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The Unpronounceable / Literature

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Unpronounceable words in literature.

  • One of the villains in Alcatraz Smedry Versus the Knights of Crystannia is referred to as She Who Cannot Be Named. This is because only one of the good guys is capable of pronouncing her name, which is Kangchenjunga Sarektjakka.
  • In Alien in a Small Town, the subterranean aliens' language consists of subaudible sounds projected through the ground. When dealing with humans, the main character instead goes by the name "Paul".
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  • In Jeff VanderMeer's Ambergris books, the Graycaps have a language consisting largely of clicks and whistles, and is so complicated that for longest time people were arguing if they really had a language at all. In Finch it's mentioned that their name for themselves is Fanaarcensitii — or as close as you can get with Roman letters.
  • Animorphs:
    • The Andalite Sixth Ranger has his alien name, Aximili-Esgarrouth-Isthil, shortened to 'Ax'. Ironically, Andalites communicate through telepathy.
    • Beaked Hork-Bajir and leech-mouthed Taxxons have similarly unpronounceable names; averted with the juvenile Hork-Bajir named Toby, after the human (sorta) Tobias.
  • The demon from Artemis Fowl: N* 1, which is apparently supposed to be pronounced 'Number one', but is still a pain to read aloud.
  • Isaac Asimov seemed to be peculiarly fond of telling his readers exactly how to pronounce the names of his characters, even if the pronunciation wasn't that unusual. Although he usually only did this when the way the name is pronounced was going to be relevant to the story at some point.
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  • In the Bolitho series by Alexander Kent, there's a Running Gag of his French opponents being unable to pronounce his name.
  • The eponymous character in Daniel Pinkwater's children's book Borgel has a driver's license in the name of Borgel McTavish—his real last name sounds nothing like McTavish, but even less like anything else.
  • One of Italo Calvino's recurring characters is Qfwfq, an immortal entity who remembers everything he has ever done in every last of his incarnations since before the beginning of the universe. The other entities he interacts with have names like this as well, such as his Granny Bb'b and his sister G'd(w)^n.
  • The aliens who show up in book three of the Captain Underpants series discuss using Applied Phlebotinum to make the students "grow to the size of Xlequispfnote  trees."
  • The City Of Brass: Subverted with the daeva Darayavahoush "Dara" e-Afshin. The viewpoint character doesn't even try to remember his full name at first, but when they reach a city of daeva, the locals use the unabbreviated version easily.
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  • The Chronicles of Narnia: The talking horse Bree's full name in The Horse and His Boy is "Breehy-hinny-brinny-hoohy-hah," which his human companion can't pronounce. They later meet a talking mare who goes by "Hwin", which suggests she has a similar name. And when told that the human's name is Shasta, Bree remarks that that's "really hard to pronounce."
  • Subverted in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court: Merlin tells Hank he needs to pronounce the “name none may utter and live” to break a spell on a well. Hank bricks up the hole in the well instead. Later he ad-libs “BGWJJILLIGKKK” just for show, which is anviliciously explained as not the spirit’s name.
  • In Vernor Vinge's story "Conquest by Default", the humanoid aliens have the ability to close their nostrils, and their language accordingly has nostril consonants. The author hoped they could be printed as 'p̃' [p tilde] and 'ṽ' [v tilde]; his editor said "Sure, if you want to pay for special type." Even today they are printed as % and #.
  • The island of Qwghlm in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle. The Qwghlmian language has no vowels, and is basically a parody of everything English speakers find difficult about Welsh and Gaelic (although it's not a Celtic language, or related to any known languages at all).
  • Dalziel and Pascoe: Dalziel takes an instant dislike to Pascoe when they first meet because the latter knows how to pronounce the former's name properly without having to ask. To Dalziel, this marks Pascoe out as a smart-arse.
  • On the Discworld, demons are given names that look like they were selected by headbutting a keyboard; when the demon WxrtHltl-jwlpklz introduces himself in Wyrd Sisters, Nanny Ogg quips, "Where were you when the vowels were handed out, behind the door?" Her co-witch, Granny Weatherwax, pronounces it without raising a sweat. While there are hideous beasts from the dungeon dimensions a la Cthulhu, more description is given to their forms than names (they're usually described as what might be the offspring of an octopus and a bicycle).
