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I want to introduce cultural diversity to my fantasy world, taking inspiration from various cultures in the real world. To make my multicultural fantasy world believable, I need to come up with various names from different languages. These names include place names, character names, organization names, etc. Most importantly, the names have to be meaningful, not just some random names that sound exotic but are actually gibberish.

My prime example is the video game Genshin Impact, in which the world Tevyat is a multicultural fantasy world. It contains various names from many different languages. For example:

German: Mondstadt, Diluc Ragnvindr

Chinese: Liyue, Zhongli

Japanese: Inazuma, Kamisato Ayaka

Russian: Snezhnaya, Zapolyarny Palace

Persian: Anisa Purbiruni, Driyosh

Norse: Dáinsleif

Moreover, all of the above names do have meaning in the respective languages. For example, Mondstadt means "Moon City" in German.

Now, Genshin Impact has a huge developer team that includes expertise on various languages. Of course it is easy for them to come up with meaningful names from many languages. Meanwhile, I'm just a single writer, who don't have time to learn so many different languages.

So, how can a single writer come up with various meaningful names from different languages for a multicultural fantasy world?

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  • $\begingroup$ For your world, which languages or cultures do you plan on using? Are they in a certain group, like Asian cultures or European cultures, is it like one continent with a lot of diversity like African cultures, or is your world a mix of really different cultures all over your world? $\endgroup$
    – Crafter
    Jun 17, 2022 at 15:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Crafter I haven't decided yet, but right now I'm inclined to have a mix of really different cultures, similar to the Teyvat in Genshin Impact (German, Chinese, Japanese, Persian, Russian all in one continent...) $\endgroup$
    – user141240
    Jun 17, 2022 at 15:18
  • $\begingroup$ Possibly relevant link: freelancetraveller.com/features/preproom/webnames.html $\endgroup$ Jun 17, 2022 at 19:46
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    $\begingroup$ While Mondstadt does mean moon city in German, Diluc Ragnvindr has no meaning in German that I can decipher (as a German native speaker). To me it looks like it could mean something in some slavic language but I don't speak any of them so I might be wrong. $\endgroup$
    – quarague
    Jun 18, 2022 at 7:31
  • $\begingroup$ "Zapolyarny Palace" is a rather strange half-translation; Russian zapolyarny is an ordinary adjective meaning "Arctic" or "polar", so that Polar Palace would have been a better translation of Заполярный дворец, Zapolyrny dvorets; after all, the famous Зимний дворец, Zimny dvorets, in St. Petesburg is normally called the Winter Palace in English, not Zimny Palace. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 18, 2022 at 14:26

3 Answers 3

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Frame challenge - real names of cities and characters will often not mean anything in the language of the country they belong to - may be true for organizations as well. City names are often based on something from a language of a completely different culture, or come from an archaic form of language that nobody (except maybe academics) in that country understands anymore. So most of German city names don't mean anything in German, just like most French city names don't mean anything in French, or British cities mean nothing in modern English.

Take US place names like Milwaukee, Chicago, Iowa - those all came from Native American words. Similarly, many Australian place names come from Aboriginal words. Here for example is the complicated history of the name of English city of York. Or the German capital, Berlin.

So, random names that sound exotic but are actually gibberish are perfectly realistic.

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    $\begingroup$ Example of simplified way to do this: Name city [Grand Mountain], translate into French [Grande Montagne], transliterate (write as it sounds) back to English [Gran Montan], say it quickly out loud [Gramonton]. Welcome to the town Gramonton. Again! Name city [Doug's house], translate into Indonesian [Rumah Doug], transliterate (write as it sounds) back to English [Ruma Doh], say it quickly out loud [Rumado]. Welcome to Rumado City. $\endgroup$ Jun 17, 2022 at 21:41
  • $\begingroup$ I hear the point you're trying to make, but it's pretty insulting to call names descended from Indigenous languages "gibberish". I recommend rewording. $\endgroup$ Jun 18, 2022 at 18:25
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Mix and match roots and extensions

My technique for this is to pick a language for a specific geographical area, look up words that mean something that has to do with the story, then mix and match with extensions that make them sound sensible.

For instance, der zauberer is a wizard in German. "ton" is a British extension that means "town", so the capital city of the world became Zauberton.

In the same world, wieder aufbauen is German for "rebuild," so a city that was destroyed and rebuilt became Weideroff.

Once you have a basic word, you have the "look and feel" of a city's name, so mutate it into something that you feel comfortable with. More importantly, change it to something that your audience won't have difficulty getting their tongue around. My world isn't actually German, so attempting to adhere to cultural accuracy would have been more than pointless, it would have been counterproductive.

The end effect was a set of names that at least pretended to have cultural cohesion without bothering to get too nit-picky about accuracy.

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I ran into the same issue. I'm presently working on a board game of interstellar conquest. I thought it would be unrealistic for all the planets to have English names. Surely SOME other cultures would explore space and name some of these planets. But I don't speak any languages besides English. But today there are Google and Bing translate. So I just took some words and phrases that I thought would make plausible place names and ran them through Bing translate. Like "New Russia" translated into Russian, "plantation" in Spanish, "refuge" in Hausa (an African language), etc.

For a science fiction game, I figure it doesn't even matter very much if the resultant names aren't names that people of that culture would actually use. If anyone actually bothered to nitpick my names, I could just say, "Well, yeah, but remember this game is set hundreds of years in the future. The culture and language have changed by then." :-)

And seriously, names are often mangled. People often cram together several words and then add or drop letters to make it pronounceable or otherwise sound better.

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