When one has an unexpected amount of free time—and very tedious online training to avoid—one’s mind strays onto some odd questions. In this case, what is a true name?
There is power in having and knowing a name, it’s a token of meaning for that concept. So if you are talking about a person it’s a lot easier, and more specific to talk about someone by name than by constructing the concept of that person every time1. E.g. the tall person over there is open to all kinds of referential ambiguity, but Charlie is fairly specific2.
I’ve noticed this idea coming up a lot in things I’ve been reading. In the Earthsea books, Ursula Le Guin has a system of magic where knowing a thing’s true name gives you ultimate power over it. Ged, the archmage of Roke and to some extent hero of the Earthsea books, becomes master of the great dragon just by knowing its name.
You could try to summon things3 at random by just saying all the words available in your language. That’s a huge space4 (there are 171,476 words in the OED). There’s something like 1080 atoms in the universe5, and even if we only name things about the size of a golf ball (8×1027) and we assume that the universe is made of golf balls, then 1052 is a good ballpark figure for the number of things that we might need names for.
Even a very simple naming system like IPv6 has [enough names6 in it to represent 3.4×1038 addresses](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPv6#Larger_address_space). An IPv6 address is 8 four figure hex digits. If there are “15831 syllable candidates” then even if only 10% of them can go together, we could name everything in the golf-ball-universe with unique, 17 syllable words[^anti].
In the Earthsea books, everyone/thing has a use name and a true name. There might be clashes between use and true names, and when you’re asking for a cup of tea, you might summon a demon by accident. If saying something’s true name gives you power over it then a simple name like Ged would put you in real trouble! There must be more to magic than that7!
[^anti] Antidisestablishmentarianism is 12 syllables, so a 17 syllable word would be very hard to say8. That only takes into account words that are exactly 17 syllables long, if we allow shorter words too, we wouldn’t need as many syllables, and things we name more often could have shorter names, like “I”.
This idea of quantifying a space of all possible names came to me while I was reading The Dispossessed9. On the book’s communitarian anarchist world of Urras, everyone’s name is generated by a computer to be unique. Shevek, Bedap, Sabul, all two syllable names. If there really are almost 16k syllables in English, then we could name a population of over 125 million (125 318 196) Odonians before we need a new naming system; probably more than dusty Urras can support.
(Some sign languages (most or all probably) have a technique that lets you construct an idea once, then place it and refer back to it later)[https://www.lifeprint.com/asl101/pages-layout/indexing.htm]. ↩
Unless there’s a bunch of Charlies, but that’s less common, especially once the people talking have established a context. ↩
This is basically security by obscurity. Whenever you get a share link that’s got a long hex hash in it, you’re relying on people not just guessing and reaching into the space of all possible hashes and seeing what comes out. ↩
This archived page is from about 2009, and asks “How many syllables does English have?”. Amazingly, he seems to have unwittingly come up with the word “twerk”, way before anyone else”
“The syllabification algorithm is not particularly sophisticated or elaborate. As a result, this list contains a number of strings of sounds that are not legitimate English syllables. This is due to the fact that my data do not recognize morpheme boundaries, even though this affects syllabification. For instance, the following two putative syllables are not actually legitimate syllables of English:
jh r ae k s LUGGAGE-RACKS t w er k t OUTWORKED
Assuming that the universe is made of hydrogen, in practice it’d be a bit less, because other elements are heavier, but not by much, maybe 1078 at most? ↩
People say “names and addresses” but if you drop the navigational part of an address, then a name is basically the same thing. ↩
Maybe that’s it? IP addresses aren’t a nice way to get to a website, but the are that site’s true name so maybe the URL is the site’s use name. If that’s the case, then it really would be magic to remember and be able to say a 17 syllable word. ↩