Inventing place names for a fantasy world

Happy New Year!

Right now the world is completely crazy, so please excuse me for wanting to escape it for a bit!

Due to us having re-entered lockdown here in Scotland, leaving my home for a non-essential purpose is currently not an option, so my only way of “getting away” is to visit another world in my head.

It’s probably no surprise, then, that the book I’m currently working on is a fantasy story. One thing I’ve been thinking a lot about this last week is how to name the towns and cities of my fantasy world.

As I’ve discovered, naming fictitious locations is a lot harder than naming characters! I’ve come up with a process that makes it easy, though, so I thought I’d share it with you.

What’s in a name?

Making up a new place name isn’t just a case of coming up with a new word that sounds cool. That doesn’t work because names convey things.

For example (let me just open Google Maps…), if I were to ask you where Erisklund or Torpshammar are, then even if you didn’t know, you’d probably guess that they’re either in Scandinavia or Iceland – and you’d be right! They’re both in Sweden.

(I literally just scrolled across the North Sea from Scotland to Sweden and picked those two names at random.)

If I were to name some other places, then I reckon you’d be able to identify roughly where in the world they are, be that the Middle East or the Far East or Sub-Saharan Africa or some other area. You’d be able to do this purely based on how each place name sounds when it’s said aloud or how it looks when it’s written down.

What does this mean for naming fantasy locations?

When you create a fantasy world, you have to decide if you want readers to associate it (or at least a particular area of it) with somewhere in the real world.

Sci-fi writers often don’t want readers to associate alien planets with somewhere on Earth – they want their planets to feel strange and different – so they give those planets names beginning with a Z or X. Those letters aren’t used a whole lot in English, so names that include those letters automatically sound a bit different or “alien”.

In my case, though, my fantasy story is set on an island not dissimilar to Britain, and as such it makes sense for my place names to sound like British place names. I don’t want to use actual British place names, though. What, then, should I do?

Onomastics and toponymy

Well, we can take some tips from the field of onomastics (the study of proper names) and its subfield toponymy (the study of place names).

Various languages have influenced British place names. Wales and Scotland, for example, naturally have many place names derived from Welsh and Gaelic.

In England too there are a few Celtic influences (for example, the town of Crewkerne in Somerset). Some place names also show the influence of Latin or Norman French. On the whole, though, most English place names are derived from Old English (that’s English as it was spoken in the centuries before the Norman Invasion of 1066).

Thanks to the Viking invasions, there are also a fair number of place names derived from Old Norse.

How does this help us?

Based on how real English place names were formed, I’ve devised the following simple process for coming up with fantasy place names that sound like genuine English place names:

  1. Pick an Old English word that describes some aspect of the place (try using the Old English Translator).
  2. Add a common Old English suffix for place names (see table below).
-bourne, -burnLarge stream or small riverAshbourne, Blackburn
-bury, -borough, -brough, -burghFortCanterbury, Scarborough, Middlesbrough, Edinburgh
-daleValleyCalderdale, Wensleydale
-fordFordOxford, Watford
-ingPeople ofReading, Hastings
-hamFarm or homesteadBirmingham, Durham
-hurstWooded hillChislehurst, Staplehurst
-leyClearingBarnsley, Burnley
-minsterLarge church or monasteryWestminster, Leominster
-mouthMouth of a riverPortsmouth, Plymouth
-pool, -portHarbourBlackpool, Newport
-steadPlace or enclosed pastureHampstead, Tunstead
-stowPlace or meeting placePadstow, Chepstow
-tonEnclosure or estateBolton, Brighton
-wick, -wichProduce of a farmChiswick, Greenwich
-worthEnclosureKenilworth, Tamworth

For example, the Old English word for “mill” is mylen. We could combine this with the suffix -dale (valley) to invent the fictitious place name Mylendale. That sounds all right, doesn’t it?

What about Old Norse?

Of course, if you’d rather a place name that’s English with a hint of Viking, just try this alternative process:

  1. Pick an Old Norse word that describes some aspect of the place (try using Ross G. Arthur’s English–Old Norse Dictionary).
  2. Add one of the common Old Norse suffixes for place names (see table below).
-bySettlement or villageDerby, Rugby
-thorpeSecondary settlementMablethorpe, Scunthorpe
-thwaiteClearing or paddockBraithwaite, Crosthwaite
-toftHomesteadLangtoft, Lowestoft

You could even try combining an Old English word with an Old Norse suffix or vice versa. It’s not a crime – some real English place names do that!

What about non-English place names?

Perhaps you don’t want the towns and cities of your fantasy world to sound like they could be English place names. No problem!

In that case, take a bit of time to learn how place names were typically formed in your language of choice (for example, were there particular suffixes that were commonly used?). Next, simply follow that process to make up your own place names.

Good luck with your worldbuilding!

Image credit: Jr Korpa on Unsplash