Naming Nords in Skyrim

When I played Skyrim about four years ago, I not only developed a strange fear of sneak dragon attacks, but also started thinking more seriously about how game developers name things and people.

Skyrim is set in a sort-of Nordic environment – snowy and windy, mostly peopled by pink people with uncombed blond hair living in sturdy log houses. The major place names are for the most part not Scandinavian-sounding; the main cities are called Whiterun, Solitude, Markarth, Windhelm, Falkreath, Morthal, Northstar and Winterhold. It’s an interesting choice, and probably a smart one, since these names probably are easier to remember for most players. They still evoke a certain windswept sturdiness. And it’s probably not surprising that Morthal is the place described on the Skyrim wiki as lying “deep in the marsh, a foreboding area of Hjaalmarch isolated from other villages and shrouded by a constant and ominous fog”. Spoiler: creepy stuff goes on there.

On the other hand, many of the people your character meets have distinctly Norse names. Within the first hour or so of playing, you’ll have met a fair amount of people with names lika Bjorn, Alfhild and Hrodulfr, mainly borrowed from the Icelandic and Old Norse name tradition. I don’t blame Bethesda for not putting the proper ö‘s and ð‘s in there, although I for one would have enjoyed it. But then I’m in a certain subset of nerd. In general, these names are about as surprising as the fact that it takes ages to get to Solitude – if you’re making a Nordic inspired game, it makes sense to find a lot of names in that tradition. In a later post, I might go deeper into the variations you can find on this tradition, but here I want to focus on three names that stood out to me as I played.

Unless you’re deliberately playing against the grain, the first city you’ll reach in Skyrim is Whiterun, which lies right in the middle of the map. You tend to spend a lot of time here, making armour out of things you’ve killed, selling ancient swords from legendary battles to the first merchant you meet, being the only person who runs everywhere, etc. In the main square, you’ll hear this guy preaching:

In the context of the game, Heimskr here is a religious nut, yelling at people and being generally annoying (which leads to things like this). For this reason, I loved his name: heimskr means ‘stupid’ or ‘crazy’ in Old Norse. Etymologically, it’s derived from heimr ‘home’; the person who stays too much at home becomes stupid, or you leave the stupid at home. So Heimskr is a great name for the village crazy.

Another couple of names did confuse me as someone who knows the language, and for the same basic reason. At one point, I was asked to go find Captain Aldis in Solitude. It took me longer than it should have, because I was not looking for this:

From the Skyrim wiki: http://elderscrolls.wikia.com/wiki/Captain_Aldis
From the Skyrim wiki: http://elderscrolls.wikia.com/wiki/Captain_Aldis

The reason my eyes were not set to Bearded Man was that I interpreted Aldis as a female name. While other games have recently done great trans characters, I never got the feeling that Skyrim was aiming for that, but who knows? The suffix -dís, which determines the name’s grammatical gender, is not only grammatically feminine, but has the basic meaning ‘goddess’. Captain Beard’s first name could actually be interpreted as ‘All-goddess’. Names formed with this suffix can be found on everything from runestones to presidents.

I then had a similar experience when I met Helgi. Helgi is a very common male name in both West and East Norse. known among many other things as the name of a poetic hero. In Skyrim, this is Helgi:

Helgi1
http://elderscrolls.wikia.com/wiki/Helgi

Although a bit transparent, it is meant to be a girl. Who happens to have a very heroic male name.

What I wonder when it comes to the two last names is what happened to give them this gender swap. Given the clever use of Heimskr, the large number of Norse names that are absolutely fine and the fact that this is no low-budget production, how did this come to be? As mentioned above, I unfortunately don’t think it’s a conscious play on the characters’ gender roles. I also have to assume that the developers had someone research possible names from the tradition they were working from, and since they in general don’t seem to be used randomly regardless of gender, they must have known at some point that Aldis denotes female and Helgi male in the original language. My best bet is that the writers did know this, but thought more about their non-Scandinavian audience. Names ending in –is are often male in English (Harris, Lewis), and you can even find the name Aldis as a boy’s name, if uncommon. The name Helgi might put the non-Scandinavian speakers (poor, unfortunate souls) in mind of any number of names ending in –i or -y, like Cindi or Jenny. The female version of Helgi may also be more familiar, Helga.

