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As somewhat of a follow-up to my previous question: How to create a consistent feel for character names in a fantasy setting?

Once I have named the characters in a given setting, how do I create place names for towns, roads, rivers, mountains, countries, etc...? I want the names to feel like they were named by the same culture and to be distinctly place names rather than being confused with characters.

How do I create place names that feel consistent with a given culture?

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    Do you expect there to be a significant difference in how to create a consistent feel for place names, compared to how to create a consistent feel for character names? To me, it seems that the process for one could very well be applied to the other, which IMO puts this at risk of being a duplicate of your own previous question. – a CVn Apr 12 at 7:57
  • @aCVn Hopefully a good answer will show how the difference in techniques for naming places instead of people. Although the answers may be similar I don't believe the questions are duplicates. If the community disagrees I can edit to focus more on making the names feel more like places than people. – linksassin Apr 12 at 11:18
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    I've answered, but I'd consider posting this/searching for similar questions over on Worldbuilding.SE. Seems like a good fit there too :) – Ynneadwraith Apr 12 at 13:34
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    I haven't seen it mentioned yet, but the term for the cultural/linguistic mechanisms behind place names is toponymy. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toponymy – Arkenstein XII May 3 at 3:48
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Same process as my answer to the previous question, but adapted to place names ;)

Use the same process online name-generators use

I'm not sure of the protocol for providing answers that are pretty much just links to other answers on SE, but the answer to this worldbuilding question sounds like exactly what you're looking for.

tl;dr Define a set number of linguistic building blocks ('ne', 'rt', 's'en' etc.) and combine them using a random number generator. The set number of 'blocks' will help give your language a distinct 'sound' to it.

You can then go further by defining some grammatical rules like 'ab never follows aa' and cross out words that use that combination.

Adapting that to place names:

Layer 1: Likely name structures

One of the things places are often named after notable features of the landscape, or for notable activities. If there's a big rock nearby, a village near it will probably begin life as something along the lines of 'big rock town'. There are tons of real life examples of these, but 'Oxford' is a pretty good one. It is, quite literally, a place where people took oxen across a ford on the river Thames.

Now, place names have a lot more permanence than names for people. They tend to last and last, through invasions, and through cultural and linguistic shifts. What this means is that place names tend to be quite archaic in their descriptions, and also get corrupted over the ages.

An example of the former is the village I grew up in: 'Lingfield'. 'Ling' is an archaic word for the plant heather, so anyone around when it was named would know it was probably near a field of heather. However, anyone now would need to know that 'ling' used to mean heather.

An example of corruption over time would be 'London'. It's etymology is debated, but one theory is that it began as the Celtic 'Lundeinjon' (later Lundein), then Latin 'Londinium', then Anglo-Saxon 'Lundenwic' or 'Lunden' (near enough), to English 'London'.

So, what we need to do is arbitrarily choose some prefixes and suffixes from the same linguistic building blocks of our initial language to mean things like 'town' or 'fort' or 'river' or 'lake'. Other options would be things to do with livestock, or professions. We can then mix these up to produce some place-names that mean things like 'sheep-village' or 'mountain-fort' or 'smith-town'.

Another thing people like to do is name places after themselves. There's a whole string of 'Alexandria' variants spread across Alexander the Great's conquests. You can also throw in some of your people-names form earlier to make things like 'Tony's-fort', or 'Bill's-village'. People also like to name places after popular religious or cultural figures, so choosing a few of them would be good for variety too ('Wednesfield' is derived from 'Woden's field', for instance).

Layer 2: Invasion and linguistic shifts

When places are invaded, or there are other large-scale cultural and/or linguistic shifts, some of the building blocks of place names will change. People with these differing languages will sometimes found new towns, or rename old ones (sometimes gradually, sometimes immediately). Sometimes places will get renamed wholesale (e.g. Constantinople to Istanbul). Sometimes languages are close enough that they blend together.

You can use this to showcase some of the history of your world, and give it a feeling of depth and subtle variations in local culture.

As an example, the suffix '-ton' indicates a farmstead in Old English. The suffix '-by' means a similar thing in Old Norse. Starting from the 800s BC, Scandinavians began invading and settling in the east midlands of Britain, creating an area called the Danelaw. We can track its extent by the prevalence of place-names ending in '-by' as opposed to ones ending in '-ton'.

To include this, we need a second language with at least some different linguistic building blocks, and again come up with a list of prefixes and suffixes. for areas that have long been under the sway of this new culture you can outright replace place-names with their foreign equivalents. As their influence wanes towards the frontiers, you can start blending suffixes and prefixes from language A and language B.

Start mapping out the history of multiple invasions and you can devise a very complex and quite realistic map of place-names for your culture.

Layer 3: Linguistic shifts

If you really want to go down the rabbit hole you can start developing how your linguistic blocks changed over time, and use that to corrupt your place-names. However, you can probably avoid this entirely if you don't use your new language in regular speech. If you do, perhaps choosing slightly altered vowel sounds for your place-names compared to their modern language equivalent would do.

  • I'm accepting this answer because it does the best job of addressing what makes them a place name. And how to make realistic place names for a given culture. – linksassin Apr 15 at 4:13
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I would do this like names from the culture. Different languages have different characteristic sounds, rhythm, and accents. Although I don't speak Spanish, Italian, German, French, Arabic or Mandarin Chinese, I have been in places (various universities and countries and restaurants) where all of these are spoken by native speakers; and I can tell by ear which language is being spoken, even if I don't understand the conversation.

