Glossing over a lot of detail, Tolkien invented Elvish, then wrote poems and songs in it, then created a people, a history, and a world to go with it. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings rose out of that (along with additional work, collated by his son). He spent huge amounts of time polishing that, and set expectations for a deeply constructed world. (DrLori has gone into great detail on the development and Tolkien’s influence in the Language of the Night series of diaries. The entire series is worth perusing.)
Weirdly, the piece that lodged itself into my brain, starting my own love of constructed languages (conlangs), was the note about the name of the Brandywine River. In Sindarin (Elvish), it’s “Baranduin”, or “brown river”, and “Brandywine” is a (sort of punny) name based on the Elvish.
Here we have an example of a very Hobbit name (Brandywine) and a faux etymology to lend it history, depth, and entwine Sindarin into the world that’s been created.
Tolkien’s Elvish is, of course, a conlang. It’s also very much a significant achievement to create a good one, one that lasts.
While there are many resources for building a conlang (and I’ve known a few people who’ve attempted it), one place to start is the Language Construction Kit (Mark Rosenfelder, zompist.com). He has tips for where human sounds fall, adjusting for alien skull/mouth shapes, how to build a language, and even an example page to create syllables for you (once you’ve decided on how words are constructed). The ebook goes into even more detail than what’s on the web.
Interestingly, the ebook/print version was also where I first encountered something I’d seen but never seen put into a rule. Tolkien’s Dark Speech is built largely from voiced consonants, glottals, and plosives, which gives it a harsh sound to our ears. (I used this idea for a species in my fantasy WIP that becomes evil when they practice violence, and the main characters encounter a pre-changed version for the first time. They know the violent version of the language, and the peaceful precursor is full of unvoiced sounds that soften the speech significantly.)
Of course, building an entire language is a heavy, heavy lift. Very few people do it, and even some major examples, like Klingon, have collaborative efforts or are built by people who specialize in such efforts. Or both. Marc Okrand’s Klingon was created for Star Trek III and codified in The Klingon Dictionary, starting from a phrase or two improvised by James Doohan in the original TV series. It’s been expanded upon since as well, and even has a group dedicated to spreading the word. For the LOTR movies, the Dark Speech was expanded by a specialist, who also helped the actors learn their lines in Elvish.
There are two obvious short cuts.
One, taken by Harry Harrison, is to use an existing conlang. He was active in Esperanto circles, used the language noticeably in the Stainless Steel Rat series, and here and there elsewhere. Not only as a language, but also sneaking it in as place names (e.g. Camp Abomeno (“Camp Abomination”) or Ŝlimmarĉo (“Slime-swamp”)).
The other is to create only enough of a language to have a “naming language”. This can create a unity in construction, and requires a great deal less effort. A few key words (say, some animals and vegetation, “city”, “harbor”, “village”, “mountain”, “river”, and you can name dozens of sites), a little care in consonant and vowel selection, and it feels full. And if you ever need more depth, it gives an instant starting place.
Eagle’s wood, River’s mouth, Tall mountain, Lion’s heart, Deer’s forest, Storm’s rock, all become quite evocative when paired with invented syllables. Couple it with some professions or words for person, and character names can be built, too.
Now, all of this is great for secondary world fantasy, and, frankly, it’s easy to get lost in. Or, worse, if you’re prone to enjoying the act of creation, it’s a great way to procrastinate a few years. (Hey, I did this! I lost far more writing sessions to inventing a language for a species that never spoke it, had only a handful of named characters and places, and appeared in the latter half of a single novella. Whoops! Mind you, loving the act of world-building is probably why I kept being tapped to be the GM in the tabletop RPGs I used to play...)
What about worlds closely related to our own? Or an alternate version of our world?
The language is already there, the history is already there. Let’s say one wanted to create a fictionalized city somewhere on the east coast. We have the history, just decide when it came into being. 1600s/1700s? Go with what the primary colonial era did, frequently named after the colonizers (oh, sorry, “settlers”) or for place names in England. Digging through, say, eastern Virginia pops up many very, very British or Scottish placenames. Find a few that haven’t been used, sprinkle them somewhere. There’s a Norfolk, Gloucester, Windsor, Richmond, and Surry already, why not throw in a Leicester? There’s a prominent fictional family in your story, why not name a town and several streets, parks, and buildings after them?
Of course, one can use baby name lists for characters. They’re handy and easily researched, but don’t forget to account for birth year! Using one from the early 1900s for twentysomethings in a story set in the 2020s might feel “off” (Gerald, Edna, and Mabel? Wot?), but three siblings named Ronald, Harold, and Hermione (or, be more obscure, maybe Jean) would fit perfectly.
However, for a quick (and kind of ridiculous) hack I found on Mastodon (but can no longer find the source for): If you’re writing in a coffee shop, and you need to name a character quickly, use the next name called out by the barista for an order.
What is your approach to naming? Do you do world-building, or does it grow on its own as needed (or a mix of both)?
Exercise: The word generator linked above gave me tibiku, akredu, grupiga, odae, pleditra, and piabra (among many others). Find a use for at least three of them, potentially with a faux etymology or meaning in the symbols, as place names, species names, and/or character names.
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