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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