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Thread: Naming units

  1. #1
    Azarath Metrion Zinthos AshleyEpidemic's Avatar
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    Naming units

    So I searched through the old threads and I found some interesting information to get me started, but seeing as the threads were over four years old I am trying to reopen the topic.

    I am currently in planning mode for an epic fantasy. It includes new species and places, but I am toying with the idea of leaving units of measure the same. As in, I would use inches and miles. My issue comes to the months of the years. I want to just leave the months with the names of this reality, ie March, August, October. Same for days of the week.

    Would leaving such names the same be jarring to the reader when everything else of the world is different? I am curious what others feel about this.
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  2. #2
    The T is for Trying to Stop Lurking M.T.Logue's Avatar
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    Maybe a little jarring, considering all the mythology and history from which the names of our months and days comes from would (I assume) never have occurred. If it takes place on another world, I'd also question if the alternate world's planetary orbit is so precisely like Earth's that they have a 365 day year.

    But that's just me. It's entirely possible that most readers might not really think about it that much.

  3. #3
    That hairy-handed gent
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    Units like inches and miles, and even the metric system, are inextricably tied to human history and culture. And, something which may piss off our non-English/American friends, the quaint and sometimes bizarre English measuring system is more closely tied to human measurements than are the metric units. For instance, a 'cubit' is, roughly, the length of an average elbow-to extended fingers.for an average-size man. The cubit is not much used anymore, but it made sense in early systems of measurement. The 'foot' is about the average length of a man's foot (mine happens to be exactly that). The 'inch' is about the length of the middle bone of the index finger. The 'yard', by legend, was the distance between a king's nose and his upright thumb extended on his arm. Not standard, of course, and certainly not sufficient for the accuracy needed when the Industrial Revolution came into being, but good enough for many centuries. Likewise, the 'knot' was a standard measure of nautical distance arbitrarily established by knots at a uniform distance in a rope allowed to trail through the hands of a sailor behind a ship at sea, later standardized to a precise velocity, and still used today.

    In terms of time, any alien society would almost certainly use duration of planetary rotation and revolution for establishing time units, exactly the way humans have, and still use. It's natural and obvious.

    As for months and days of the week, that is a totally arbitrary cultural choice become standard only by the overwhelming strength of the dominant human culture. Months are related to the Earth's lunar cycle, but don't correspond to it, because we needed some what of subdividing a year precisely, and the lunar cycle doesn't do that. And weeks and names of days have no natural context.

    Even in our current robotic exploration of the planet Mars, we've been obliged to create a new term, 'sols', to account for Martian 'days', which are 37 minutes longer than Earthly 'days'.

    I'd have trouble with an alien society using inches and miles and weekdays as standard parlance.

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  4. #4
    Azarath Metrion Zinthos AshleyEpidemic's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by M.T.Logue View Post
    Maybe a little jarring, considering all the mythology and history from which the names of our months and days comes from would (I assume) never have occurred. If it takes place on another world, I'd also question if the alternate world's planetary orbit is so precisely like Earth's that they have a 365 day year.

    But that's just me. It's entirely possible that most readers might not really think about it that much.
    The length of the year was something I got hung up on. Which brought me to trying to base the everything off the moon. Then it got all complicated and science-y and I got bored. Which is in large part why I am considering reverting rather than falling too deep into the world building.
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  5. #5
    Azarath Metrion Zinthos AshleyEpidemic's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by blacbird View Post
    Units like inches and miles, and even the metric system, are inextricably tied to human history and culture. And, something which may piss off our non-English/American friends, the quaint and sometimes bizarre English measuring system is more closely tied to human measurements than are the metric units. For instance, a 'cubit' is, roughly, the length of an average elbow-to extended fingers.for an average-size man. The cubit is not much used anymore, but it made sense in early systems of measurement. The 'foot' is about the average length of a man's foot (mine happens to be exactly that). The 'inch' is about the length of the middle bone of the index finger. The 'yard', by legend, was the distance between a king's nose and his upright thumb extended on his arm. Not standard, of course, and certainly not sufficient for the accuracy needed when the Industrial Revolution came into being, but good enough for many centuries. Likewise, the 'knot' was a standard measure of nautical distance arbitrarily established by knots at a uniform distance in a rope allowed to trail through the hands of a sailor behind a ship at sea, later standardized to a precise velocity, and still used today.

    In terms of time, any alien society would almost certainly use duration of planetary rotation and revolution for establishing time units, exactly the way humans have, and still use. It's natural and obvious.

    As for months and days of the week, that is a totally arbitrary cultural choice become standard only by the overwhelming strength of the dominant human culture. Months are related to the Earth's lunar cycle, but don't correspond to it, because we needed some what of subdividing a year precisely, and the lunar cycle doesn't do that. And weeks and names of days have no natural context.

    Even in our current robotic exploration of the planet Mars, we've been obliged to create a new term, 'sols', to account for Martian 'days', which are 37 minutes longer than Earthly 'days'.

