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How do you use linguistics in world-building?

Kzach

Banned
Banned
I've created some very, very, very basic naming conventions for my homebrew world. These follow absolutely no linguistics rules and are simply guidelines I keep in mind when making up a new NPC name or town name or whatever.

I want to take this to the next level.

There are a bajillion fantasy name generators out there but without some basic level of understanding on how linguistics work, I can't even really begin to create any sort of template or language rule to even input into these generators.

So I wanted to start a discussion on how one would go about learning these basics and applying them to their homebrew worlds. Links are fine and all but at the end of the day, anyone can do a basic web-search and probably find those links for themselves. I'm hoping more for some level of educated discussion on the matter, or at least pointers to where said discussion could be accessed.

The aim here isn't to become a language student or even to construct an entire language, it's simply to learn and understand some of the basics behind naming conventions and how they can be applied to our settings. By this I mean that you generally can tell that a Scandinavian name sounds pretty darn Scandinavian, or a British name is usually pretty Britishy, or a Greek name, or Chinese name, etc. If someone says to you that your destination lies down Poo Fong Hung Dong lane, then generally you can safely assume you're going to Chinatown. I want that same level of language recognition for names used within a setting without necessarily requiring a degree in linguistics to accomplish it.
 

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C_M2008

First Post
Length of names is a good one - some may use 1 or two names, some might use 5, similarly other languages may use more characters in the names than others.

I think finding whats important to the culture will lead to what the name is based on. Ie: The culture finds profession important - names like smith or mason will be common. Others might be family animals/symbols/crests, honor(with differing names and titles for different "levels" of honor), social rank or ancestry, etc.

For example, honor and social standing are important; a high ranking family might have a name that ends in .....toic, a shamed family might have a prefix of ...til, a family improving it's standing would have a different prefix or suffix. You could even use both to indicate a disgraced noble house or a former slave family that has improved its fortune. The actual letters don't matter so much as that there is a clear discernable pattern that your players can notice and remember.
 

Huw

First Post
Easiest way to get started is to get a book on place name etymologies and getting reading. Failing that, most Wikipedia articles on places discuss the origin of the name.

After a few hundred, you'll start to see a pattern. British town names, for example, generally follow the pattern (someone's name)(some landmark), with a few variations.
 

LurkMonkey

First Post
I usually make up a few simple naming conventions for a fictional culture. It's fairly easy if you have a grasp on what last names were originally intended for.

Let's start with a concept: The language is called 'Fessic' from the land of Fess.

In Fessian culture, the sister's son (nephew) is the important heir. Thus a nephew will call his last name by his uncle with a prefix, say 'Fis'. So we have Scounge, and his nephew Torm. Torm's full Fessic name would be Torm FisScounge.

I also like to make up a basic vocabulary for any country. Last names are often indicators of profession. So in Fessic, we can assign a few basics:
Trolo=Miller
Marvir=Blacksmith
Gormo=Farmer

Thus, if Torm didn't have an uncle, but he was a blacksmith, he might go by Torm Marvir.

Royalty and lords often had their own set of conditionals. In Fessic, a knight might be connotated by the prefix 'Yir' and his feifdom. So if we assume that Torm was a knight, and his holding was called Chessik, he might go by Torm YirChessik. His serfs could call themselves by the place name also, with a simple prefix that means 'of' like, (switching it) 'fo'. So Kallik, a farmer on Torm's fief, could call himself Kallik FoChessik.

I find it adds subtle clues for players, and helps you shape the area by just a few simple conventions. It took me about five minutes to type, and think up a few letter combos.
 

CharlesRyan

Adventurer
I think this is really important. Nothing makes a culture seem real like a sense of consistency to the language, and the opposite is also true. I hate, hate, hate fantasy milieus in which the names are all basically mashups of random, "fantasy-sounding" syllables--I hate reading those games, and I hate that aspect of writing for them.

But I'm also no linguist.

My solution is to loosely base a given fantasy culture (or at least its language) on a real-world one. I might borrow something from the modern world (like, I dunno, Slovak), or look at the historical world (say, Saxon). I don't necessarily use real words or names, but I can make them up based on the general sound and apparent rules of the model.

It's not perfect, but it does a pretty good job for fantasy games.

Oh, and don't happen to know a lot of Saxon or Slovak names? Here's a quick fix: Look at a map, and use the names of rivers and other natural features as examples. That may not give you an authentic list of Slovak (or whatever) person names, but it meets the goal of giving you a set of words and phonemes that sound consistent and logical.
 

tuxgeo

Adventurer
I've created some very, very, very basic naming conventions for my homebrew world. These follow absolutely no linguistics rules and are simply guidelines I keep in mind when making up a new NPC name or town name or whatever.

