My husband, who loves to help me with my problems and doesn't at all intend to complicate them :::heavy sarcasm font::: suggests that Ardu Ghaib isn't the only likely thing the Arabs might have called my world. They might have called it 'Ardul jinn' or 'Ardu nastura' (the land behind the veil). My inclination is that Ardul jinn is sadly cliche, though Ardagen is nice and tidy.

I posted this on reddit but realized I was asking the wrong question. Rather than soliciting opinions, I want to know if there is a logical or scientific way to predict how place names evolve from one language to another.

In my story, set in an alternate version of our world, where our collision with another planet (or alternate dimension, if you prefer) has changed the course of human history.

Because the 'door' to the other world initially opened in Arabized North Africa, Arabic speakers were the first humans to have contact with this realm. They would have certainly called the place 'Alamu ghaib' or 'world of the unseen' as this is a prevalent concept in Arab/Muslim theology and mythology. Another option is 'Ardu Ghaib' or unseen earth.

So, eventually Europeans would come to know the name of this world and certainly come to pronounce it their own way. I'll give you an easy example from the real world, to explain my meaning. There is a large mountain at the base of southern Spain that marks the narrowest part of the straight that separates Spain from Africa. The Arabs called this mountain 'Jbel tariq' which means the mountain of the straight (or way). Today we call that place "Gibraltar' Jebel-tarik becomes Gibraltar.

Ok so back to my world. Let's say the Arabs called it Ardu ghaib in around 900AD. How do I figure out how this would have evolved over the next 30-40 years (edited timeline) into English (old English, mind you)? I realize that the solution will ultimately be my subjective choice, but I'd really like to have a logical understanding in my mind of how this would work.

My other thought was to directly translate unseen into old English 'unsegewen' which it turns out is even more unwieldy than the Arabic.

I did try randomly removing the more difficult sounds and came away with things like Arjabe or Argea. But I don't feel like any of the results actually echoed the original Ardu Ghaib the way that Jbel Tarik and Gibraltar naturally connect.

A little bit more about the Arabic: Alamu Ghab (if you're interested in hearing the actual pronunciation, here's a link https://translate.google.com/#view=home&op=translate&sl=en&tl=ar&text=world%20of%20the%20unseen )-

The root of the word unseen in Arabic has three letters Gh(a guttural sound resembling the French 'r')- ya- ba

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    $\begingroup$ I do realize I can make the English word, almost anything. I just want to create that word that sounds like it actually evolved from Arabic. The way cotton strangely sounds like algodon when someone points it out. To me, my novice attempts to bastardize these Arabic words into Enligsh sounds fake and I want it to sound real. But maybe it just sounds fake to me because I know it's fake. $\endgroup$
    – M.J.F
    Nov 5, 2019 at 4:35
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    $\begingroup$ Gibraltar is the anglicization of Djebel-i-Tarikh (jebel-tar-ik) after Tarikh ibn Ziyad. $\endgroup$
    – nzaman
    Nov 5, 2019 at 13:06
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    $\begingroup$ You ask about switching one particular (very sensible) Arabic name into English. Might I suggest that it offers narrative potential to have a different original Arabic name - one that conveys something about their original experiences in that place. Then in the story when you backtrack from the English to Arabic you will find that the original name means "cover your nuts with both hands" or something similar. I wonder why they called it that... $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Nov 5, 2019 at 15:10
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    $\begingroup$ I've got to admit, when I skimmed your question I misread Ardu Ghaib as Abu Ghraib. Whether other readers of yours will be as clumsy as me, I couldn't say :) $\endgroup$
    – mjt
    Nov 5, 2019 at 23:07
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    $\begingroup$ On the Arabic. Ardu Ghaib is not natural. Ardu Al-Ghaib is better. Al=The in Arabic. It is dropped in some cases, but not here. U at the end is a based on the grammar and function of the word. Ard as subject = Ardu, but Ard as object = Arda...etc. Also Ghaib is a bit outlandish to my taste. A way better alternative is Brzakh, Germany ch, actually. Brzakh on the other hand might be a place and sounds better and more natural to an Arab. And has a place in religion. Alamu is a solid choice as well. Jabal Tarek=Mountain of Tarek. Named for Tariq ibn Ziyad. $\endgroup$
    – Seallussus
    Nov 6, 2019 at 0:51

3 Answers 3


There's multiple factors to consider, and you may have to do some more world-building to find out the proper outcome.