    I'd have trouble with an alien society using inches and miles and weekdays as standard parlance.

    caw
    Thanks. So for you being thrown into new terminology would be more appreciated than relying on that of what is Earth's. Would the existence of the new terminology be something you expect at face value or would want a picture painted clarifying and comparing new terms to that which is known?
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  6. #6
    New Member Ian Isaro's Avatar
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    I'd say it depends on your story. If you're going to be using these terms frequently (say there are complex troop movements) then I'd caution against making readers put up with a bunch of new measurement terms. Use a generally known but archaic word like league or stadia and it shouldn't be too jarring.

    If distances are occasional, then it wouldn't be as distracting. Can the new names you use be tied into anything else to deepen the history or culture? Because if not, I think this can fall into the "calling a rabbit a smeerp" problem - we know the characters aren't speaking English, so it's not so much of a stretch to assume distances have been translated into our units.

    People will differ, though. I draw the line at month names - for me that's too arbitrary and rooted in history to seem natural in a different context.

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  7. #7
    practical experience, FTW rwm4768's Avatar
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    It wouldn't bother me. In fact, I'm pretty sure I've seen feet and inches and miles in fantasy. When I read fantasy, I accept that everything is basically in translation. Why not make it easier on the reader and give them something familiar?

    You might want to go for something new on the month names, though. I've seen month names in fantasy that are obviously equivalents (like Novander for November, I think).

  8. #8
    Onwards, ever onwards ClareGreen's Avatar
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    As Blacbird says, Imperial units are people- and use-sized, metric units aren't. If a fantasy comes in Imperial measure, I don't mind; if a sci-fi comes in metric measure, that's cool too. Fantasy in metric and sci-fi in Imperial get odd looks, though.

    Month names are a slightly different matter. The names of the months are highly cultural - January is named for the god Janus, July is named for Julius Caesar, half the month names are rooted in Latin, etc - but mostly, be consistent about measures of time. If you aren't using our days of the week, I'd avoid using our months.
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  9. #9
    coffee and pistols at dawn KateJJ's Avatar
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    I don't want to have to convert your units in my head. I read a SF novel one time that used things like "megasecond" for time and had a chart at the front to translate between "megasecond" and "week" but it just got old for me, really fast.

    My rule of thumb: call rabbits rabbits, but if it's a were-dragon-rabbit, call it a smerp. Units of measurement fall on the "rabbit" side of things.
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  10. #10
    Don't let your deal go down, Dave Hardy's Avatar
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    For units of measure, that's a tricky call. As a reader I sort of glide over those. They are a bit like "said," they just prop up the structure of the sentence unless something special is going on. "A million miles" is less jarring than "a million metroids" (to coin a phrase as it were).

    Days, months, and years are a different critter. Note they are named after archaic gods and long-gone rulers. Thursday, January 10, 2013 is the day of the Germanic god Thor in the month of the Roman god Janus in the two-thousand and thirteen year from the putative birth of Jesus the Christian savior. On one level 1/10/13 is highly mundane, on another it's a rich retelling of thousands of years of European culture and history.

    With that in mind, why not make up your own names for days, months and years? "It was the third year of the rule of King Atrabax the Impaler, in the month when the buffalo calves are born, on the day of Parang, god of lost dreams, and it was a dark and stormy night..."
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  11. #11
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    I think I'd find using our months strange, providing I even noticed it. Distances like miles and so on are so familiar I probably wouldn't notice.

  12. #12
    Azarath Metrion Zinthos AshleyEpidemic's Avatar
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    Thanks everyone. Names for months and days should be unique to my world.
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  13. #13
    practical experience, FTW lpetrich's Avatar
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    I suggest reviewing what names people have invented for months.

    One might ask: why have a month at all?

    A day is a very natural sort of unit, unless one lives near a planet's poles.

    Likewise, a year is a rather natural sort of unit if one lives on a planet with a sizable axial tilt, like the Earth.

  14. #14
    practical experience, FTW lpetrich's Avatar
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    Month - Wikipedia
    Names of the days of the week - Wikipedia
    are good places to start.

    There are several sorts of month names that speakers of different languages have invented.
    • Gods and heroes and leaders
    • Festivals
    • Seasonal conditions and events
    • Seasonal activities
    • Numbers


    For weeks, it is
    • Astrology
    • Holy days
    • Numbers

  15. #15
    practical experience, FTW lpetrich's Avatar
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    Astrology? Here is how you get the our day-of-week names.

    Arrange the pre-Copernican planets from slowest to fasted:

    Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury, Moon

    To the first hour of the first day, assign Saturn. To the second hour, assign Jupiter. Continue until one reaches the Moon at the seventh hour. Start the cycle again, with Saturn assigned to the eighth hour. When one gets through all 24 hours of a day, then go to the next day and continue. Since there are 7 traditional planets, and since 7 and 24 are relatively prime, this arrangement will repeat every 7 days.

    Let's see which planet gets assigned to the first hour of each day.
    Saturn, Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus

    You can see this in some Romance languages' day-of-week names, and some Roman deities got turned into Germanic ones for our ones and some other Germanic speakers' ones.

