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Why “Donald Duck” is Bad: Assimilation, Alliteration & How to Create a Name

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Written by   435
4 months ago

Whether you are an author, inventing names for the characters of your next novel - or you are a future parent, considering names for your yet unborn children – you should be aware of assimilation and alliteration, and what they do to a name.

A lot of people are fond of alliteration, and it is fine, as long as it is not exaggerated. Ending up with 10 children, all with names beginning with the same consonant might look ridiculous. And watch out, alliteration of given and surname, can look as the name of a cartoon or fairy tale character.

Alliterating words start with the same consonant. Woody Woodpecker, Mickey Mouse, Peter Pan, and Donald Duck are examples of names based on alliteration. So far, these are fine. However, Donald Duck is an awfully badly created name, because the end-d of Donald clashes with the initial D of Duck, something that should be avoided. The end of one word and the beginning of the next should be distinctly different, not to be given any possibility to join into one sound.

In the end you must let the ear be the judge - and the eye, if you want a correspondence between spelling and pronunciation, and such a correspondence is often practical. Just imagine someone saying his name is "Jonnash." What did he really say? John Nash? John Ash? Or even Joe Nash? It is clear that the collision of "n" in John Nash is undesirable, but to see the problem with John Ash, or Joe Nash, a little more thinking is needed.

In the same way it can be best to avoid collision of letters/sounds being the soft and hard versions of the same sound; like g-k, k-g, d-t, t-d, b-p, p-b, and perhaps v-f, f-v. The soft sound tends to disappear, as when Arnold Tanner is pronounced "Arnoltanner."

Colliding vowels must be considered on a case to case basis, but one should use them sparingly, if at all. On the whole, sounds that are too similar should not be following immediately after one another (unless you aim at very special effects).

It is possible to go very far in analysis, discussing every possible combination of sounds, the distribution of hard and soft vowels, etc... but unless you are a poet with very high requirements on musical quality and precision in your language, that would be to overdo it.

It can be worth the while, however, to take a look at assimilation and the labials.

When a sound tends to become like a contiguous sound in articulation, it is called assimilation. An example is "cupboard," were the "p" in pronunciation becomes a "b" (is assimilated to b). The labials, sounds formed with the lips closed (m, b, and p), are often involved in this.

The most volatile sound is "n," which, often, if followed by a labial, changes toward the sound of "m." Sometimes this change is so clear that it affects spelling. We can see that in many words of Latin origin, where prefixes in- (negation) and in- (opposite to ex-) in front of a labial change to im-. Some examples: immortal, immaterial, impossible, import, imbalance. Similarly en- can change to em-, as in embalm, employ.

(Interestingly, the prefix in- changes to ir- in front of "r" and in front of "l" it changes to il-. Examples: irrational, irresolute, illegal, illicit.

Assimilation is a general phonetic principle, not in any way limited to Western or Indo-European languages. In Japanese, just to take one example, the word for newspaper is a combination of two characters, giving "shinbun," which is a correct transliteration. But sometimes one can see it written as "shimbun," a form more resembling pronunciation, which is affected by assimilation of n to m.

Another example can be taken from Arabic and my recent article Transcription & Transliteration: Some Thoughts on Written Language & Foreign Names, where I wrote:

“[...] we can take the Arabic article "al"; when it is followed by certain consonants, its pronunciation is adapted accordingly - but not the Arabic writing. So if we transliterate (keep to the spelling), we get e.g. al-Rahman, al-Din, and al-Zahir. If we transcribe (express the pronunciation), we get ar-Rahman, ad-Din, and az-Zahir.”

The transcribed forms (pronunciation), are also examples of assimilation.

If we return to the original question, about creating a name; there is good reason to be aware of the phenomenon of assimilation. I think such combinations should be avoided, but that is a matter of taste.

Finally, it should be noted that a correspondence between pronunciation and spelling is not always desired. Spelling is for the eye and it is sometimes adjusted for purely ornamental reasons, especially in the case of names.

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Written by   435
4 months ago
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