AOH :: INV-LANG.TXT|
How to invent an alien language
Title : Invent Your Own Language
Keywords: MODEL LANGUAGE LANGUAGES TOLKIEN ELVISH ESPERANTO NEOLOGISM
Not content learning Klingon? Want to invent your own language for
Vulcans, Romulans, Hortas or your favorite alien? Here's how to!
This is the second issue of _Model Languages_, the on-line newsletter
discussing imaginary languages. It provides a detailed tutorial on how to
invent your own model languages, which are great for adding believability
to stories, novels and role-playing games.
The newsletter discussing newly imagined words for newly imagined worlds
Volume I, Issue 2 -- June 1, 1994
INVENTING A LANGUAGE FOR NAMING PEOPLE AND PLACES
"My name is Alice, but-"
"It's a stupid name enough!" Humpty Dumpty interrupted impatiently;
"What does it mean?"
"Must a name mean something?" Alice asked doubtfully.
"Of course it must," Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: "my name
means the shape I am -- and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a
name like yours, you might be any shape, almost."
-- from Lewis Carroll, _Through the Looking Glass_
Despite Humpty Dumpty's comment, Alice could not be just any shape --
her name actually summons forth an image of someone who is simple and
proper, according to surveys conducted to determine the impressions
people have of different names. All names have perceptions attached to
Etymologically speaking, Alice's name is from the Greek for "truth".
Most American and European names have become simple labels, their
original meanings forgotten. How many people realize that a name like
_Jeffrey Henning_, if translated literally, means "Godfriend
Meadowlark"? Meanwhile, Indian names like "Dances With Wolves" (to take
a bad example) wear their etymologies on their sleeves.
If you are fascinated by the origins of names, then you will be happy to
learn that a naming language is one of the most useful types of model
languages to create -- and one of the easiest, making a great first
language for the hobbyist. A naming language can be less complex than
other model languages, since it does not need a detailed grammar and
since it can get by with a small vocabulary: with just 150 words
(revealed below), you can generate millions of names for imaginary
people and places. Once you've read this issue, you'll be able to
create two or three naming languages in as little as a half hour, though
you'll end up fascinated by your creations and will spend many more
hours on them.
To begin creating any type of model language, you must be able to create
words in that language. To create words, you need to understand sounds,
meaning, sound change and so forth. This issue will introduce you to
the basic aspects of language; subsequent issues of _Model Languages_
will explore each one in more depth.
The vocabulary of languages is constantly changing, as technology
changes and as our understanding changes. Twenty years ago no one
talked of faxes, PCs or being on-line. No one had heard of perestroika.
Things were still groovy, nizza, happening. Besides adding and retiring
words, languages put new spins on old words: _gay_ now primarily refers
to "homosexuality", not "happiness"; _liberal_ now is almost a curse,
referring to "favoring governmental power" when it once meant "favoring
governmental power to promote social progress". These word changes are
not surprising. Any of us can look over the linguistic landscape of our
lives and see how the terrain has changed. If you project this forward
a thousand years, it is easy to see how the shape of a language's
vocabulary will go through major upheaval.
It's harder to see that the grammar of the language, the way we put
words together, will change too. While saying _hopefully_ is still
frowned upon, it is no longer viewed as completely ungrammatical. The
pronoun _them_ is often used to refer to one person, rather than the
plural it is formally meant to refer to; in casual conversation and
writing, _them_ is now the gender-indifferent alternative to _he_ or
_she_ (incidentally, as it was four hundred years ago, before pedantic
grammarians -- yes, _them_ -- stepped in). Looking a thousand years
out, other grammatical distinctions will have been leveled, revealing
new horizons behind them.
Finally, it can be hard to realize that the very sounds we use for words
change. It's not hard to believe the occasional word changes, such as
knowing that _cup board_ is now pronounced _cupboard_, the [p] sound
having assimilated to the following [b]. It is harder to believe that
English words that now begin with [p] and date from Indo-European all
began with [b] in Indo-European times. Such systemic changes, where a
sound changes throughout the entire vocabulary, happen gradually.