  16. #16
    Trust: that most precious coin. little_e's Avatar
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    It would jar. I'd recommend using some obvious stand-in, and not getting too technical. Since it's fantasy, you can go with fairly self-evident units like 'palms', 'thumbs', 'paces', etc. The term 'month' wouldn't bother me, but I would want different names, like "Planting Month" or "Harbur's Month". "Spring", etc., are fine. Days of the week I might try to avoid; just say, "in three days" or "next fortnight." I probably won't think too much of a "week".

    Just remember that fantasy societies tend to be pre-industrial, so exact measures didn't exist for most folks. Clocks were more sundials and hour glasses than digital watches. Seconds and even minutes were irrelevant to most folks. Unless your character is a merchant or banker, they won't have much need for exact weights, and only a draftsman or architect or builder would need exact lengths. For normal folks, "Two days walk" would be a more relevant measure than "20 miles".

  17. #17
    It's a doggy dog world benbradley's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by lpetrich View Post
    I suggest reviewing what names people have invented for months.

    One might ask: why have a month at all?

    A day is a very natural sort of unit, unless one lives near a planet's poles.

    Likewise, a year is a rather natural sort of unit if one lives on a planet with a sizable axial tilt, like the Earth.
    A day and a year (at least for Earth) have a ratio of 365 to 1, which sdeems rather bib so it may feel natural (at least to us on Earth) to have some "in between" unit instead of saying "Day 334 of Year 2012." But then other cultures and species might not think like us, and be fine without months (or weeks). But time period such as a month is surely more likely if there's a large moon like Earth's Moon. There's also the human menstrual cycle of approximately the same time period. Of course, the actual month time doesn't equate to these, as they're not exact submultiples of a year, and it took a while to generate a reliable, long-term calendar system.

    There's more than you'd ever want to know about the development of the modern calendar here:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregorian_calendar

    For other units, while this is an Earth unit, I've wanted to see furlongs per fortnight used. It would be perfect in a steampunk story.

    The problem I see with generating these new names is the rest of your story will still be in English. If people are going to object with Earth-centric names of months, weekdays and other things, they might as well get upset at every English word you use. So you could write the story in the original language, and (if you're not a sadist!) provide an alien-language-to-English translation dictionary. You might as well write it in Klingon.

    I'm thinking you might as well all one rotation of the planet a day, and one revolution around its star a year. If it's that important to the story, you might say how a day on that planet is, say, 37 hours long, and the planet's year is 112 of the planet's days. If you really want to do some Serious Worldbuilding, the above Wikipedia article will give you some ideas of how to develop a history of the culture's calendar system.
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  18. #18
    Azarath Metrion Zinthos AshleyEpidemic's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by benbradley View Post
    A day and a year (at least for Earth) have a ratio of 365 to 1, which sdeems rather bib so it may feel natural (at least to us on Earth) to have some "in between" unit instead of saying "Day 334 of Year 2012." But then other cultures and species might not think like us, and be fine without months (or weeks). But time period such as a month is surely more likely if there's a large moon like Earth's Moon. There's also the human menstrual cycle of approximately the same time period. Of course, the actual month time doesn't equate to these, as they're not exact submultiples of a year, and it took a while to generate a reliable, long-term calendar system.

    There's more than you'd ever want to know about the development of the modern calendar here:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregorian_calendar

    For other units, while this is an Earth unit, I've wanted to see furlongs per fortnight used. It would be perfect in a steampunk story.

    The problem I see with generating these new names is the rest of your story will still be in English. If people are going to object with Earth-centric names of months, weekdays and other things, they might as well get upset at every English word you use. So you could write the story in the original language, and (if you're not a sadist!) provide an alien-language-to-English translation dictionary. You might as well write it in Klingon.

    I'm thinking you might as well all one rotation of the planet a day, and one revolution around its star a year. If it's that important to the story, you might say how a day on that planet is, say, 37 hours long, and the planet's year is 112 of the planet's days. If you really want to do some Serious Worldbuilding, the above Wikipedia article will give you some ideas of how to develop a history of the culture's calendar system.
    Thanks. Personally, the hours of a day seem trivial to me. Simply because the beings of this planet would be adjusted to function on however long a day is for them. Now if I dropped a human in their world, I would be highly concerned with that. As is, times of day will be night an day, and if I need sunrise, sunset, and high sun.

    As for naming months vs other things in the world this was a major concern. I could easily fall down a hole creating words and languages, but I don't want my story to be a burden to read.

    At this point I am considering saying the story begins at the start of the hot months and so on and so forth and never getting specific.
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  19. #19
    Trust: that most precious coin. little_e's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by AshleyEpidemic View Post
    At this point I am considering saying the story begins at the start of the hot months and so on and so forth and never getting specific.
    Sounds good to me

  20. #20
    practical experience, FTW rwm4768's Avatar
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    Last night, I was reading one of the books of The Wheel of Time, and miles were used as a unit of distance. It didn't bother me.

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