Not, that is, any more than Aragorn -- which is to say, mortal, with Elven ancestors 60+ generations back. And Aragorn is the last heir of his family, and only the princely house of Dol Amroth has any chance of sharing Elven blood. There are not a lot of Peredhel girls running around: this is Middle-earth, not Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms, and Elrond only has the one daughter.

3 Del- means "scary," -wen means "woman."

4 Telperion was one of the Two Trees of Light made by the Powers before any of the Peoples of Middle-earth were created. He (yes, he) was destroyed by the fallen Vala Morgoth and his ally the spider-demon Ungoliant. Galadriel's husband, Celeborn, is named after him, and the name means "silver tree." Arien is the divine Lady who pilots the Sun in Elvish lore, as recalled in the line from Frodo's song, "She could hardly believe her fiery eyes," or Legolas saying, "Well, I have not brought the Sun. She is walking in the blue fields of the South, and a little wreath of snow on this Redhorn hillock troubles her not at all." (FOTR, "At the Sign of the Prancing Pony"; "The Ring Goes South")

5 Not only the avoidance of howlers like Alyssa Jade, you see, but ideally a deeper awareness of and respect for the complexity and richness of the world Tolkien created, which in turn little by little may improve the quality of fanfic. --One can always hope.

Thanks to any and all who submitted OFC names for consideration, including Aralanthiriel for contributing "Savina". Most of these names were found simply by skimming the first page of fanfiction.net's LOTR page for three days running. Some of the submissions were even worse, but would have required far longer explanations for their impossibilities.

Comments can be sent to philosopher@oddlots.digitalspace.net
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PostPosted: Sat Jun 01, 2013 7:01 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

A link that I have always found very useful when looking for plausible Middle-Earth names is this:
The Quenya Lapseparma is an online baby-name book with the meaning-based translation of modern day names into Quenya. Since the link wasn't mentioned here, I thought to share it.
Hope it helps!
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PostPosted: Mon Jun 03, 2013 10:36 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

my fav for names is http://elffetish.com/

there is a sindarian and quenya untility that lets you pick a meaning and then the program combines the name in the proper way (changing/adding/deleting vowels and such) and then pixallated feanor lets you know if he approves of the name. Smile

"May it be a light to you in dark places."
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PostPosted: Wed Jun 12, 2013 5:34 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I was thinking about naming an elven character Avarië, would that work?
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PostPosted: Wed Jun 12, 2013 5:46 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I was thinking about naming an elven character Avarië, would that work?

I think you'll have more luck asking this in the writer's tips forum... To give an amateur try at your question though; "ava-" is a prefix meaning "without" and "aire" means holy. I'm not sure that's how you analyze the name, but if it is, then it would at least not be meaningless in Quenya Wink
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PostPosted: Wed Jun 12, 2013 7:17 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Sulriel wrote:
and then pixallated feanor lets you know if he approves of the name. Smile

This I've GOT to see!

Books would not be read, and pipes would not smoke. The day slipped out of his hand, running aimlessly to waste. JRR Tolkien. The Lost Road
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PostPosted: Wed Jun 12, 2013 7:31 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Morbidmuch wrote:
I was thinking about naming an elven character Avarië, would that work?

Is your character one that would have a Quenya name? It seems a very nice name. Very Elvish and easy to read and remember.

"May it be a light to you in dark places."
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