To imagine how it happens, think of a dialect, such as the Bostonian's
"idear about whether the cah is pahked in Hahvahd yahd". Sound changes
systematically when these dialectal differences become emulated and
become the new accepted pronunciations. Imagine an alternate universe
where JFK served out 8 years as the U.S. President, and was succeeded by
8 years of RFK, who was followed by 8 years of Teddy (it had to happen
in some universe!). No doubt in that universe the Bostonian accent
became American English's new standahd.
Basic sound changes do not happen suddenly like earthquakes buckling the
landscape, but gradually like water eroding a shoreline. Language
change is for the most part slow, since change is on the whole
discouraged. The whole point of language is for people to be able to
make themselves understood to each other, and this happens best in an
environment where the language changes no faster than the land at the
Language change is important because it shows the best way for you to
invent a model language -- by making changes to an existing language
(whether natural or a model).
AN ANCESTRAL LANGUAGE -- THE GRANDMOTHER TONGUE
Every person alive today has or had a mother. Similarly, every mother
tongue spoken by all these people had an ancestral language that it
evolved out of. Even Proto-Indo-European, the reconstructed ancestor
language of hundreds of European and Indian languages, had an ancestral
language it evolved out of: Nostratic, which some linguists hypothesize
was also the ancestor to five other proto-languages. Since Nostratic
itself is most likely descended from another language, records of the
first language are no more knowable than records of Adam.
The ramifications for the language modeller are that the language he or
she creates should not spring fully armed from the head of Zeus like
Athena, but should derive from its own parent language. Most model
languages are unknown orphans, when a pedigree would not have been hard
to provide. Tolkien is one of the few modelers to actually create an
ancestor tongue, which he used to derive many different Elvish languages
for _The Lord of the Rings_, of which the best known are Quenya and
"Wait a minute," you might be thinking, "are you saying that to create a
model language I first have to create another model language? Where
does that language come from? When does it end?" Tolkien again
provides the best example; he created root words in a _proto-language_;
he imagined that the elves would have reconstructed their ancestral
language, much as Europeans reconstructed Indo-European. Proto-
languages are elaborate hypothetical constructions and, as hypotheses,
are fuzzy around the edges: nothing but the bones of an extinct
dinosaur, while the exact color of its flesh can never be known. A
proto-language, therefore, can be a simpler form of model language.
The benefit of creating a proto-language is that it makes it easier to
create sister languages to the model language you are chiefly interested
in (what, more languages?!), enabling you to formulate new words based
on regularly sound changes (more on this in it a minute). It also makes
it easier to coin words in your desired model language, providing a rich
system of root words to use to derive new words. So creating a proto-
language can save you time.
The easiest way to save time on your first model language is to use an
existing language as the proto-language. I once worked on a science
fiction story set aboard a colony whose original settlers had been 20th-
century Italians and Spaniards, who -- through centuries of living
together -- had created a new, simpler language. By using Italian as
the ancestor language, with many borrowings from Spanish, I not only
made it easier to create a new language but I taught myself some Italian
and Spanish as well!
If you are writing about a story that has taken place in the last 10,000
years and is set in Europe or India, you might even use Proto-Indo-
European as the ancestral language for your languages. Check out _The
Roots Of English_ by Robert Claiborne for an easily readable discussion
of Indo-European roots, or check out the appendix to _The American
Heritage Dictionary of the English Language_, published by Houghton
Mifflin; both works are biased in emphasizing those roots from which
English words descended, but make good starting points for devising a
To create your language, you need to decide which sounds you want
speakers to distinguish. Basically, while it would be easy to think
that the sound [t] is exactly the same, [t] actually describes a range
of sounds, all closely approximating one another. The way you position
your tongue when saying [t] will vary depending on what other sounds you
say before or after it, but we both articulate [t] similarly enough to
recognize it as the same thing.
There is no objective reference that says a language must have any
particular sound. For instance, Old English did not distinguish between
the sounds [f] and [v] or [s] and [z]. The plural of [hoof] was
pronounced [hoovz] but it was not until later times that speakers
treated the \f\ sound in the singular as different from the \f\ sound in
the plural. In Old English times, there could be no word [vat]
different from [fat] -- such a distinction was just not made.
Gradually, the sounds came to be heard as distinct.