While it’s sad to conclude that huge, international game companies could tend to think more about their most likely audience than about total correctness in their historical onomastics, it can be a comfort to see that they do it pretty rarely.

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Harbingers

Amends_bringer

This is a Harbinger of Death from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV series). As the wiki describes them, they are “blind, with their eyelids covered by rune-like scars”; or, as I would describe them, runic scars. Those are perfectly fine runes, apart from their replacing someone’s eyes. The runes are also from two different runic systems. The left one (the Harbinger’s right) is either a (probably for a mystery sound between and z with a bit of i in it) from the older futhark or an m from the younger futhark. The other one is an Anglo-Saxon ng.

Using runes fits well with making the Harbingers look sinister (again, the eye thing also helps) and with roots in some ancient mystery. I doubt any deep thought has gone into the choice of the actual runes involved. They’re nice and angular, and the asymmetry in the face adds to the uncanniness of the characters.

Inquisitors’ minds want to know

In the early hours of Dragon Age: Inquisition, Cassandra brandishes a big, heavy book, which heralds the rebirth of the Inquisition (apologies to the non-gamers: quick recaps of events in games never make much sense if you haven’t played them). For a split second, you see a page in this book, and it’s full of runes!

I decided to do an exquisitely* nerdy thing: I wanted to find out what it said. Being better at runology than technology, I was proud that I at least managed to get a screen cap from the video:

Inquisition runes book 2

Some things are clear even before starting to transliterate the text. The runes are from the Anglo-Saxon futhorc; some runes, like the aand g, are unique to this system. There are also a couple of hints that this is a transliteration from a modern language rather than an original text or a translation, the main tell being the use of doubled runes. You can see a couple of X-shaped runes next to each other towards the end of the third full row. Those are two g runes. In runic writing, there is no representation of vowel or consonant length, and next to no norm that tells the writer to write something he or she doesn’t hear – no silent h here. What this means is that doubled runes only occur in premodern runic writing when they’re in two different words, and not even always then. The word in Cassandra’s book containing two g‘s in fact transliterates as suggestions. Another good sign that you’re dealing with modern language is the absence of certain runes, namely the ones that don’t directly correspond to a letter in the Latin alphabet – ng or æ, for example.

So, behold the magic of transliteration from low resolution images of things never meant to be transliterated!

20150331_233622

In the end, I got enough coherent text out of this to have something to Google. The words windows and font recurred, and I got the phrase the windows version youre running (which includes yet another pair of doubled runes, and a missed opportunity for using the ng rune). That search yielded nothing, but another one (about font options in the control panel) lead me to this, the readme file for the font.

This truetype-font was created in 1995 by Morten Bek.

It is supposed to resemble the writings on the maps from The Hobbit, by J.R.R.Tolkien.

If you have any comments, corrections, suggestions or questions, e-mail me at: bek@post3.tele.dk

Note that this is _not_ the Cirth (Certhar) but the letters used on the cover of The Hobbit.

To install in a windows environment, copy the file futhark.ttf to \windows\system or \windows\fonts, depending on the Windows version you’re running. Choose Install New Font under the Font options in your Control Panel (or confront your windows-manual if this is totally incromprehendible).

Please keep this file with the font, whenever you copy it and spread it to your friends.

More fonts are under way….
Morten

Upon double checking I could see that it is in fact the text found in Cassandra’s book. It appears that the game developers used a free online font from 1995 for their half second of runes, and did as the author asks: “Please keep this file with the font, whenever you copy it and spread it to your friends.” I did try to email the address given, but it bounced, as twenty year old email addresses will.

There really is no reason for BioWare to put anything more interesting in there when it comes to the contents of the text. It’s a split second view, and only people with strange ideas of fun will ever try to read it. Instead, it’s the form that matters here. The runes on the worn vellum are a shorthand for something ancient; a tradition that goes back so far that you, as the player and as the role you’re playing, don’t understand all of it. This scene ends the prologue to a very long game, and the use of runes helps to quickly place you in something larger and older than you. Of course, there are also practical considerations. By using a writing system few people can read immediately, the developers don’t need to come up with clever text in the book. And by using the Anglo-Saxon futhorc, they don’t need to come up with a writing system of their own. So that’s how they ended up with a Danish designer’s version of Tolkien’s version of Anglo-Saxon runes.

* An inquisition seeks within, something exquisite is sought out. Etymology!