Determining intermediary language(s)

First, 10th-century Arabs were not the neighbours of 10th-century Englishmen. A word would not have gone from Arabic straight to English: the two people were barely in contact. The English would have first heard of this new world not from Arabic sources, but from people who talked to people who talked to Arabs. One or several intermediary languages need to be defined.

For "Gibraltar", that was Spanish (they coincidentally also spelled it Gibraltar). A different example, "Algebra" comes from the Arabic "al-jabr" (الْجَبْر‎), via the Medieval Latin "algebrāica", which was the lingua franca at the time among scholars and theologians. With algebra being first introduced by a science paper, it makes sense that Latin would be the intermediary language.

Take a look at this Wiktionary page for more examples. Often there can be multiple intermediary languages. "mummy" (the Egyptian embalmed corpse, not the British word for mother), came from the Arabic "mūmiyāʾ" (originally from the Persian "mum", meaning wax), through Medieval Latin "mumia", then through Middle French "momie", and then William the Conqueror took the Normandic dialectal version of the word, "mumie", with him when he invaded England and made Anglo-Norman the language of the nobility.

"Magazine" had two intermediary languages: Arabic "maḵāzin" -> Italian "magazzino" -> Middle French "magasin".

What you have is that each intermediary language modified the word to suit their inventory of sounds, their phonology. Then they may have added suffixes or prefixes, pluralised it, put it in a different grammatical mood or tense, before it moved on to the next language.

And then both those words went through all the vowel and consonant changes that turned Middle English into Modern English - which is the next step.

So, the first thing to figure out is how the word would have spread to English. Who did they learn the existence of this world from? And how fast did the word travel - literally?

This is something I cannot really make assumptions about without knowing more of your world, what states did and did not exist in your version of the 10th century and whether the Arabs kept it a secret, or told everyone about it, or just their trading partners and allies, et cetera; so I'll finish the next part of this answer when you fill me in on that :)

Alrighty, we now have more to go on!

The ''Door" opened in Sijilmassa, a silk road trading hub connecting North Africa to subsaharan africa. News quickly traveled to Andalusia of jinn emerging from the unseen world, building strange edifices and doing fantastic magic. From Andalusia, the stories spread to the major cities of Castille, by the time Sijilmassa fell to these strangers (circa 935AD) and a stories of a terrible plague, observed by a Coptic Monk named Baba Boutros and inscribed in latin correspondences to the church in Rome and Alexandria

@AlexP made a great proposal for an Italian/Latin-based path; I'll try to go with the Iberian route. The way I am proposing is Morocco -> Andalusia -> León (Castille did not exist yet) -> England. I'm assuming a naval transfer of the word from Iberia to Britannia; since it would be rapidly spreading news, seafaring traders would have carried it directly. Also, both León and England were thriving kingdoms at the time, while France was weak and decentralised and Germany in the middle of a succession crisis. I think word would have spread directly; given the significance of the event.

Following the road

Morocco -> Andalusia

First off, I am going to assume that no bastardisation occurs in the travel between Morocco and Andalusia. That is because both regions speak Arabic, and would directly understand each other. You would have a calque rather than a loanword: the roots are recognised, therefore the same roots are used for the version of the word native to the new speaker's region. Perhaps different, equivalent roots would be more idiomatic, but I do not know enough of medieval Arabic to know that for sure, so I'm going to keep them the same.