So when creating the sounds of your language, you need to realize that
they will only approximate English sounds, not exactly match them, and
might not reflect distinctions currently made in English. The [hw]
sound in _whale_ might be regarded by your speakers as the same as the
[w] sound in _wail_ (yes, they are different sounds, but you might have
to listen closely as you pronounce them to tell the difference).
You can certainly include in your language sounds that are not part of
English, say the French vowels, typically pronounced with the lips
rounded, or the expectorating [kh] of Hebrew and Yiddish, let alone the
clicking sounds of the Hottentots and Bushmen. However, you should
refrain from having too many unusual sounds in your language; you want
your readers to be able to pronounce your words without too much
difficulty. Simply having regular sounds combined in unique ways (e.g.,
_sretan_, or _tsedet_) will be enough to convince them it is a unique
Languages are very strict about how sounds are combined. English, for
instance, allows words to begin with [sn-], but never [zn-]. The rules
English uses could fill pages, but as a modeler you want to just hint at
complexity. You may want to have a combination that is unusual in
English and make it frequent in your language: for instance, have some
words begin with [sr-], [kn-], [kth-], [tl-], but here again restraint
is the order of the day.
As you specify how sounds can be combined, you may want to outline valid
syllables. Your language might only allow syllables of CVC
(Consonant+Vowel+Consonant) or just CV or VC. Some languages, like
Japanese or Korean, have very strict limits on how syllables can be
formed, making it possible to list all the valid syllables of the
language. But where Hawaiian allows just 162 different syllables, Thai
has 23,638 syllables.
Two languages can have the exact same consonants and vowels and yet
sound very different, depending on the syllable patterns and on the
frequency of the consonants and vowels. You may want to list the sounds
that occur most often. By paying rigorous attention to this when
developing the proto-language, you can relax a little more during
creation of the descendant language, which will carry on many of the
same frequency patterns, though applied to different sounds as the
Many languages have very simple vowel systems. Eskimo-Aleut has just
three vowels (the smallest number ever observed), while Spanish and
Japanese each has five vowels. The typical language has between 5 and 7
vowels, but Indo-European languages usually have more; English has 12,
and German has 14. The African language Khoisan has the record with 24
Languages have been observed to have anywhere from six consonants
(Rotokas) to 95 (Khoisan), with an average of 22.8 consonants. The
typical language has twice as many consonants as vowels. The most
common consonants include [p], [b], [t], [d], [k], [g], [gh], [f], [s],
[sh], [m], [n], [ng], [gng], [w], [l], [r], [j] and [h].
For a great discussion of the sound structure of languages, check out
_The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language_ by David Crystal.
Over time, sounds gradually change in certain circumstances. John F.
Kennedy, like many Bostonians, would drop his last [-r] from words like
[car], while adding an [-r] to _Cuba_ [cubar] and _idea_ [idear]. As
alluded to before, had enough Americans adopted this, it would have been
considered a regular sound change and many other words might have
undergone this change. Or listen to the dialect of Brooklyn, where
[bird] becomes [boyd], for instance; someday all English speakers might
pronounce [ir] as [oy]. No doubt, through the rise of one dialect in
Old English, the sound [sk] was gradually becoming [sh].
Over great periods of time, these changes become more pronounced.
Literally and figuratively.
Here are some common ways consonants evolve into one another:
b <---> gw
b <---> p
b <---> v
ch <---> kw
d <---> g
d <---> t
d <---> th
f <---> p
f <---> v
g <---> d
g <---> k
g <---> w
g <---> y
g <---> z
gu <---> gw
gw <---> b
gw <---> d
gw <---> g
gw <---> gu
gw <---> k
gw <---> ku
gw <---> kw
gw <---> v
gw <---> y
gw <---> zh
h <---> hy
h <---> k
h <---> s
h <---> y
hv <---> hw
hw <---> hv
hw <---> kw
hw <---> p
k <---> g
k <---> gw
k <---> h
k <---> kw
k <---> s
k <---> th
kh <---> kw
ku <---> gw
ku <---> kw
kv <---> kw
kw <---> ch
kw <---> gw
kw <---> hw
kw <---> k
kw <---> kh
kw <---> ku
kw <---> kv
kw <---> p
kw <---> sh
kw <---> t
l <---> r
p <---> *-
p <---> b
p <---> f
p <---> hw
p <---> pf
pf <---> p
r <---> l
s <---> h
s <---> k
sh <---> kw
t <---> d
t <---> th
t <---> z
th <---> d
th <---> k
th <---> t
v <---> b
v <---> f
v <---> gw
v <---> w
w <---> g
w <---> v
y <---> *-
y <---> g
y <---> gw
y <---> h
y <---> z
z <---> g
z <---> t
z <---> y
zh <---> gw
This list is not meant to be all inclusive, just representative of
changes that occurred in Indo-European.
