How do you create names and languages for your fantasy people and places? Do you make a unique creation, base it loosely on earth, or try to find some middle ground? How do you mold random names and phrases into something consistent?
There are two ways of doing this: Hire a linguist and get it right, or you can fake it. This post is about faking it. Being an amateur hack is just fine for a world builder, as long as you are consistent.
First I will remind you of some basics, then ponder some design goals, before I lay out how I currently do this, and finally, I’ll use my own experiences as an example to fix things when you have already started, but regret your initial name choices.
The best fakers always need some facts straight, so reading up on ethnic and language family may be helpful in your language creation.
Europe is my home, and I would imagine the basis of most western fantasy settings, so the Indo-European language family is of particular interest to me.
Also, do you even want to create exotic languages for your world? Why not use your own language and be done with it? The Wandering Isle, the High Moors, and King’s Landing are all perfectly good names for an English speaking audience, so why complicate things? I have created areas in my world with purely fictional words, terms, titles, and names, and have enjoyed it immensely, although I am unconvinced my audience share my enthusiasm.
Design Goal: How Do You Want Your Language?
Do you want to create something truly unique or use real-world languages? Both approaches has its own pros and cons.
Creating your own unique thing sure sounds satisfying. Perhaps the culture has a unique language and names, and you gleefully develop words and phrases and make it an academic pursuit to mimic Tolkien.
Keep in mind that creating something genuinely unique is hard, and it may be harder after the initial brainstorming and the real challenge begins as you have to churn out more material to keep the story going.
There is also the danger of the audience not grasping what is going on because of the volume of weird names and terminology to process.
I have read fantasy fiction where the author’s creativity actually got in the way of my enjoyment of the story, and sometimes even plot points undoubtedly got lost in the overwhelming terminology.
It’s a balancing act. Say you rename Haggis. Where do you stop? Is milk still called milk? Is a horse called horse? Coming up with the right names is key to any world building effort, yet it can harm the reader experience if you overdo it.
Another option is to use the real world as a basis for your creation. You simply populate the map with your equivalents of the British, Russians, Chinese, Aztecs and so on. Sticking with the familiar has many benefits. It is fast and easy. Google Earth and Wikipedia are essential tools. You can use expectations and prejudices to create a story more efficiently as you do not have to explain everything.
Good examples are Thedas, the Dragon Age world, and the Old World, the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay setting.
Still, there are pitfalls to consider.
First of all, you may find this annoying. You end up with the setting where familiarity becomes a problem and it is hard to come up with anything fresh, or you can’t shake the prejudices when you need to. For example, a kingdom is dismissed “Nah, they are Vikings,” when you are trying to portray something different.
Second, expectations may work against you. For example, some folks may never wrap their heads around that you placed your Mexicans between your Swedes and Japanese. Creative yes, but may draw lots of attention without adding to the story.
Third, you have to check your sources. Years ago I accidentally named a town Dunkirk to everybody’s amusement. I eventually got it. It was time to read up on war history. Always to a internet search on new names, just to see what comes up.
And finally, you must decide if you want to include everyone. If you start with the Brits and the French, do you add the Dutch next?
The Middle Ground
The third option is to find some middle ground, a sort of mix of real-world equivalents and unique cultural features. You have to figure out is each country is distinctly one or the other, or with everything is a mix.
Squeezing in a weird fantasy realm between your British and Dutch kingdoms may be jarring.
Creating New Languages
So how do you fake creating a language? Using an online translator to create the initial dictionary is a quick way to get started with your fictional language or language group.
For example, the beginning of a dictionary vaguely based on turkish, might look like this:
- calith mother
- cura hill
- duz plain
- gecit gate, passage
- kale fortress
- katil assassin
- kem evil
- kuhl tower
- maka purple
- man wood
- marno dark
- mon highland, low mountain
- nian great
- par mountain
- rest strong gate
- seba town
- vir light
- yalas snake, serpent
- zor hard
Vague meaning English translation and simplification of Turkish words into something I both can pronounce and remember, and not pretending or intending this to actually be Turkish, just something that resembles a Turkic language. You may also consider using two real-world languages for a single fictional language to create something even more unique.