So my answer is to consider the language as a whole, in print or on audio (The Internet will pronounce words for you in every major language), and ensure your place names reflect the sounds, accents and rhythm of the language in question.

Another trick is using the Internet's translation capability. In native terms, most place names are the names of people, or are derived from features of the place. For example "Ashley" in medieval English means a ley (meadow; clearing, pronounced 'lee') in an ash (kind of tree) forest. There are 15 town in America named Ashley, and several in the UK as well; but few elsewhere due to its English Word origin (so those elsewhere were likely named by or after English; it is also a first name, and a surname).

The name "Chicago" is derived from the local Indian word chicagoua for the native garlic plant Allium tricoccum, which grew wild in the area. (Notice the final sounds 'goua' are simplified to 'go', simplification or truncation is common and particularly for trailing sounds).

So a way to reflect the culture is to translate something that might have been unique about the place, in your case avoiding any names of persons, into the language, then modifying it in some way.

You can make that stuff up. For example, off the top of my head, I want the town name to reflect "The Final Battle", from some forgotten war. I want it in India. The most common language of India is Hindi. Google Translate gives the translation of "The Final Battle" as antim ladaee, and to my ear this sounds like "an TIM Lawd i ee" [TIM is major stress, Lawd is secondary stress, others are unstressed). and I could simplify sounds to make this Antimladi (an TIM Lawd ee).

The Internet work took me less than two minutes. So if I wasn't in love with Antimladi, I can translate and simplify a dozen other ideas. What used to grow there? What was the river used for? What medieval market was it known for? What famous thing happened there? (The name I chose was an answer to what happened, i.e. "The Final Battle"). Invent something unique about this particular fictional town, and use it to name it, with a translator and simplification.

I'll skip the naming of one place after another (New York, New Delhi) because those aren't in the culture of the new place. Whereas something like "Chicago" and "Mississippi" (and many other place names in the USA) are derived from Native American words and thus become uniquely "American" names.

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It depends on different aspects of the culture. What type of society are the people living in? What's their government? Are they a militant culture, more spiritual, apathetic to other cultures, etc? What concepts are important to them; do they have specific deities that are associated with things like light and the earth and water?

Example: are they in a relatively dry area, making rain extremely important? Has most of their society changed from older ways that were drastically different?

Base the first ideas for your names on these concepts and go from there, because the concepts that make up a culture contribute to how places, people, and items are named in that culture. They influence everything that the people of that culture see, feel, and experience.

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Not all place names are based on a specific pronunciation, and not all languages emphasize a specific pronunciation.

Take Chinese, for example. If you just use Google Translate and obtain the Pinyin romanizations, then that still will not show you the actual pronunciation. Google Translate may pronounce for you, but don't trust your ears too much. Adult ears are not as sensitive as a child's ears, and an adult's brain has a hard time with word segmentation, unlike a child's brain.

So, my advice for you is to not take the advice about hearing the sounds of other languages on Google Translate.

Instead of taking a real-life language, I would highly recommend conlanging. Here are the steps:

  1. Create your phonetic inventory of consonants and vowels. Consider monophthongs and diphthongs and different types of consonants. The International Phonetic Alphabet will be your best friend in this!

  2. Think about how words are constructed. Are there consonant clusters? Are there stop consonants? Are words monosyllabic or multi-syllabic? Is the language analytic with no or minimal conjugation, or synthetic with a lot of conjugation?

  3. Create grammar. Consider sentence structure. SVO and SOV sentences are the most common type of sentence structures. However, not all languages in the world emphasize the role of the subject. Some languages - such as Chinese, Korean, and Japanese - would emphasize the topic-comment structure, in which case the subject is dropped, being replaced by a topic; and this type of sentence structure explains punctuation use in the language. Determine whether or not your language is highly analytic or highly synthetic. Highly analytic languages, like Chinese, will have no inflections. English is on the analytic side, but it carries mild inflections. For example, there are singular/plural inflections, tense inflections, and many more.

There are some authors who are professional linguists. They take their own linguistic knowledge to create a useable, functional language and then plop the language into the fictional world. In this way, names in the story would appear very consistent, as if they belong to a culture. And the best thing about it is, it's fictional. You're not supposed to pronounce it. Basically, you spell the words with IPA letters, write in Latin-script orthography (if you plan on using a logographic script, you'll be conlanging for a real long time, and you have to Romanize the logographic script) - and tada! - you have a conlang!

  • This reads more like a rant on misuse of the chinese language than an actual answer. I'm not sure how this answers my question other than a small part of the final paragraph. If you have an issue with another answer leave a comment on that answer. This should focus on answering the question. – linksassin Apr 15 at 4:12
  • @linksassin The paragraphs that come before are supposed to be background info. They also provide knowledge that not everyone names places in exactly the same way. My main point is not everyone emphasizes on a specific pronunciation for a place name. So, in your fantasy culture, you don't have to either. – Double U Apr 15 at 13:49
  • Five long paragraphs of 'background' is a lot to parse for something that can be summarized in a single comment. To improve the answer you should reduce it to only the important parts. – linksassin Apr 15 at 23:36
  • @linksassin edited. – Double U Apr 16 at 2:36
  • That is way better. You turned my downvote into an upvote. Thankyou for that useful answer. – linksassin Apr 16 at 3:01

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