Likelihood Of Sound Change
# Of IE Languages Where IE Initial Consonant Changed
You can use the above table as a rough guide to determine which
consonants are more likely to undergo change. It is not representative
of all languages, being an analysis of 12 languages descended from
Proto-Indo-European and showing the number of languages where the
consonant in the word-initial position changed. The languages analyzed
were Armenian, Avestan, Common Germanic, Greek, Hittite, Latin,
Lithuanian, Old Church Slavonic, Old Irish, Old Persian, Sanskrit, and
The nasals, [n] and [m], are fairly stable, as are the liquids [l] and
[r]. The stops [p], [t] and their voiced counterparts [b] and [d]
change in only a third of the languages. All aspirated consonants
changed in every language analyzed, being markedly unstable; [k] and
[g] and their glide forms [kw] and [gw] were also more likely to change
Sound changes actually vary by position, with a sound change applying to
different places -- the [s] might become [h] at the beginning of a word,
[k] in the middle of a word and [z] at the end of a word (though this is
an extreme example). For simplicity's sake, you may just want to apply
the same changes regardless of position.
Besides these phonetic changes, there are often "environmental" changes
in words, where sounds change because of the sounds they are near. The
following examples illustrate the major types of sound change.
-- Regressive or anticipatory, a sound is influenced by the following
next sound: English [cupbord] became [cubbord]; the word _assimilation_
is itself an example: Latin __adsimula_-re_ became _assimula_-re_, since
[ad-]_ regularly assimilated to [as-]_ before the [s] sound.
-- Progressive, a sound is influenced by a preceding sound
-- Coalescent or reciprocal, when two neighboring sounds influence one
another: _don't you_ becomes pronounced [donchu]
Dissimulation -- sound moves away from the pronunciation of neighboring
sound: French _marbre_ became English _marble_ as the second [r] became
dissimilar from the first.
Split - a sound becomes regarded as two distinct sounds, such as Old
English \s\ compared to Modern English \s\ and \z\ (Old English's
failure to distinguish between the sounds is one of the reasons many
Modern English words are written with 's' when [z] is pronounced)
Metathesis -- two sounds change places, _third_ from Old English
Elision -- sounds are omitted (elided) in rapid speed, often dropping a
consonant from a cluster of consonants: [cubbord] became [cubord];
elision specifically refers to loss of an unstressed vowel or syllable:
_elementary_ becomes pronounced [elementry] when the final schaw sound
Loss -- a sound disappears from the language altogether, as the velar
fricative, a variant of /h/ (and the final sound of Scottish _loch_),
did in English, with only a vestige remaining in English spelling: the
common silent 'gh' of English words like _light_, _night_, _sight_,
which were once pronounced [likht], [nikht] and [sikht].
Haplology -- the loss of a sequence of sounds because of similarity of
neighboring sounds: should this ever be called _haplogy_ it will have
undergone haplology itself.
Syncope -- the loss of medial sounds, as _boatswain_ lost the [t] sound
as it was shortened to _bosun_ ([bosun] is the correct pronunciation of
_boatswain_, by the way, never [bo_-tswa_-n]).
Apocope -- the loss of final sounds, as in the silent 'e' in words like
_love_ and _hate_; of course, the silent 'e' used to be pronounced.
Liaison -- introduction of a sound between words, as in French when the
silent final consonant of a word is pronounced when the next word begins
with a vowel.
Prothesis -- introduction of an extra initial sound, as occurred in
Spanish and Old French, which frequently inserted an [e] sound before an
initial [sp]: for instance, Latin _specia_-is_ became Old French
Epenthesis -- introduction of extra medial sound, as Old English _bre_-
mel_ became Old English _braembel_.