  • Dragaera:
    • The Physical God commonly known as Tri'nagore has the full name Tristangrascalaticrunagore, which poses quite a problem for someone attempting a lengthy Summoning Ritual that requires the full name be spoken many times, with perfect pronunciation.
    • Vlad and Morrolan visit a Serioli whose name Vlad describes as sounding like the last cough from a man with a terminal lung disease. He doesn't even try to transcribe it.
    • Dragaerans from the Kanefthali Mountains, such as Hwdf'rjaanci, have names unpronounceable to Vlad. One character's name is spelled differently every time Vlad mentions him in the narration because Vlad never figured out how it was actually pronounced.
  • Dragonlance: Lord Toede has Crystityckol'k'kq'q. They call him Jugger. He also doesn't like those "new" folks at the Abyss with pronounceable names, like Judith. According to him, the real professionals had names that shattered crystal fifty paces away.
  • The Dresden Files:
    • Changes: Harry discovers that the latest monster trying to kill him is called an Ik'k'uox. Rather than bother trying to pronounce that, Harry decides to call it 'The Ick'.
    • Ghost Story: There's the True Name of He Who Walks Behind. His name is a psychic montage of agony.
  • The Eye of Argon features Grignr the barbarian battling the evil Prince Agaphim and his equally evil advisor Agafnd. Agafnd later becomes Agfnd, which does not go un-riffed in the famous MSTing.
    "He's losing vowels with every passing second!"
  • Zzyzx, the great demon prison in the Fablehaven series.
  • Watzisname of Enid Blyton's The Faraway Tree series had a name so complicated that everyone called him Watzisname up to the point that he himself forgot what his real name was and had to go to a witch to find out that it was Kollamoolitumarellipawkyrollo.
  • Grey Knights: Inquisitor Ligeia spends much of her time babbling incomprehensibly when she was being interrogated for helping the rogue Inquisitor, Valinov escape. As it turns out, she helped Valinov escape so that they could find the demon they were looking for, Ghargatuloth, and her babbling as she was being interrogated was Ghargatuloth's True Name.
  • Averted in Gulliver’s Travels, where the eponymous hero often finds himself in lands populated by people with very strange languages (such as the Houyhnhnms, whose words sound largely like whinnies) which he makes every effort to emulate, usually with quite a lot of success.
  • In Hard to Be a God by Strugatsky Brothers, people from Earth are working undercover on another planet, inhabited by humanoids resembling Terrans very closely. One of them works as shaman to a tribal leader, whose name has 45 syllables.
  • A great example is from the book version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in which the character Ford Prefect's original name is "only pronounceable in an obscure Betelgeusian dialect" which was almost wiped out by the "Great Collapsing Hrung Disaster of Gal./Sid./Year 03758", and which Ford himself never learned. At school, Ford was nicknamed "Ix", which translates as "boy who is not able satisfactorily to explain what a Hrung is, nor why it should choose to collapse on Betelgeuse Seven".
    • Also invoked and subverted in a humorous way: Douglas Adams settled for Slartibartfast's name precisely because, when he dictated the name to his secretary, he wanted him/her to ask how the name was spelled, upon which Douglas Adams wanted to reply that it was spelled the way it's pronounced... His secretary didn't ask how it was spelled and spelled it correctly on the first try.
  • In Imminent Danger And How To Fly Straight Into It Trisklimysls is aware of exactly how unpronounceable his name is, and asks that people call him Doctor T.
  • In the Into the Looking Glass series, it's more likely than not for a member of any species with minimal or hostile contact with another to mispronounce the other's species name, let alone the names of its individuals. The Mreeee (basically a cat yowl) are almost pronounceable for humans, and the N!t!ch! (! is a tongue-click) might be manageable for members of certain African tribes, but the "Fivverockpit", as one human attempts to pronounce, aren't even given a fully Romanized spelling for their proper name, with an @ symbol standing in for what one assumes must be Black Speech.
