For a roleplaying world, it is highly favorable to have some common language spoken by all the possible playable races or nations, so that the players could play different characters without having to solve language issues. However, it's also favorable to have different cultures for each race and/or nation. Knowing that typical Aledonian suffers of Stockholm syndrome about their lord and that Thracians worship some strange god and are known as religious fanatics (examples from my world) offers the players some extra inspiration. Different names help to play these national differences.

But how would different naming style develop if the two nations (let's suppose both in political and ethnic sense, for simplicity) share the same language?

EDIT: by "different naming style" I mean differences so big that they usually come with different languages (i.e. one country with "Anglo-saxon" and another one with "Latin" names, but sharing the same language). Slight differences are of course believable, I wouldn't need to ask about this.

EDIT2: "believable" doesn't have to mean "likely". I know that having nations speaking just one common language but having names in very different styles (probably originating in different languages) is not the most likely or natural case. I'm not interested in treatises on what is most likely and how these things usually happen in reality. I'm interested in ways how to make the unlikely situation in my premise believable (not necessary "realistic" - this word is understood as much stricter by some).

  • $\begingroup$ Can you qualify what you mean by share the same language. Which of the cultures did the language originate from? $\endgroup$
    – Allerion
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 16:49
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Take Yugoslavia as an example - people had generally Slavic or "common European Christian" names, but Bosnian Muslims have Islam-derived names, sounding quite different and immediately setting them apart. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 7:08

6 Answers 6


There are a few different ways:

  1. The naming is an artifact from prior language before a universal/common language is introduced by imperialist/economical/academic/universal translator forces.

  2. Different races tend to name themselves based on historical/mythological/ancestral figures of their own race. They cling to this as a matter of pride.

  3. They exist as a subculture which wishes to differentiate itself from the main culture for in story reasons. In the united states, for example, some people have "black names" that have little to no pre-slavery historical significance but I've not met individuals of other races with those names.

  4. Titles can have cultural signification that is a useful tool for what you want. These can be tied to religion: just in catholicism: Brother John, Father Patrick, Sister Margret, Gregory-Martin Smith (Saints name taken after communion). You could imagine these similar to Irish immigrants. Secularly they could easily just be called Jack, Pat, Marge, Greg etc. Language based titles can be simple: Mr. vs. san. Honorary titles from ruling figures: Lord, Professor, Senator can clearly be exclusive to ruling parties.

  5. Are they called by who they are or who their parents are? Mc/Mac/von are clearly different from Smith/Butcher/Little Foot. Ruling party could do the former; common folk the latter.

  • $\begingroup$ +1. Definitely closest to what I expect. Language spoken before accepting a "common tongue" and mythology/religion seem to be the most natural reasons. $\endgroup$
    – Pavel V.
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 14:24

It can be difficult to separate culture and language. I'm going to try to answer how the naming schemes (a function of culture) could evolve while keeping a common language across them. I'm not trying to address what the naming schemes would look like. Other answers seem to cover that in depth.

Lingua Franca

The lingua franca can be a shared language which is not the first language of either party. You might want to have both cultures speak their own languages, but use a common tongue that is shared between them. This allows naming schemes that are foreign to each, yet they "speak a common language." It would be important to suggest that the common tongue is a first language for some other culture. Otherwise it is hard to imagine the common tongue being anything but a pidgin. It also gives you some fodder for some shared history between the two cultures: what was their historical interaction with the outside culture that led to its language being a shared trait?

For multiple cultures sharing a single language, China might be a good place to look. Many of the provinces had their own cultures and languages. Mandarin was a common tongue spoken between provinces, but it was also the first language of the capital province. Cantonese became a bit of a common tongue for trade when Canton became a financial hub. Unfortunately, I don't know how different the naming schemes were across provinces of China, so the example might not be ideal.


Following @Confutus, historical conquest (militaristic, economic, etc) can help to explain why two separate cultures share a language where they might not have previously.

Naming schemes could develop historically and maintain as tradition, meanwhile the language has changed through some means (in this case, unification). Family names might be dissimilar across cultures due to long dead traditions that predate the current language.

Division of Labor

@bowlturner makes a good point about the significance of cultural context in naming, e.g. smith being generic in a country full of metal workers. Even with a shared language, the importance of one concept might be worth being named after in one culture but not so in another.


Family names might be related to nearby geographical features which are historically named. Looking at the England, English is the first language and has been some hundreds of years. However, some of the geographical features are named using celtic and germanic languages (some of which are now dead). I have to imagine some English family names come from those archaic place names.