Then it becomes the task of figuring out which term you would end up with in Al-Andalus. There are two languages in the region to choose from: Mozarabic and Andalusian Arabic. The former is a blend between the tongue of the Romance peoples left behind by the Roman Empire and the Arabic that the conquerors imparted on them in the past two centuries: the latter is what the Arabic speakers there spoke in informal settings, influenced a bit by the local Romance languages, and separation from other Arabs by distance. Classical Arabic was still used for formal communication, e.g. liturgy.

I have decided on the latter. I think the people with the most means to travel distances and spread the news would have spoken Arabic, rather than the dialect blend found in the lower class. However, I am assuming they would not use standard Arabic to communicate with the Leonese: the two peoples had been neighbours for centuries by that point; I am sure translators would be better acquainted with the local variety than with the Caliph's Arabic. Andalusian Arabic it is.

What features did that dialect have? They are described in contrast to Standard Arabic, so I am going to start with the phonetical representation of عالم الغيب (the version I'll be working with because it's the only one I have in Arabic writing), and apply changes I can find to the best of my abilities.

My guess for the IPA is /ʕaːlim alɣajbu/ (based on ear and the transliteration of the word)

So, what do we know about Andalusian Arabic phonology? The wiki article gives us some useful info:

The vowel system was subject to a heavy amount of fronting and raising, a phenomenon known as imāla, causing /a(ː)/ to be raised, probably to [ɛ] or [e] and, particularly with short vowels, [ɪ] in certain circumstances, particularly when i-mutation was possible.

Alrighty, you really need to know more of the Arabic language to understand what those "certain circumstances" entail. But since we've got two more language transitions to go, I'm going to be a bit lazy here and turn every non-diphthong /a/ into an /ɛ/.

Contact with native Romance speakers led to the introduction of the phonemes /p/, /ɡ/ and, possibly, the affricate /tʃ/ from borrowed words.

Great, great, it doesn't tell me where the /g/ is introduced... I am really tempted to just replace the rhotic [gh] (/ɣ/) with a /g/, but that would leave me without anything interesting to solve in the next transition :) So I'll leave it alone for now.

Monophthongization led to the disappearance of certain diphthongs such as /aw/ and /aj/ which were leveled to /oː/ and /eː/

Oooh, great. We can make use of that for our diphthong!

So, the end result is /ʕɛːlim ɛlɣeːbu/. Next stop, the Leonese border!

Andalusia -> León

I am starting to get really lazy here, but this is the best of my abilities: I'm just going to check phoneme by phoneme whether there's a direct equivalent, and if not, what that phoneme has been transliterated to historically.

The Kingdom of León spoke... five languages. Astur-Leonese, Latin, Castilian, our good friend Mozarabic, and Galician-Portuguese. Awesome. Let's go with Leonese; we haven't yet ran out of extinct dialects to play with.

The /ʕ/ doesn't exist in any Iberian language, and from the examples it looks like it just gets ignored.

Spanish dialects are quite short on vowels, and they don't have the /ɛ/: except for Andalusian/Murcian dialects (who probably got them from Arabic), but those did not exist yet in the 10th century. /ɛ/ in those dialects corresponds to /e/ in the standard language (and Leonese), so that replacement is easily made.

Nothing special about /l/ on its own. /i/ and /m/ also stay the same. Now we get to our fancy consonant, the /ɣ/ - which is a phoneme Spanish possesses: but it gets turned into a voiced velar stop following a nasal consonant, such as the /l/. So where Andalusian Arabic failed, Leonese makes the exact same transition. /ɣ/ becomes /g/.

Spaniards are no stranger to the /b/, and neither is Leonese. Now, the final /u/ is a bit of a problem: Spanish words typically do not end in closed vowels like the /u/. The u was never stressed in the original Arabic, so maybe it can be left out... wait, Leonese phonology to the rescue! The only open vowel allowed to be unstressed is the /a/, so that's another quick replacement to make..

