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 between the two? How do you mold random names and phrases into some 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.
Creating your own unique thing sure sounds satisfying. Perhaps the culture has unique language and names, and you gleefully create words and phrases and make it an academic pursuit to mimic Tolkien.
Keep in mind that creating something genuinely unique is very hard if you decide to go down this path, 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 created areas in my world with purely fictional words, terms, titles, and names, and have enjoyed it immensely. But I have not convinced my audience share my enthusiasm. I have read fantasy fiction where the author’s creatively actually got in the way of my enjoyment of the story, or even plot points undoubtedly got lost in the terminology.
The second option is to use the real world as a basis for your creation. You simply populate the map with your equivalents of the British, 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 people’s expectations and prejudices to create a story more efficiently as you do not have to explain everything.
Still, there are pitfalls to consider.
First of all, you may find this boring. 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, player expectations may work against you. For example, some folks may never wrap their heads around that you placed your Mexicans between the 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 my war history.
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.
The middle ground is more or less what I did. Not by design, but by not giving it any thought until years of gaming had passed. I started out boldly and created by own names or picked from what I thought was obscure sources. Followed by a period when I have interest in Greek myths, and Greek names cropped up on my map. Then came a tidal wave of Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms influences.
Later I realized a more consistent name policy was required, so lots of names changed to British, French, Italian, Celtic, Turkish and Arab names. Alas, the poor Dutch did not make it into my map. 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 special. It is a sort of Melnibone-meets-Thay empire squeezed in between the faux-french and the faux-Russians. Rough neighborhood. I can’t say I am happy about this as far as naming consistency is concerned, but it is what it is. You should aim to do better.
The Balancing Act
It’s a balancing act. Say you rename Haggis. Where do you stop? Is milk still called milk? Is a horse still called horse? Coming up with the right names is key to any worldbuilding effort, yet it can harm the reader experience if you overdo it.
Solving Inconsistent Names, or How the Celts Came To My Rescue
Hindsight can be powerful. Five years into my world building process hindsight unavoidably began to creep in. I realize 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.
This inconsistency leaves me with three options: reboot, revise or incorporate the odd names and create something new. I have done all three, but this is about the later.
First I compile a list of all the names I now find jarring. Currently, I have roughly thirty names I am unhappy about – villages, kingdoms, forests. They are all in the oldest and most established part of the world, so I have no desire for a reboot. It would be awkward, and I know the old names would creep back in and create further confusion and inconsistencies.
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 probably don’t give them much thought, but their legacy – including names and language – can undoubtedly be found all over Europe even today.
So who fits that role in my world? The second step to solving my naming inconsistencies is examining my world history. Looking over my world history, I quickly find such a people in the Region of Jarring Names. If you do not have such a people in your world, it is time to invent one.
I can now add details to my world history to increase their importance and area.
The solution is to decide that all the names I dislike are in fact names from that now lost people. I take the list and the break the names into words suitable for the location in question, and create a first small dictionary for that culture. By adding more words to the dictionary I can now create new names and create historic names for other places, and eventually create a historic map.
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 necessary.
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.
Whenever I need a new name for my world, or a historic name to add depth, I can choose to refer to this list to add gravity and consistency to the names and history already established. By adding new bits to the world, I also add to the parts previously established.
The New Language
You can quickly create new names for your fictional region and its people with a mini-dictionary like this.
You are also reverse engineering a regional heritage. These random sounds, perhaps placed on a paper years ago, now have a shared origin in the world you are building. The odd names now have a history and may even have created a space for new stories. You have created further details for the world, without rebooting. Your world now has celts of its own.
Being an amateur hack is just fine for a world builder, as long as you are consistent.
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.