I want to take this to the next level.

There are a bajillion fantasy name generators out there but without some basic level of understanding on how linguistics work, I can't even really begin to create any sort of template or language rule to even input into these generators.

So I wanted to start a discussion on how one would go about learning these basics and applying them to their homebrew worlds. Links are fine and all but at the end of the day, anyone can do a basic web-search and probably find those links for themselves. I'm hoping more for some level of educated discussion on the matter, or at least pointers to where said discussion could be accessed.

The aim here isn't to become a language student or even to construct an entire language, it's simply to learn and understand some of the basics behind naming conventions and how they can be applied to our settings. By this I mean that you generally can tell that a Scandinavian name sounds pretty darn Scandinavian, or a British name is usually pretty Britishy, or a Greek name, or Chinese name, etc. If someone says to you that your destination lies down Poo Fong Hung Dong lane, then generally you can safely assume you're going to Chinatown. I want that same level of language recognition for names used within a setting without necessarily requiring a degree in linguistics to accomplish it.

Achieving a kind of "language recognition for names" must include at least these two necessary factors:
1. Some kind of recognizable similarity among words of a given language. This is a trait of the language itself. If the words of the given language have many different forms, including words like "alamoana," "strictly," "tsunami," "vodka," "passerine," "yuan," "moteshaekeram," and "marathon," then few people would think that they all came from the same source; instead, many listeners or readers might think that those words come from many varied sources, not from a single language. Yes, of course I selected those words from varied sources for the purpose of this example; but this list does point out that not all words used in a given area need have the same form. The main result of this is that you need to give a greater-than-normal regularity to the words of any given fantasy language in order to let your players more easily recognize those words as being part of the same language.
2. An extensive exposure to many words of the given language. This is a trait of the person doing the recognizing. If you had never heard any Basque words, then how would you ever recognize a name as being Basque? Or, to confront your own example: Chinese does have many monosyllabic words; but if you had never been exposed to any Chinese words, you wouldn't know that; and you therefore would not easily recognize "Poo Fong Hung Dong" as being Chinese. This becomes troublesome when aiming at name recognition in fantasy languages, because you cannot reasonably expect your players to have extensive prior experience with the vocabulary.

The simplest way to achieve such language recognition for names is therefore to use names from real-world languages, because then you can reasonably expect that your players will have had at least some prior exposure to some of them. The earlier suggestion about getting place names from maps is a great idea, and can give you lots of examples.

On the other hand, if you want to build language recognition for names in a fantasy language, without creating a complete fantasy language, you do have a lot more work ahead of you!

To start with, you would want to create considerable recognizable similarity among words. One way to do this is to set some rules and follow them. (Hint: to avoid scads of work, use simple rules. . . .)

For example, the construction of Japanese words is very simple: all syllables end in a vowel except for the syllable "N" (sometimes pronounced "M"). Consonants are never set next to each other, except again for "N," which can precede other consonants without a vowel between. ("Ts" is not two consonants in Japanese; it's a single, complex one, similar to "X" being pronounced as "Ks" in English.) The only complication here is that "Na," "Ne," "Ni," "No," and "Nu" are also syllables; so consonantal "N" isn't the only use for that sound.

If you're going for simple, invented fantasy names, my advice is to avoid the complex things such as Tolkien's Dwarvish, which resembles inflected Semitic based on triliteral roots. (That gets screwy fast.)

You don't have to include more complexity in your names than you want: Number designations (single versus dual versus plural) are optional; Gender designations are optional; Person designations (I/we versus You versus he/she/it/them) are optional.

Lastly, make it extremely obvious: have language tropes that are hard to miss. Make a first language depend almost completely on vowels and the letter "H," so you would get words such as "Aeho'euhepa," which I just made up for this purpose; but make another language that can hardly get through an entire word without putting two (or three) consonants together in a row, such as the example of "strictly" that I listed above; and make a third language that uses the vowel "A" at least four times more often than any other vowel, and get things like "Anapurapana," which I also just made up for this purpose--so when your players come across a word including five (5) "A" vowels and one (1) vowel that is not "A," they know which language is being used.
 



GameDaddy

Explorer
Langmaker is your friend.

Love it, Love it, Love it! for being able to build a complete language with just some phonetics, and several hundred keywords...

The software gives my Vista fits, but runs well enough on older Windows XP and NT based systems.
 

Kzach

Banned
Banned
Langmaker is your friend.