/eːlim elgeːba/ Next stop: England!

León -> England

Here there's a new issue. Old English had an incredibly rich sound inventory: every phoneme in /eːlim elgeːba/ can be found there as well. So my previous method would produce no changes at all. Let's try the other tactic: finding example words...

This list is not entirely helpful. Many of these words barely changed at all. Salsa from salsa, embargo from embargo, guerrilla from guerrilla, canyon from cañon. Many of them are also more recent loans than the time period we had been speaking of: Spanish became important and influential on English only after the discovery of the New World and its colonial empire.

Words with bigger changes do seem to follow a few tendencies. For one, (Old) English is more tolerant of consonant clusters, and unaccented vowels occasionally drop out. Example: crimson, from cremesín (though that one passed through Latin too); quadroon from cuarterón; cockroach from cucaracha. This is not very scientific, but I am going to swallow the /i/ and make the result more alliterative as well (also happened to avocado from aguacate); /elmelgeːba/. The lm-cluster would probably velarise the /l/ to a /ɫ/, as we see in words like "palm".

With the ending you can do whatever you want. I tried a couple things, but this close to the finish line I feel shy from settling on something. You could transform it to a diphthong, after potato from patata, and get something like elmelgeob. Just looking at endings of old English words, -pe is a lot more common than -be or -ba or anything like it, so maybe elmelgape does the trick?


None of this is as scientific as the linguistic terms I throw around make it sound. Many transitions are based on random chance. Someone with a lisp could have been the messenger to the English court, and that could have shaped the pronunciation of the word forever.

I think this answer should mostly serve as an illustration for the process of the bastardisation of a word. Taking the word and making it fit the next language's phonology is sort of like the telephone game concept in the other answer, but I richly interpreted every step along the way.

So I hope that this idea can help you make your own version to suit your needs!

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    $\begingroup$ The ''Door" opened in Sijilmassa, a silk road trading hub connecting North Africa to subsaharan africa. News quickly traveled to Andalusia of jinn emerging from the unseen world, building strange edifices and doing fantastic magic. From Andalusia, the stories spread to the major cities of Castille, by the time Sijilmassa fell to these strangers (circa 935AD) and a stories of a terrible plague, observed by a Coptic Monk named Baba Boutros and inscribed in latin correspondences to the church in Rome and Alexandria. $\endgroup$
    – M.J.F
    Nov 5, 2019 at 13:36
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    $\begingroup$ So you have multiple possible paths. The commoners will have the mouth-to-mouth language path, clergy and (possibly) aristocrats should have a "common-sense Latin" word for it, which in turn will have moved to English higher classes. $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Nov 5, 2019 at 15:12
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    $\begingroup$ @M.J.F because AlexP already made a very good Latin path in his answer, I'll try to make an Andalusian/Spanish path. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Nov 5, 2019 at 17:12
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    $\begingroup$ @M.J.F Congratulations, I'm hooked. Where can I read your book? $\endgroup$ Nov 5, 2019 at 19:59
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    $\begingroup$ @ArkensteinXII that's the sort of high octane jet fuel a writer needs when they are 80,000 words into a story with seemingly no end in sight and they've spent three days obsessing over ''really, I think this world should have a name by now''. And I thank you for it. $\endgroup$
    – M.J.F
    Nov 5, 2019 at 22:58

Fun, let's try.

Arabic names and words which were borrowed / used in medieval Europe have resulted in many weird and wonderful representations. Usually somebody tried to represent the name or word in medieval Latin, most likely mangling it badly in the process. Then the medieval Latin form was taken up into one or more vernaculars; then one of the vernacular forms was adopted as standard, and from that point it began evolving like a native word. Ibn Rushd became Averroes; al-Khwārizmī became algorism; al-ʿaḍudiyya became alidade; samt became zenith; as-sumūt became azimuth; qazz became gauze; nāranj became orange; zaʿfarān became saffron; al-qobba became alcove; dār sināʿa became arsenal; etc. etc.