You can quickly generate more than one language by inventing different
sound change rules for each language. So perhaps the Dilbertian [d]
becomes [t] in Dogbertian, whereas it becomes [th] in Dinobertian. Or
take a look at how the names James, John and Katherine have evolved in
seven different languages:
English James John Katherine
French Jacques Jean Catherine
German Jakob Johann Katharina
Italian Giacomo Giovanni Caterina
Spanish Jaime Juan Catalina
Swedish Jakob John, Johan Karin, Katerina
Yiddish Dzheymz Yohan Katerine
Source: _Webster's Third New International Dictionary_
Names vary idiosyncratically and do not always evolve according to the
regular sound changes that affect other words. Thus the English towns
of _Luton_ and _Leyton_ are -- despite their differences -- both derived
from the same word, _Lygetun_, "farm by the river Lea" (the river Lea,
incidentally, may either mean "bright one" or may represent the name of
a river god, _Lugus_).
Names get shortened frequently; for instance, _Johann_, _Giovanni_ and
_Yohan_ all indicate that there used to be an [a] sound after before the
[n] in _John_ and that the silent [h] in _John_ used to be pronounced,
and still is in German, Swedish and Yiddish.
When inventing your own language, you can go all out -- inventing your
own alphabet or even hieroglyphs to accompany it. You can have
spellings that represent scholarly thinking about how the word derived,
so that the word sounding like [gramilt] is actually spelled
'kramillid', for instance, because lexicographers believe the word
[gramilt] used to be pronounced [kramillid]. You can invent new symbols
or use old symbols to represent sounds, so that 'pra@t!so>r' is
pronounced... oh, never mind.
Or, you can spare users of your language a lot of difficulty; you can
strive for a system of spelling that is phonetic. Since learning a new
language is difficult enough, this is the course I recommend. Yes, I'm
hooked on phonics.
Be warned, however, that even a phonetic representation can present
difficulties, if you yourself are mistaking English spellings and
conventions for actual pronunciations. For instance, if you were
representing English phonetically, you might think that you could
specify that the plural was regularly formed by adding [-s] to the end
of a word. While this is true for [cat], it is not true for [dog],
whose plural is actually pronounced [dogz]; [church], for its part, has
a plural of [churchez]. So make sure your phonetic spelling really
describes the sound you want.
One problem with phonetic spelling is that words are pronounced
differently in different circumstances: the word _a_ can be pronounced
[ei] or as [@] (schwa), _and_ can be pronounced [@nd], [@n] or [n],
depending on whether or not the speaker is placing emphasis on them.
While you can use special characters for sounds, it will be easier on
your readers if you transcribe them using conventional letters. The
letter 'h' is great for forming digraphs; you might say that 'rh'
represents a trilled [r] sound, or that 'mh' might be an aspirated [m]
(sounding similar to [v]), or that 'dh' represents the voiced _th_ in
_then_, while 'th' represents the unvoiced _th_ in _thin_.
Your spelling may even reflect a regular sound change of the language.
For instance, in German, the final 'b' in a word sounds like [p], the
final 'd' like [t], and the final 'g' like [k], so 'Korb' is pronounced
[korp], 'Band' [bant] and 'Tag' [tak].
Once you have created sounds, you can begin generating words. Words are
nothing more than sounds arbitrarily linked to meanings. Onomatopoeia
refers to sounds that are imitative, such as _arf_, _bark_ or _bow-wow_
for the sounds a dog makes. Most words are not onomatopoetic. Tolkien
once remarked that he found _cellar door_ to be an incredibly beautiful
series of sounds, though the meaning was not worthy of it. So don't
slave over matching sounds to words. If you spend all your time
thinking about the exact sound each word should have you'll never flesh
out your vocabulary.
It can make learning new words somewhat easier if they have to follow
specific patterns depending on parts of speech. Your language might
require the root form of all verbs to end in [-r] and all nouns might
end in a vowel.
A naming language does not need a complex grammar. The only grammatical
decision you really need to make is how to form compound words: should
the modifier proceed or follow the word being modified. Assume you have
a language with the word _kwan_ for "dog" and _kooz_ for "house". Does
the phrase _kwan kooz_, then, mean "doghouse" or "house dog"?