  • In Larry Niven's Known Space:
    • The Tnuctipun are an entire race of Precursors with an unpronounceable name. When humans discover a Thrint in stasis (the species that enslaved the Tnuctipun and who caused all sentient life to commit suicide a billion years ago) he is dubbed "Kzanol." When Kzanol-Greenberg believes himself to be a Kzanol and tries speaking, he nearly chokes himself trying to speak their language. Since they were incredibly powerful telepaths, you wonder why the Thrintun had a spoken language at all.
    • Pierson's Puppeteers have unpronounceable names, which is why they tend to take names from mythical centaurs. Nessus, the insane Puppeteer from the Ringworld sub-series, has a real name that sounds like a car crash set to music. There are several different reference to the Puppeteer's orchestral/cacophonous native language in the Known Space stories. One was along the lines of "bagpipes being burned alive". The reason given in the books is that the Puppeteers have two sets of vocal chords (three pairs of vocal cords per throat), and since they use their mouths as hands, their lips and tongues are more mobile and coordinated than a human's. They are also much more intelligent than other species and have been civilized for considerably longer, so their language has had much more opportunity to develop significant complexity.
    • The Kzinti are somewhat catlike, and it's explicitly noted that "One Kzin speaking sounds like a catfight; four Kzinti in heated argument sound like a major feline war , with atomics." The few scraps/descriptions we get (only Kzin nobles get actual names, most Kzinti are called by their job titles instead) bear this out. When Speaker-to-Animals (an English translation of his title, which is described as a "snarl on a rising note") becomes a noble after Ringworld, he is given the name Chmeee, with the initial sound being described being "a warning cough such as a lion might give".
    • The central figure of the novel Protector is named Phssthpok. It's pronounced "Nasal-hiss-that-sounds-like-"phsssth"-followed-by-sound-of-hardened-lips-and-gums-snapping-together." Brennan can pronounce it just fine after his own transformation into a Protector, but other humans have to approximate it.
    • Subverted by some of the names used for humanoid Ringworld inhabitants (e.g. "Halrloprillalar" — at first glance, it looks unpronounceable, but it's flows perfectly well if you just give it a chance).
  • Kushiel's Legacy takes this Up to Eleven with the True Name of God, which is spoken to Phèdre in total silence by a tongueless priest and is rendered in text as "_______!" When she finally says it aloud, everyone within earshot hears it as their native language's version of the word "Love".
  • Land of Oz: The Magic of Oz centers around a formula for instant shapeshifting. You must pronounce correctly the word Pyrzqxgl. Takes amazingly few tries for the characters.
  • An ancient Sufficiently Advanced Alien in Phillip Reeve's Steampunk Space Opera Larklight has a real name in a musical-sounding languages which the narrator says he can't possibly transcribe. And that's not even getting into names such as Ph'Ahrpuu'xxtpllsprngg, and the truly epic example from the third book that takes up almost five lines. note 
  • In The Lord of the Rings, the Ents' real names would take hours to say, if humans could even vocalize some of the sounds. In a few cases, Treebeard used Elvish words and strung them together as he would in his own language, like Lorien = laurelindórenan lindelorendor malinornélion ornemalin, "singing-gold-land-valley singing-dream-land of yellow-trees with yellow-flowers". Another example: Fangorn (transliterated into Elvish) = Taurelilómëa-tumbalemorna Tumbaletaurëa Lómëanor, "Forestmanyshadowed — deepvalleyblack Deepvalleyforested Gloomyland". Actual Entish was probably impossible to render into any human language.
    • Subverted on constructed Elvish, Mannish and Dwarven names. Tolkien gives quite neat pronunciation guides in the additions of Return of the Kings. Hence names like Telumehtar Umbardacil are not only fully pronounceable, but also comprehensible as well.
    • Played straight for Valarin, the language of the godlike Valar. Many names related to Valar and Valinor are actually Elvish adaptations or translations; the original names are much less pronounceable. For example, the original name of vala Aule is A3ûlêz, and the tree Telperion is called Ibrîniðilpathânezel in Valarin. Then again, Valar do not really need to pronounce these names as they are able to communicate telepathically.