There is great list of English words of Arabic origin on the Wikipedia, showing both the Arabic original and the complicated paths that most of these words took on their journey from Arabic to English.

  • In many cases, the Arabic definite article el- al- as- etc. was incorporated into the form of the word received in medieval Latin and European languages. Since the question does not provide the articulated form, we'll ignore this.

  • Then, consonants or consontant clusters which are not native to the (usually Romance) language spoken by the first Europeans to write down the word are either simplified, or otherwise adapted.

    I can find three other forms for what the question gives as alamu ghaib: 'alamu 'l-ghaib, 'alami ghaib, and elim-ul-ghaib.

    In the sound sample provided in the question the "l" in pronounced emphatically, so it would have certainly been perceived as a geminate by Europeans.

    There are two difficulties for Europeans:

    • First, ghayn. To my Romanian ears, the closest sound which a medieval Romance speaker could make is some sort of rhotic consonant; so up to now we have a perception of something like /al.lamu'raib/. (Note that /ai/ is a diphthong here.)

      (The other option would have been "h", but at that time none of the likely languages had a reliable way of writing the sound /h/.)

      (Actually, there is one European language which was not that unlikely to borrow the word, and which actually had the sound /ɣ/, and that's medieval Greek. I cannot imagine a natural path of transmission from Greek to Middle English, but had it happened then Middle English would have received something like "allamogaibe", given how the English language Englishes Greek words.)

    • Then, the ending. Romance languages at that time didn't like words ending in a consonant, and Latin needs of course to force the word into some sort of acceptable pattern, so the path bifurcates: either something like "allamurraibo" in pseudo-Italian, or "allamoraebus" / "allamorabus" / "allamoraeba" / "allamoraba" in medieval Latin, possibly with a doube "r" to try to convey a harsher sound. (Medieval Latin could not reliably write the diphthong /ai/, so the hypothetical writer would have had to choose between "ae" (pronounced /ɛ/) and "a"). ("O" instead of "u" because a-o-a is more natural than a-u-a, because less variation in opennes.)

  • So when the word got to medieval English it might have been something like "allamorabe" (/alamo'ra:bə/), which, in due time, would have acquired the modern English pronunciation /æləmə'reib/.

Seriously speaking, there is no "right" way to deduce a probable middle English form of a word of Arabic origin, because the form is very strongly path-dependent. What was the native language of the first person to write the word in medieval Latin, or some kind of Italin, or some kind of Spanish? What did the rest of Europe make of the Latin / Italian / Spanish form? From what language did the word get into English? And so on. But it is fun to imagine a possible reception path, and follow it.

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    $\begingroup$ Also consider what the Brits did to Roman place names, with much more interaction than with Arabic. Eboracum>York, Glevum Colonia>Gloucester, Olicana>Ilkley, Portus Felix>Filey, Venta Belgarum>Winchester, etc, etc... $\endgroup$
    – alephzero
    Nov 5, 2019 at 14:02
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    $\begingroup$ @alephzero: Yeah, but that's even more complicated, because (1) the Roman names were already magled -- the Romans wrote the Celtic names as best as they could, and did not put a lot effort into it; and (2) the transmission path is complicated, Celtic to Latin to two different kinds of Germanic. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Nov 5, 2019 at 14:04
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP "dār sināʿa" is still "darsena" in Italian/Venetian. $\endgroup$ Nov 5, 2019 at 20:56
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    $\begingroup$ @user3445853: Yes, some Romance dialects retained a form closer to the original; another example is Spanish "atarazana". But it is "arsenal" in English, from French "arsenal", from Venetian "Arsenale" (which was, indeed, a "manufacturing shop" of war ships). $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Nov 5, 2019 at 21:14
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP I didn't thank you before but I learned so much from reading your explanation and I will apply the insights you have given me. I actually really like Allamorabe and it's on my list of final contenders. I especially appreciate the careful explanation of how the changes in sounds might have worked. $\endgroup$
    – M.J.F
    Nov 7, 2019 at 2:16

What I would do:

  • Find three people that don't know anything of Arabic (or whatever language you want to do this over), with different ages. Someone that could be a grandparent, someone that is ready to have kids, and someone that is a kid.