Yeah, I've used that before but the problem with things like that is that it's like using Photoshop or Illustrator without any training, knowledge or skill in graphics. I can do stuff randomly and get a result, sure, but that's not really satisfying. I want to know the basics of how and why so that I get a desired result rather than a random one.

A good for instance is my homebrew. I want one language that SOUNDS Frenchish that I can also have an 'ancient' version of that sounds Latinish. I also want a Germanic sounding one that is derivative of that Latinish sounding one. And I want Greek one that, again, is derivative of the Latinish one. How do I do that in Langmaker without understanding the fundamentals behind how such etymologies and lexicons work?
 

pawsplay

Banned
Banned
Here's an easybake method for creating a fake language for naming purposes.

Step One: Pick a real language to steal from
This is a pretty easy step. It is important, because it is going to help you decide quickly what sounds to include or not include.
Step Two: Decide what phonemes are present in the language
For instance, Japanese does not make a meaningful distinction between "r" and "l" using various sounds halfway in between, so a fake fantasy language would use only "r" or "l" (or maybe one at the beginning of words only and the other in the middle of words, or whatever). Feel free to add or subtract a few sounds from the language you have stolen.
Step Three: Look for patterns
How many syllables? Where do stresses usually fall, at the beginning of words, or the end (or is it a mostly unstressed language)?
Step Four: Apply linguistic drift
Pick similar sounds, and see what happens if you start replacing one sound with another. Adjust to taste. For instance, a hard "C" is similar to a hard "G." What if took Spanish and started replacing hard Gs with hard Cs? Guillermo would become... Kiyermo. That's pretty fantasy sounding. Let's keep going. Guido -> Kido. Gonzalez -> Konsales. Ta-da!
Step Four: Regularize spellings
Since you probably aren't going to invent a new alphabet to go with it, standardize spellings, hardcore. For instance, in our fake Spanish language, hard Cs are always spelled K, and the "i" is always a Spanish "i." Feel free to add weird apostrophes or dashes, but decide what those marks mean and stick to it.
Step Five: Invent a grammar
Loosely, this means figure out how to pluralize, and how to use the name of the country or the language as an adjective. In English, you would say one Spaniard, two Spaniards, Spanish, and Spanish. In Japanese, the same word is frequently used without an explicit pluralization and as a compound word, rather than distinctly what English would consider an adjective or noun. In Arabic, djinni is singular, djinn is plural. Pick a few simple rules, and stick to them.
Step Six: Make Stuff Up
Using the available phonemes, other words as examples, and our invented grammer, add a few unique words.

The result will be a usable fake language. Keep in mind I am assuming a non-tonal language, and it's up to you whether you want to use rules that transform words rather than using suffixes and prefiexes to conjugate them or make them into different parts of speech. For a standard fantasy world, I wouldn't bother with anything fancy.
 

Heathen72

Explorer
Read about how the Lord of the Rings was conceived. Seriously. Tolkien was a linguist before he was a writer and Middle Earth is THE world to look to when considering building a world based on it's languages. IIRC Middle Earth was created as a place in which Elen síla lumenn’ omentielvo - A star shines on the hour of our meeting - might be said as a greeting, and it all grew from there.

Edit: this link might be of interest.
 
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Hand of Evil

Adventurer
Epic
there are a couple of factors I take in:
  • Ancient Civilizations - Was there one and how much did it expand and how long was it around. This can become your root or common tongue.
  • The Alignment of a land - Yes, there is an alignment, it is just the three; lawful, neutral, & chaotic, this is the amount of change a place may go through in a period of time. Some places like trade centers and ports can have a lot of change. Mountain kingdoms, maybe slow.
Now for the math rule of thump - anything -5 is a different language:
  • for every 500 miles linguistics change: -1 to checks
  • for every 100 years of lost civilzation: -1 to checks
  • for Lawful: +1
  • for Neutral: 0
  • for Chaotic: -1
So, a kingdom 1500 miles away from the campign area, 600 years after the fall of the Dwarven Empire, that is a chaotic land would be a different language with -10.
 


AeroDm

First Post
In this thread I posted a few generators that help introduce linguistics to the world. The general idea is that you'd create a tab for each region of the world and settle upon a lexicon. So Region A could create names by a composite of words, Region B could use harsh syllables, and Region C could blend the two with harsh syllables blending into traditional words.

The tool is designed to facilitate customization so it is pretty easy to introduce your preferences. Not all names are perfect, but they present a decent foundation that, with a little polish, can become some excellent names leading to excellent linguistics.

The selling point is that the system is premised on linguistics. This is how names were created in the real world: conventions were created and they repeated often enough that patterns emerged. Spreadsheets help patterns emerge more quickly.
 

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