Ursula Le Guin

Words Are My Matter

“To make up a name of a person or a place is to open the way to the world of languages the name belongs to.”

What’s in a name? Personality? A history? A bold suggestion of complexity and vitality?

Classical scholar and avid gardener Robin Lane Fox writes that naming things deepens our knowledge, creates differences, and brightens our observation.1

Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a rich understanding of the power of name in his memoir:

Ta-Nehisi was hyphenated and easily bent to the whims of anyone who knew the rudiments of dozens. Seeing that handle among the books of glorious Africa, I knew why I could never be a Javonne or Pete, my name was a nation.

From Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle

Coates’ choice of the word “nation” hints at the power of name, it can communicate not only an entire person, but a people.

“Most invented languages begin with invented names” writes Ursula Le Guin (October 21, 1929 – January 22, 2018) in Words Are My Matter.

Most invented languages begin with invented names. Those who write fiction with an entirely imaginary setting – fantasy, or far-future or alien-world science fiction – must play Adam: they need names for the characters, creatures, and places of their entire fictive world. Invented names are quite a good index of writers’ interest in their instrument, language, and their ability to play it.

Roald Dahl's inventive list of imagined words. Featured in Roald Dahl's "Boy" in the Examined Life Library.
Roald Dahl’s inventive list of imagined words. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Le Guin was creator of worlds out of words2 and manipulated language to convey social, moral and human implications of those worlds. Page after page she demanded readers be open-hearted listeners and imaginators.

Language is “for” communicating, but when we come to such phenomena as poetry and made-up names and languages, the function of communication and the construction of meaning become as impenetrable to intellect alone as the tune of a song. The writer has to listen. The reader has to hear. Pleasure to articulate sounds, and in the symbolic use of it, is what moves the maker of a poem, and also the maker of a fictional language, even if her tongue is the only one that will ever speak it and her ear alone is tuned to it.3

When we tune to the song of name, we stretch past knowing the name to knowing its meaning.4 Which is why, Le Guin suggests, it is critical the writer avoid lazy, conventional naming.

If you’re creating a world out of words and there are speaking creatures in it, you suggest a great deal -whether you mean to or not – by naming them. The old pulp-science-fiction naming conventions implied the permanent hegemony of manly, English-speaking men, the risible grotesqueness of non-English languages, an the inviolable rule that pretty princesses (the only women worth naming) have musical names ending in a. And the conventions dragged on endlessly in movie sci-fi, with a hero named Luke, an alien named Chewbacca, and a princess named Leia.

“Once language exists only to convey information. It is dying” argued American poet Richard Hugo in his essays on the psychogenic nature of poetry.

Le Guin continues:

To make up a name of a person or a place is to open the way to the world of languages the name belongs to. It’s a gate to Elsewhere. How do they talk in Elsewhere? How do we find out how they talk?

A name is the sound at which you turn your head. It triggers empathy. George Saunders’ tale of unkindness meant more to me because the object of that unkindness was an Ellen. Much like Ellen on a tombstone sent me into a flurry of wonder about post-death location.

But what if I were to met a Ta-Nehisi? What if he met me?

When a name slips over the tongue and through the teeth in a manner uncomfortable to the speaker, we feel embarrassed, fearful. As Toni Morrison argues bravely in The Origin of Others, we create separateness as a means to galvanize the power of our tribe.

Charlie Mackesy's illustration for "The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse" featured in the Examined Life Library.
“Imagine how we would be if we were less afraid.” Illustration by Charlie Mackesy. Courtesy of The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse.

“My name is one of the smallest kernels of who I am” writes Canadian writer Durga Chew-Bose, and yet this name – often unpronounceable in Chew-Bose’s adoptive land, anchored her to the homeland of her parents Kolkata, far away. Le Guin’s Elsewhere.

A more thoughtful and inventive approach to naming may offer less naively unexamined social and moral implications. Take Swift’s horses in Gulliver’s Travels, the Houyhnhnms. […] It isn’t easy. But Houyhnhnms isn’t a contemptuously meaningless and unpronounceable clump of letters: on the contrary, it’s a conscious attempt to spell how a horse might say who it is, and a deliberate challenge to the English speaker. If you’re willing to learn to say that one word of the horses’ language, you may be that much more able to think like a horse. Swift is not dismissing the nonhuman, but inviting us into it.

When Coates’ writes “his name is a nation” it is an invitation to consciously see both him and our self in a shared humanity.

No one knew this better than Le Guin, functioning as a “realist of a larger realty,” was the foundation of her conscionable, visionary art.

Photograph of Ursula Le Guin featured in Le Guin's "Words Are My Matter" in the Examined Life Library.
Ursula K. Le Guin, 1990. Photograph by Neil Turner.

People tell me they don’t read fantasy “because it’s all just made up,” but the material of fantasy is far more permanent, more universal, than the social customs realism deals with. Whether a fantasy is set in the real world or an invented one, its substance is psychic stuff, human constants, imageries we recognize.

Open your ears and hearts to language that sits astride imagined and real with Mark Strand’s essays on the power of language to convey situational being, Robert Macfarlane’s gentle book of poetry and beauty that coaxes into its readers forgotten names in the natural world; the bounty of words emanating from Elsewhere; as well as a look at the space beyond words.