Many common names were formed from surprisingly few elements. If you
coin just 150 words in a model language, you will be able to generate
millions of distinct names.
I analyzed about 300 common English and European names to come up with
the following tables of common meanings underlying these names.
ADJECTIVES FOR PROPER NAMES
NOUNS FOR PROPER NAMES
You can use these tables to generate names in the following ways:
adjective1: "Pure" (_Katherine_)
adjective1 + adjective2: "Noble and Shining" (_Alberta_)
adjective1 + noun1: "Chief Protector" (_Howard_)
noun1 + noun2: "Elf Ruler" (_Avery_)
adjective1 + adjective2 + noun1: "Noble, Brave Warrior" (_Gunther_)
adjective1 + noun1 + noun2: "Strong Warrior Twin"
adjective1 + adjective2 + noun1 + noun2: "Young Bear-like Battle
You can use these tables to generate almost all the names you need.
Theoretically you could use these tables to generate 6.3 million names.
Feel free to use a few elements that you like in many different names;
for example, "famous" in Anglo-Saxon was represented by _hroth_ and is
contained in the following names: _Rodney_ ("famous"), _Robert_
("famous brightness"), _Roland_ ("most famous of the land"), _Roderick_
("famous ruler"), _Rudolph_ ("famous wolf") and _Roger_ ("famous
spear"). _Roger_, incidentally, was spelled _Hrothgar_ in Old English,
and is the name of the beleaguered king in _Beowulf_.
You can easily flesh out the above tables to better represent the
culture of the people who will speak your model language. For instance,
islanders would not name people after wolves and foxes, but after
predators peculiar to their locale, such as sharks and octopuses. Their
names would reflect people's relationship to the sea: sailors, divers,
swimmers and beachcombers. The tools they would refer to would not be
swords and spears, but tridents and hooks. The adjectives they would
use would likewise reflect their environment: unsinkable, seaworthy and
If you want to add additional words to these tables, check out the
etymologies of real names; one good source is _The Baby Boomer's Name
Game_ by Christopher Andersen, which includes a basic etymological
dictionary of 2,500 common names.
The names of people and places are intimately related. For instance,
_Winslow_ (a town in Buckinghamshire, England) is named after _Wine_ (an
Old English name meaning "friend") and means something like "Wine's
hill", "Wine's burial mound" or perhaps even "Wine's estate at the
burial mound". In turn, _Winslow_ is a man's first name and means "from
Winslow". Many place names become first or last names in this way, and
these in turn might inspire new place names; some other town of Winslow
might be named after a fellow named Winslow -- and so it goes.
Most names refer to a natural feature, such as a river, a hill or a
forest, or to a man-made construction, such as a fort, a road or a
burial mound. Place names are very seldom taken from an event that may
have happened there, such as a battle or a coronation, but do sometimes
take names from recurring events -- a field where people are regularly
executed or married (I'll refrain from comparing these activities!)
might have a name like the Hangingfield or the Weddingfield. For
instance, the village of "Kingstone" is not likely to be so named
because some king drew a sword from a stone there, but rather because
many monarchs have been coronated there (or stoned there, depending on
the kingdom's traditions!).
Place names in the British Isles tend to be formed from 50 basic root
meanings, which are given below. These 50 meanings can be combined to
give 2450 different names, and can be combined to form millions more
when combined with names involving people (e.g., _Boston_, "Botwulf's
stone"; the ending is not _-ton_, "town", but _-ston_).
