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The Significance of Names (Part 2)

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Nov. 28, 2020

When constructing your world, be it in fantasy or within a realistic/historical/existing place, the names you pick are very important.

They are important for suspension of disbelief and immersion: how consistent the names are, how congruent with what reality the audience reasonably comes to expect within the framework of the world, and how vibrant and memorable your places and settings will be.

Note that just a good name won't make your world come alive nor the places within it memorable, but it's going to be a good step getting there.

What are some methods to approach naming places?

The easiest for me is when the place I need to name is set within an existing, real world: if for example I need to invent the name of a village in 1940s Greece, or a valley in 17th century France, or a castle in Ireland, and so on.

All I need to do is to research the style of the names in the area I've decided to place my imaginary location, and do some additional research in the logic of naming before that era and current to the era. This allows me to pay attention to the prefixes and suffixes that are most prevalent.

Then, all I need to do is play with these prefixes and suffixes and with root words that would make sense to be used for the location I'm naming. For example, many Greek villages that originated in medieval times tend to be named after either of three things: their location or main feature of flora/fauna in the area, the primary produce that made a village happen in the are, or the people that made a village there (e.g. fishermen).

But what about when we need to name an entire world, for a fantasy setting?

In my experience I find that it's easier to name the different lands and cities and realms if that is the last thing you do.

Because location names in the real world are usually derived and developed according to the history, culture, language, and cosmology of the peoples who use them, it is best to have all these elements down first before you tackle the naming.

Once you do have the main parameters for your world, they will inform the way you pick the names for it: are the locations for elven folk that are very nature-oriented and value or worship trees, or special formations of the earth, or the celestial bodies? It's likely that the names they pick for their villages, cities, mountains and rivers reflect that in some manner. Maybe a mountain has a name that means ‘mighty’ or ‘divine’ or maybe it has a name that means ‘protector’. The capital might boast some kind of magical or divine grace, and its name might reflect that. Or it might sit on a location that is considered very strategic or sacred, and that's where it gets its name from.

Or you might turn it on its head, and give it a name that is at odds with the land, and have history or legend behind that name.

I also find that going into the old versions of the languages of the peoples from which my fantasy realm is inspired helps a lot: old words or roots of words from that can be a great basis for building your world's names. Same goes for current languages around the world, too, which can be used for the same purpose, mixing and matching roots together to create a new one.

As with the real world, prefixes and suffixes can go a long way to giving your world a distinct flavor for each realm it has. I tend to group certain suffixes and dedicate them to a specific realm as having originated from there, and do the same for all of them. Then, village or area names that are close to the borders of the realms tend to have a mix of the groups, because no matter where the borders are in a land, people mix across them culturally and historically.

If I have a river that runs through more than one realm, I tend to have derivatives of the same name that reflect the style of names matching each realm. Kinda like Danube is ‘Dounavis’ in Greek.

How do you tackle naming places in your world?

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bravo1102 at 2:22AM, Nov. 28, 2020

Then there is how pronunciation and spelling change over time. Like "th" often becomes "d" and vice versa. There are any number of studies of English place names and naming conventions. Lots of quaint names are old words for something that have fallen out of use. Some cultural names mean simply "people" and where they live means "home".

bravo1102 at 2:11AM, Nov. 28, 2020

There are sites where you can plug in your suffix or prefix and it'll give you a pile of variations. There are also name lists for various groups. Then there are wonderfully detailed maps that can provide plenty of inspiration for places. You'd be surprised how many place names are bad attempts at writing down another language and how many borrowed names there are that can be comically literal. A desert land could be named "hot oven land" for example.

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