Right around the year 2000, I was in high school. Having attended a Christian school, one of my graduation requirements was to take a year of Greek, so that I would have the basic skills needed to go back to original Biblical documents and check the translations to know for myself that the words were translated accurately.
Outside of my schoolwork, I was involved in Redwall role playing on several different message boards. I had created my first attempt at an evil character, a black wolf assassin who called himself “The Dark One.” This character had so far refused to give any name to the other RPers, primarily because I couldn’t come up with a name that I really felt fit.
Each day I sat at a school computer and worked through my Greek lesson. Each lesson generally consisted of learning key root words in the Greek language, and then memorizing a Bible verse in Greek. (Fun Fact: I can still quote, in Greek, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”) One day, I came to the verse, “The wages of sin is death.” I don’t remember any of the verse, except for the last word.
The Greek word for death was “thanatos.”
It immediately struck me that it was perfect for my wolf character. What better name for an assassin than Death?
Thanatos became one of my favorite characters to role play and he received the necessary facelift to be transferred over to my Sentinels of Mysera series years later.
In Mysera, Thanatos is a Chazevo, a black-skinned race of semi-nomadic people who originally inhabited Mysera before the Myserans showed up. Chazevo were known and feared for their superb fighting skills.
For this year’s NaNoWriMo novel, I’m going prequel. I’m writing about the blacksmith Josin Romalle, who’s grandson Bronx features heavily in the Sentinels of Mysera books. Josin, I had determined, had spend some time living among the Chazevo, so this gave me a perfect opportunity to delve deeper into the language and culture of Thanatos’ people.
I pulled out Holly Lisle’s Create a Language Clinic when I reached a point in my brainstorming that I needed some names. Her first techniques in the clinic give you a way to come up with names that fit in the framework of the language. I decided immediately that the suffix -tos would be a common name ending among Chazevo men, fitting with Thanatos.
I tinkered around with various other things, forming root words and their noun and verb forms, as well as potential adjectives and adverbs. One of the words I worked on was ‘death’. After a bit of deliberation, I decided a root word for death/dead/die would be ‘thana’. I tacked on my noun and verb endings, so death is “thanato” and die is “thanarin”. Since I’d previously established that a -tos suffix would indicate a proper name, Thanatos now could potentially translate as “a dead man” or maybe even “a man who brings death.” Both fit with backstory for the character and why he chose that name (Thanatos not being his birth name, of course).
If you want guidelines for how to create your own working language in a book, I highly recommend Create a Language Clinic by Holly Lisle. You can find it in her shop at hollyswritingclasses.com.