  • H. P. Lovecraft's elder gods have such names. For example, "Cthulhu" is only an approximation of the correct pronunciation, leading to several variant spellings (although "Cthulhu" is the most widespread). In fact, one of the fictional books mentioned in the Lovecraft Mythos is "Unaussprechlichen Kulten", which is translated by its creator as "Nameless Cults". The phrase translates more literally as Unspeakable (in the sense of Unpronounceable) Cults, which commentators are wont to comment on.
    • Lovecraft was directly asked what the "correct" way to pronounce "Cthulhu" is, and he explained that there really isn't a single "correct" version for anyone reading his works - because the human throat physically cannot make the same horrifying sounds as an Eldritch Abomination. It's sort of like an onomatopoeia - ask two people to spell the sound a dog makes and one will write "bark" and the other "arf".
    • Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn! Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!
    • Also, there is "Hastur, the Unspeakable"
    • Averted for Nyarlathotep, the Black Pharaoh. It bears the historical Egyptian suffix -hotep, meaning "peace" or "satisfaction", this can be justified, given the nature how it interacted with the humans actively.
  • Niven's The Magic Goes Away series features a character known only as the Warlock. His real name was made unpronounceable on purpose. His parents summoned a demon who could pronounce things no human could say, had the demon name the boy, then trapped the demon. The idea was that knowing someone's real name gave you power over them, but you had to say the name to use it.
  • In the Malazan Book of the Fallen there's a race of sentient reptiles that's called K'Chain Che'Malle (and their brethren, the K'Chain Nah'Ruk). And while in and of itself that's just difficult, but not impossible to pronounce, it keeps piling up. As an example, when one takes into account the race and the reason he was bred for one such lizard, one ends up with the beautiful K'Chain Che'Malle Shi'Gal Gu'Rull.
    • Interestingly, the K'Chain seem unable to pronounce human names, even though they can communicate via their own brand of telepathy with humans. And yet they only ever use the titles of their human companions. That may or may not have to do with their telepathy working via transmitting ideas into the other's brain, and titles being easier to express as an idea.
  • In the Modesty Blaise novel The Night of Morningstar, the Zdrzalkywicz brothers are said to have "a surname only another Pole could pronounce", and most of the characters call them "the Polish twins" instead. Willie Garvin does manage to pronounce their name without apparent difficulty when he's telling Sir Gerald about them.
  • The Molvanîan language from the Molvania travel guide. It parodies stereotypes about Eastern and Central European languages by having tons of consonant clusters, being incredibly difficult to pronounce, having a complicated alphabetnote , having strange grammatical rules (like a noun gender for cheeses) etc. The Spin-Off Molvanîan Baby Names showcases some unpronounceable (and unfortunate) names given to Molvanîan children, like Agpovertetnyk (meaning "lowly paid foreign worker") and Dkurtiklof (meaning "exceptionally unfit")
  • In Gordon Korman's Nose Pickers from Outer Space, we are introduced to Stanley Mflxnys, an alien from Pan (a so-called "Pant", pl. "Pants"). He looks just like a person, but he eats paper, and has a computer inside his head where a person's brain would be (his real brains are behind his knees).
  • In the Paradox Trilogy, the bird-alien Basil's real name consists of whistles and chirps.
  • In the short novel Realty Check, (yes, realty, not reality) the female protagonist briefly encounters a female alien whose name is written out in random symbols — somehow she manages to pronounce it, while her Love Interest can only say "Star-Omega". In the same chapter, we discover said alien's lover is under attack by a monster called a ===.
  • In the Red Dwarf novel "Last Human", many of the GELFS have long, hard to pronounce names (One even has the title "The Unpronounceable" following his).
  • Alastair Reynolds tends to name his transhuman characters in this fashion. Many Conjoiners in his Revelation Space universe have names consisting of "a string of interiorised qualia" only comprehensible within Conjoiner collective consciousness. Those who have to interact with baseline humans tend to use one-word approximations — a Conjoiner girl whose name represents a particular atmospheric phenomenon found rarely in the upper layers of certain gas giants is known to her human captors as Weather.