MEANING ENGLISH/IRISH/WELSH WORD ELEMENT
bridge Pont-, -bridge
church Eccle(s)-, Kil(l)-, Kirk-, Llan-, -church
dwelling -wich, -wick
enclosure Lis-, -wardine, -worth
farm -ton, -by
fort Caer-, -b(o)rough, -burgh, -bury
fort (old fort) -caster, -c(h)ester
fort (ring fort) Rath-
highland Blaen-, -head
hill Bryn-, Dun-, -don
holy place -stead, -stede, -stow
home farm -hampton
homestead Bally-, -ham(stead), -hampstead
island Ennis-, -ey
moor -more, -moor
mountain peak Ben-
people of -ing(s)
place Stock-, Stoke-
port Port-, -port
river mouth Aber-, Bel(la)-, Inver-, -mouth
secondary settlement -stock, -stoke, -thorpe
stream -b(o)urne, -well
tree -tree, -try
valley Glen-, Strath-, -dale
valley (narrow) -combe
valley (wooded) -den
wood Rhos-, Ros-, Ross-, -wood
wooded angle of land -shot(t)
woodland -ley, -le, -leigh
Source: Adapted from _Dictionary of Place Names in the British
Isles_, by Adrian Room
Place names can be formed from combinations of the affixes listed above
and from other place names and proper names:
affix1 + affix2: "New Town" (_Newton_)
affix1 + affix2 + affix3: "New Town on the Moor" (_Newtonmore_)
affix1 + affix2 + placename: "New Town in Mearns [a county]" (_Newton
placename1 + affix1: "Newton-of-the-Abbey" (_Newton Abbot_)
placename + propername: _Newton Stewart_ [after William Stewart]
propername + placename: "Hynca's Enclosure" (_Hinxworth_)
Often when you analyze a place name, you will find that a river runs
through it: _Exeter_ (from _Exchester_) means "fortification on the
river Exe", _Exmoor_ is "moorland along Exe", _Exmouth_ is at the mouth
of Exe, while _Exwick_ is a "farm by the Exe".
_Exe_ itself means simply "water", from the British Celtic _isca_.
(This may seem boring, but _isca_ is part of "the water of life" that
entered English -- through Scottish Gaelic -- as _whiskey_!) Many names
of rivers, mountains and other features of the landscape come from
general words. Imagine an Englishman pointing to a river and asking,
"What do you call that?" The native Celt might have simply said _teme_,
"river", since to him or her it was "_the_ river", the prominent river
in the area and hence not in need of its actual name in typical
conversation. And thereby a noble river such as the Thames would have
To create the name of a city on a river then, you'll have to name the
river first -- and that name might derive from another language, as the
Place names often incorporated terms from other languages. For
instance, the Celtic city of _Eborakon_ -- meaning "place of Eburos (the
yew man)" -- had its name Romanicized to _Eburacum_. This name was
meaningless to the invading Saxons, who Anglicized it as _Eofor_
("boar", which had a similar sound) and appended _wi_-c_ ("dwelling
place"), to give it the name of _Eoforwi_-c_. When the Vikings invaded,
they misconstrued _wic_ as _vi_-k_ (which meant "bay" and was
inappropriate to the inland city but stuck anyway); since _Eofor_ was
meaningless to them, there was no pressure to keep the first syllables
recognizable, and the name was gradually shortened to _Jarvik_. This in
turn was later shortened to _York_, the name as it stands today and as
it may stand until the city is invaded again. York's name was not
directly affected by the fall of England to the Normans, the only
conquerors not to leave their mark on it. If the Normans' ancestors,
the Vikings, had had as little effect on the city's name, York's modern
name might very well be _Everwick_.
The history of the name _York_ reveals five waves of occupation (Celtic,
Roman, Saxon, Viking, English) and so tells a lot about the fortunes of
the city. While you do not want to go into as much detail for each name
in your own imaginary world, this history is worth creating for the most
important place names. To rival the history of York, you'd have to
invent five model languages!
In the same way you're best prepared to write a poem if you studied a
lot of poems, you're best prepared to coin a place name by studying how
other people have coined place names. To this end, I definitely
recommend reviewing an etymological dictionary like _Dictionary of Place
Names in the British Isles_, which covers over 4,000 place names. Each
name tells a story, as the name of York shows.
EXAMPLE - QUICKLY CREATE YOUR OWN NAMING LANGUAGES
The following quick sketch of three languages -- Nagada, Makata and
Negasi -- will show you how you can quickly create your own naming
The consonants of Nagada are [b], [d], [g], [s], [m], [n], [l], [r] and
[h]. The vowels are [a], [e] and [u]. The vowels differ greatly in
frequency: [a] is used about twice as often as [e], which is used
slightly more often than [u]. All syllables in Nagada follow the form
The language of Makata is descended from Nagada and showed the following
sound changes: [b] > [p], [d] > [t], [g] > [k], [m] > [n] and [n] >
The language of Negasi went through different changes from Nagada. The
only consonantal change was that of [d] > [t] > [s]. Vowels changed
depending on the syllable they appeared in:
Vowel First syllable Final syllable (if more than 1 syllable)
[a] [e] [i]
[e] [u] [a]
[u] [a] [o]
For instance, the Nagada word _naba_ became _nebi_ in Negasi.
