Thursday, 11 June 2015

A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches

Animal names always have a nice ring to them. They flow off the tongue. They seem to suit their subjects somehow. This is in a sense true of all nouns (how could a 'chair' be anything but a chair?), but it seems profoundly so in the case of words for animals. Think of a dog. Doesn't the word dog just somehow fit it perfectly? Doesn't that nicely Anglo-Saxon-sounding word just epitomise what a dog is? Isn't there something distinctly cattish about a cat?

This is because, I am sure, we feel a deep sense of interest and connection with animals; human beings and human languages evolved from them and around them. Throughout all of human history animals have been bound to our survival: they are our companions, our tools, and our food. It should be no surprise that our words for them should have a great and deep sense of familiarity to us, and that once heard they very quickly take hold and don't let go. You could even construct a kind of pseudo-evolutionary argument to the effect that being able to quickly learn animal words provides some sort of advantage that would be positively selected for - just as vervet monkeys need to be able to alert their family members that there is a snake in the next tree, so human beings surely benefit from the way animal words stick in our minds so readily. 

This is also the reason why learning animal words in foreign languages is so easy - which is something you have surely noticed if you've ever studied one. People who speak Swahili or Tagalog or Mapudungun have words for dogs and cats which are just as suitable as ours. Just as a dog is very doggish, a chien is also very chiennish and an inu is very inu-ish. The postulated Proto Indo-European word for dog is 'ḱwṓ'; think about this next time you see Rover or Fido - that thing is just as much a 'kwo' as it is a 'dog', and I'm sure you'll agree the word fits it pretty nicely.

What does this have to do with role playing games? Not a great deal, but here's a house rule: any starting PC knows the words for most animals and monsters in the most commonly encountered languages in the campaign setting. He may not be able to barter with goblins or ask an elf maiden for a date, but he can utter whatever the dwarf word is for 'dragon' if he wants to warn or bluff them. 


  1. Half-remembered factoid : the mind stores the words for living things in a different way to any other kind of word. The only non-living things which share the same method or place are food and musical instruments.

    1. That may be why people who speak a language natively are less likely to think of name-puns than people just learning it.

    2. Talking of which, is the 'kwo' a Dog of Two Head?

    3. I think that's exzakly right.

  2. I like this, and from it you could easily have a list of super simple words that a character could puzzle out in a few minutes when haggling or otherwise engaged solely in trying to communicate.

    Something more complicated than "after a few minutes you come to understand his gestures and grunts" but less so than "you know 1000 words in northern Dwarvish, drawn from this dictionary I have written".

  3. Between this article and your most recent one, in which you ask //who hasn't hissed "Stupid thing!" at some recalcitrant tool or fiddly object that seems to be deliberately and malignantly refusing to cooperate in whatever task you want to carry out?//, I'm beginning to wonder if I'm missing out on some fundamental human experience, especially since nobody else is saying "Actually, none of those words seem particularly dog-like to me."