    • And the Slashers in the standalone novel Century Rain have full names which include strange, musical trilling noises, thanks to their modified larynxes.
  • The Riddle Master Trilogy by Patricia A. McKillip has a famous wizard referred to only as "Iff of the Unpronounceable Name" (it is later revealed that his name needed to be sung, and even then it took a while to figure out the tune).
  • Spider Robinson:
    • Time Travelers Strictly Cash from the Callahan's Crosstime Saloon series, reveals the alien Mickey Finn's real name to be "Txffu Mpwfs" as far as the narrator can tell. Which, incidentally, happens to be "Sweet Lover" with each letter incremented by one.
    • A story features an evil wizard who has protected himself from vulnerability through his name by subtly altering human evolution until their larynxes are physically unable to pronounce it.
  • The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel:
    • Tsagaglalal.
    • Huitzilopochtli, another name for Mars Ultor.
    • Coatlicue, the Mother of All the Gods.
    • It's a bit of a Running Gag that Machiavelli has trouble pronouncing Quetzalcoatl's name.
    • If you're not familiar with Irish names, Aoife can be a bit tricky (though the narration does mention that, when she introduced herself, it sounded like "ee-fa").
    • Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak (call him Black Hawk).
  • "Sir" in A Series of Unfortunate Events has a name that's "very long and complicated" when written down, and which is apparently so illegible that attempts at pronunciation seem entirely random — "Mr. Bek-", "Mr. Sho-".
  • In Anne McCaffrey and Mercedes Lackey's The Ship Who Searched, one of the graduate students Tia and Alex are taking to their archeological dig is a plantlike alien who goes by "Fred".
    "Very few humans would be able to reproduce his real name. His vocal organ is a vibrating membrane in the top of his head. He does human speech just fine, but we can't manage his."
  • The Hsktskt species in the Stardoc series (although, seeing as they're reptilian, it may be just a modulated hiss).
  • Star Risk, Ltd. has as the team's Big Guy and Smart Guy the alien Amanandrala Grookonomonslf. For obvious reasons he goes by Grok most of the time.
  • David Brin's Startide Rising features aliens called the Karrank%, with the % pronounced as a "double glottal stop", which is allegedly impossible for humans to make.
  • In "Heaven's Reach", a later book in Startide Rising universe, a pair of humans are trapped in a ship of aliens called the Jophur, who often use scent semantically. Signs to certain sectors of the ship are labeled by odour not by script. One of the humans is able to figure out the meanings of the signs based on his experience with the species.
  • Star Trek Expanded Universe:
    • Every single representative of the Q refers to himself as Q — the 17th letter of the alphabet apparently being the closest approximation of their names that the English language is capable of rendering. In one of the Spock vs. Q audiobooks, Q further states that his true name is about two light years long, which is a measure of distance, not time. Whether he meant distance or time, both font size and speech tempo vary considerably, but even so, it's clearly still a long name.
    • Diane Duane's Rihannsu novels feature Romulan names that are not only really long but also apparently unpronounceable. Vulcans' real names are also impossible for humans to pronounce.
    • Diane Duane's Dark Mirror features a dolphin Starfleet officer named "Hwiii ie'ee u-Ulak! ha'".
    • In Star Trek: New Frontier, the main character has his name changed from M'k'n'zy to Mackenzie by a guy at Starfleet Academy registration who refused to learn how to pronounce and spell it properly. He arbitrarily assigned Mac the name of Mackenzie Calhoun (Calhoun was the name of his tribe, "M'k'n'zy of Calhoun") to avoid having to figure out the real name.
    • The Q Continuum gives the Hate Plague being from "The Day of the Dove" the name (*). Picard hopes he never has to pronounce it himself.
  • Rock from The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson is properly named Numuhukumakiaki'aialunamor. It has enough vowels to be pronounced but nobody but Rock even tries. Amusingly, Rock's name is "Rock" if it is translated. Specifically, all the rocks that his father discovered before Rock's birth. It is also a poem. And apparently all of Rock's people are named similarly.