All words in the three languages are spelled phonetically. All three
languages put the modifier before the word being modified (e.g.,
"doghouse" means "the house for dogs").
Here are the root words of Nagada and how those words appear in Makata
Nagada Makata Negasi
"bearer" _ba_ _pa_ _be_
"beloved" _naba_ _mapa_ _nebi_
"blessed" _luma_ _peta_* _lami_
"divine" _luma_ _luna_ _luna_*
"giver" _ge_ _ke_ _gu_
"healer" _dala_ _tala_ _seli_
"lily" _hama_ _hana_ _heni_
"pearl" _rele_ _rele_ _rula_
"shining" _dube_ _tupe_ _saba_
"swift" _sahu_ _sahu_ _seho_
There was not room in this short introduction to cover borrowing or
meaning change or any of the other factors that can override direct
descent from a parent language, and I will give only one example here:
Negasi borrowed _luna_ from Makata to distinguish between the meanings
of "divine" and "blessed", which were both reflected by the single word
_luma_ in Nagada. Makata, for its part, coined the word _peta_ for
"blessed" to distinguish between the two concepts.
Based on these words, here are some common names in the three languages.
Nagada Makata Negasi
"blessed pearl" _Lumarele_ _Petarele_ _Lamirula_
"divine healer" _Lumadala_ _Lunatala_ _Lunaseli_
"swift healer" _Sahudala_ _Sahutala_ _Sehoseli_
"lily giver" _Hamage_ _Hanake_ _Henigu_
"pearl bearer" _Releba_ _Relepa_ _Rulabe_
The above table assumes the meanings of the names were kept current
(like Indian names like "Dances With Wolves") rather than fossilized.
If the meanings were instead forgotten, then the Makata and Negasi forms
would have been shaped simply by changing the sounds of the words. So
Nagada _Lumarele_ would be Makata _Lunarele_, rather than _Petarele_.
If I was actually going to use these names in a story, I would spend
much more time refining them to develop an affinity between the sound of
a name and the character I wanted to represent. However, taking the
words as they are can provide insights into the imagined people. I
think _Lumarele_ is a great name for an island princess, and I can
picture _Sahudala_, the impotent witch doctor who wants her hand in
marriage, but the name of her jealous sister _Hamage_ carries with it
the stench of lilies, rather than their sweet aroma...
Please take this opportunity to create your own naming language. Submit
it to email@example.com by June 30, 1995. For each language,
please specify the following: Sounds, Sound Changes, Vocabulary (With
Etymology) and Common Names. I will select one example from all the
language systems submitted to hold up as a model for others and will
include it in next month's newsletter. The selected language system
should uniquely represent one or more cultures.
COLLABORATOR WANTED FOR "NEO-ICELANDIC"
Wanted: Collaborator to develop language for 23rd or 24th century
descendants of Icelanders who have colonized a distant planet, "latter-
day Vikings", so to speak, who have been there long enough to have their
language changed by interaction with the previous inhabitants. Someone
there would look back at the old writings and stories and see how they
apply to his life. I want the language to have changed, but not so much
that it is unrecognizable.
As you can see, this could be a major undertaking. However, I am in no
rush. There are two goals: 1) creating the language and 2) using it to
generate both subject matter and embellishment for stories. I want to
create a language that is beautiful and interesting in its grammatical
categories. Some previous knowledge of Icelandic would be helpful, but
not necessary. Interest in that language and its literature, however,
is a must.
Reply to Wayne Barnette at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You have just finished reading _Model Languages_, a regular on-line
newsletter published monthly and provided free to all interested parties
as part of the "gift economy" of the net. Feel free to post this
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To subscribe, send a message with the text SUBSCRIBE MODLANG /ST2
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in the header. I look forward to all comments, including the inevitable
corrections, and am always interested in possible articles for inclusion
in future issues.
Contents copyright 1995 Jeffrey Henning. All rights reserved.
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