  • Say the word or expression in question to those people, and ask them to write down how they think it would be spelled out.

  • Compare the variants and remove or simplify hard-to-pronounce bits for speakers on the target language.

  • "Degenerate" the word further by removing characters and adding extra misspelings that would be common in the target language.

I've used this methodology to create a few "badly translated" names for my RPG setting. The cultures and dialects of my world borrow heavily from Portuguese, Italian and French, so it made sense that some places weren't actually words in any of those languages, but actually a "smashed together" version that was created after years and years of mispronunciations and simplifications.

Alta Montanha (High Mountain) -> Alta montana -> Al'n'tana -> Altana

Terras Brancas (White Lands) -> Terre Bianche -> Ter Blanche -> Terblanc

Falésia d'ouro (Golden Cliff) -> Scogliera d'oro -> Glieradoro

And so on.


So, I've picked a few random colleagues at my workplace and put them over a few rounds of my process. Keep in mind that I don't know the proper Arabic pronunciation for those words (which may be either a plus or a minus, really), so I need to ask your pardon if they sound way too off.

Ardu Ghaib -> Became Arduhal or Arduhai. G before an "a" seemingly had the tendency to degenerate to an open "a" HA/RA sound, as in "Hazel" if the A had the same sound of the "a"s on "Banana". The "ib" at the end ended up degenerating to both an "L" sound and an "I" sound with more or less equal occurrence. Personally, I really like the name Arduhal, and if you're not picking it up I certainly will.

Ardul jinn -> This one was a bit unfortunate. I work in a place with a lot of STEM people, and this one got readily linked to mispelt to either Arduino or Ardidinho (which means "stuff that makes a mild burning sensation/is just a little spicy).

Ardu nastura -> The Ardu got dropped, and the word degenerated to Natura. I personally like this one - It sounds similar enough to "Nature", even if it doesn't any sort of related root. This similar sounding name made it easy to link "Natura" to a "single instance of Nature". After some thought, the idea of having twin "entities" in Natura and Gaia made a lot of sense for me. Once again, if you're not picking up this name, I'm going to do so.

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    $\begingroup$ The focus group approach to worldbuilding. I like it! $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Nov 5, 2019 at 15:53
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    $\begingroup$ This is exactly what I would have suggested. Even better, after getting people to write down how they think the words are pronounced, get a second focus group to pronounce the result. Then a third focus group to write that down. In half and hour and ~9-15 people you've effectively simulated 3 generations of mistranslation. You want a result where a random person can look at the word and go "I know how this is pronounced" and not have it feel awkward. $\endgroup$ Nov 5, 2019 at 17:32
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    $\begingroup$ The best part about this is I have a few francophone friends who could make this even better. It's a great suggestion and I thank you very much for offering it. $\endgroup$
    – M.J.F
    Nov 5, 2019 at 18:18
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    $\begingroup$ @M.J.F I've run my process over my colleagues and updated the answer with the results. See if there is anything useful for you there. $\endgroup$
    – Mermaker
    Nov 5, 2019 at 19:40
  • $\begingroup$ Very useful things, thank you @T.Sar-ReinstateMonica . I spent a good hour learning about Gaia last night. I don't think Natura would work for my world. Arduhai has a really cool sound and I might use it or something similar. Erdohai looks better in my lore. But Erdohabe is also a strong possibility. $\endgroup$
    – M.J.F
    Nov 6, 2019 at 20:44

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