Using the list above gives med Marnoduz for the dark plains, Keman for the evil forest, and Katispar for assassin’s mountain. You just need some orcs and a dark lord, and you are ready to go.
Rinse and repeat as necessary.
An Example: Solving Inconsistent Names, or How the Celts Came To My Rescue
Hindsight can be powerful. I started building my world as a kid and mixed “fantasy names” and real-world names at whim. I boldly started creating my own names or picked from sources I thought was obscure with mixed success. Followed by a period the next couple of years when I had an interest in Greek myths, and Greek names cropped up on my map, then came a tidal wave of Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms influences.
The result was mixed. Five years into my world building process hindsight unavoidably began to creep in. I realized I did not like many of the names I had used in my world, or at least they seemed inconsistent with the cultures I had envisioned.
I changed lots of names changed to British, French, Italian, Celtic, Turkish and Arab names. The exceptions to this name revision was a handful of names everyone remembered, so I felt they could not change. Those names stick out like sore thumbs today.
Worst case, perhaps, is a region I wanted to keep unique. The kingdom is a sort of Melnibone-meets-Thay empire squeezed in between the French and the Russian. I can’t say I am happy about this as far as naming consistency is concerned.
This inconsistency left me with three options: do nothing, reboot, or retcon.
The Problem Names
- Cerun, the name of the region or continent, inspired by the Forgotten Realms.
- Vallidor, a forest kingdom, inspired by Tolkien.
- Talsar, a city of mages, inspired by Dragonlance and Michael Moorcock.
- Siril, a great river, inspired by the Forgotten Realms.
The Celts Come to the Rescue?
Now consider European history and the Celtic people. The Celts were spread out on most of western Europe and shared language and culture in the millennia before the Romans. The details are vague and disputed, most people today probably don’t give them much thought, but their legacy – including names and language – can undoubtedly be found all over Europe today.
So who fits the role of the celts in my world?
Create a Dictionary
The second step to solving the naming inconsistencies is examining my world history. I quickly find such a people in the region with all the troublesome names, so I decided that all the names I disliked are in fact words and names from a now lost people. I take the list and the break the names into syllables and words suitable for the location in question and create a first small dictionary.
Returning to my examples, I figure:
- ce people, folk
- run world, home
- val king, thane
- dor forest
- tal magic, dreams
- sar city, fortified home
- si great, majestic
- ril river
My four problem names produced a list of eight words or sounds, and I can easily combine the new words as a cipher.
This gives several new names and words in this new language. Cerun is the home of the people. The city of the great king could be Valsar. The king’s home or the kingdom itself is Valrun, the magic forest could be Taldor, and the honorific title for a great king is sival. This approach kind of makes sense.
Adding New Names
This dictionary allows me to build consistently moving forward. I can refer to the dictionary, and even add new syllables as needed, whenever I need a new place name for the previously troubled region.
The dictionary reinforces consistency, builds on the work I’ve already done, and adds to the history and depth of the setting.
My list of random fantasy names was now part of a distinct fictional language group, which is something I can build on. These random sounds, perhaps placed on a paper years ago, now have a shared origin in the world. The odd names now have a history and may even have created a space for new stories.
- Create a Fantasy Setting
- Creating Fantasy Maps
- Writing Fantasy Timelines
- Writing Fantasy Religions
- Write Fantasy Noble Houses
The Reading List
A Song of Ice and Fire books introduces the Dothraki, and the first couple of books includes a few dozen names and phrases. Apparently, George R.R. Martin dreamed up these sounds, deemed them fit to be part the books, and moved on.
HBO wanted to expand on this, and there are some articles about this online, for anyone interested.
- ‘Game of Thrones’ Linguist on Constructing Dothraki, Valyrian, from Rolling Stone.
- ‘Game of Thrones’: A brief history of the Dothraki language, from the LA Times.
- Here’s How the Dothraki Language Was Invented, from Vulture.
- Learn to Speak Dothraki and Valyrian From the Man Who Invented Them for Game of Thrones, also from Vulture.