  • In Summers at Castle Auburn, aliora names are too hard for humans to say, so humans call them by approximations or even rename them—Rowena, Cressida, Andrew.
  • In Terra, the Fnrrn language has no vowels. The Fnrrns finds Earth language just has hard to parse (pronouncing "Earth" as "Rrth" and "Human" as "Ymn"). Lppb chooses the name "Terra" for the human child he adopts because it can be pronounced relatively easily as "T'rr".
  • Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next novels feature a handful of unpronounceable names, one of the many ways in which it plays with text versus the "real world".
  • In Anne McCaffrey's Tower and the Hive series, an alien race called the Mrdini, whose names do not contain vowels, like "Prtglm".
  • In Veniss Underground, Salvador/John's real name is a chirping sound that only meerkats can properly pronounce.
  • In Richard Adams' Watership Down, while buck rabbits do have easily pronounceable English names, there are names in lapine [the language of rabbits], such as "Hyzenthlay" and "Thethuthinnang". The easily pronounceable English names are translations of lapine names. For instance, Fiver's real name is Hrairoo. Hyzenthlay, translated into English, means "Shine-Fur-Dew" (literally, fur shining like dew).
  • The Wheel of Time has an interesting variation in the case of the names of the wolves, as first described by Elyas Machera in The Eye of the World: they communicate through Telepathy, so their names are elaborate sense-impressions that can be translated into speech in the vaguest terms.
    Elyas: Her name isn't Dapple. It's something that means the way shadows play on a forest pool at a midwinter dawn, with the breeze rippling the surface, and the tang of ice when the water touches the tongue, and a hint of snow before nightfall in the air. But that isn't quite it, either.
  • Wild Cards: The Takisian scientist who tries (and fails) to stop the wild card virus from spreading on Earth has a name that covers his lineage for the past thousand generations. Most folks tend to refer to him as "Doctor Tachyon," a nickname that spread after he tried to explain how his ship worked.
  • Diane Duane's Young Wizards series:
    • Fred the white hole's real name, which he's still not finished pronouncing when someone cuts him off after a full line of text in So You Want to Be a Wizard.
    • This joke is done again with Ed the Master Shark in the sequel, Deep Wizardry.
    • Technically, everyone has a name like this, since the true names are basically complete descriptions of the person in The Speech.
  • Timothy Zahn loves unpronounceable names, both in his own original works and his Star Wars Legends series. In the latter, at one point during The Thrawn Trilogy Han Solo mentions the Imperials have attacked three planets — "Bpfassh, and two unpronounceable ones" — and even Bpfassh doesn't look that straightforward to say. In Outbound Flight, Thrawn tries to teach his language to a human, but while the human can hear the difference between his pronunciation and the right one, he can't aspirate right. Thrawn's name seems pretty straightforward, right? Which is probably why Zahn revealed that his full name is Mitth'raw'nuruodo. His brother's name? Mitth'ras'safis. Good luck!
    • And if you think his Star Wars novels are bad, try books like his The Conquerors Trilogy, where you have another pair of siblings: Thrr-gilag and his brother Thrr-mezaz, and their father, Thrr't-rokik.
  • Roger Zelazny:
    • The fantasy novel The Changing Land features a demon named Melbrinionsadsazzersteldregandishfeltselior. The long name is necessary for the invocation ritual, and if the sorcerer attempting it were to get as much as one syllable wrong, the demon would kill him. Understandably, wizards are reluctant to attempt it. Subverted inasmuch as one of the antagonists is a wizard named Baran, whose native tongue is a horribly complicated agglutinative language, so he has no problem pronouncing the name and using the demon for errands.
    • From The Chronicles of Amber series, Strygalldwyrr. Or however you spell that. (That's Welsh, but still.)
    • The second of the My Name Is Legion stories features a sapient dolphin named 'Kjwalll'kje'k'koothaïlll'kje'k (which is also, no doubt to the delight of his copy-editors, the title of the story itself).


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