The Norse were known to take new names after battles. This might be seen as being similar to taking on a title, except the title became the name. It was almost as if warriors were reborn as new entities as the result of surviving battle. They also named their weapons.

The goddess Pallas Athena, sometimes called just "Pallas" or just "Athena", was renamed after slaying the titan Pallas. In this sense, names could be changed or modified by taking the spirit of the loser into oneself.

Cultures who would do this would likely believe names are extremely powerful. They might never speak any god's true name, or might assume that only sage's know the true names. Some ancient cultures believed knowing another's name gave one power of the other. The Abrahamic faiths still believe this, using many titles of reverence instead of the true name for their deity. Imagine what it must then mean in such a culture to take another's name as one's own. It might be like eating the heart of the enemy for their strength.

Deus ex Machina

In any world where deities meddle in the affairs of mortals, deus ex machina can be a very literal solution to any problem at all. It can be made less boring by trying to understand why the gods chose to intervene to create a common language (Tower of Babel in reverse). Maybe the gods chose to diversify names, but there was always a shared language (Tower of Babel applied to names instead of languages). Again, a religious backstory as to the gods' motivation would seem required.


The simple answer is to determine which is the stronger of the two cultures, and bastardise the names from the weaker into the stronger. The theory here is that people from the weaker culture will feel the need to assimilate into the stronger to survive, which will probably require them to change their names to fit in with the acceptable concepts of naming convention. How do you Anglicise the Hungarian name Istvan? Steven (Stephen).

Sharing the same language doesn't mean they share the same culture. Language and culture are completely different things. Language is a communication tool, culture is an expression of communal identity.

Naming conventions themselves are pretty fascinating. There's generally 3 known conventions, of which one is now pretty much universally used in modern societies. It's important to understand that a naming convention is how we determine someone's name. There is a second layer to them which I will explain in a bit.

  • Lineage/line of descent (most common now)
  • Occupation
  • Physical appearance or countenance

Amerindians (perhaps this is a stereotype) traditionally use the 3rd option. They are given names that have no bearing on who their parents are or which community they come from.

The Occupational convention was prevalent in early medieval England, which gave us surnames such as Thatcher, Cooper, Shearer, Baker, Miller etc.

The lineage convention (most prevalent), has been around as long as any others. It consists of adding an extra name to a person's given name to define their heritage. A simple example of this is by taking your father's surname as your own surname.

The Second Layer

Once the convention has been chosen, we would need to know how to apply it. Let's work with lineage here because it has the most variables.

First define lineage.

  • Patrilineal: focus on the father
  • Matrilineal: focus on the mother
  • Ambilineal: focus on either parent or both

Second choose syntactic method.

  • Direct Adoption: take parent's name and use it without adaptation
  • Gender Classifier: take parent's name and prepend/append gender classifier

Standard Anglo-cultures use the direct adoption method. I take my father's surname, as he took his father's surname etc. Just to note; traditionally, Anglo-culture is patrilineal, which is why we take our father's surname. In modern times there is the accepted practice of ambilineal naming, wherein we apply a double-barrel surname (mother's & father's combined with a hyphen).

Traditional Norse, Hebrew & Arabic cultures make use of the gender classification method. Here are some examples:

Norse: father's given name + -son, -dottir appended. (Still used in Iceland I believe) Karl Magnusson.

Hebrew: father's given name + ben prepended. Simon ben Gabriel

Arabic: father;s given name + ibn prepended. Ahmed ibn Mohammed

So to round up, even though your two cultures speak the same language, their naming conventions could be completely (or partially) different. It would make sense to try to apply the naming convention of Culture B to the people of Culture A if they are interacting in Culture B and are from the weaker culture.

Here's some examples for you:

Norse -> Arabic: Karl Magnusson -> Karl ibn Magnus

Arabic -> Nore: Hafiz ibn Rashid -> Hafiz Rashidson (sounds a bit weird, but that's what bastardising is all about)

Arabic -> Anglo: Hafiz ibn Rashid -> Hafiz Rashid (most likely just drop the ibn)

Hebrew -> Arabic: Simon ben Gabriel -> Simon ibn Gabriel (note both cultures are semitic, so the similarity is not surprising)

EDIT: since you mention the word believable, I'll add this. Believable isn't always about people thinking it's realistic. Get your characters to alight on the weird bastardisation of names from one culture to the other even though they speak the same language. This provides audience with the needed level of believability because their subconscious concerns are shown to have been considered by the author as well.

And on the reason why lineage is the most common now, it's possibly to do with number of social interactions. More people you meet, the higher the probability of meeting someone else with the same name. Therefore the lineage concept comes to mind as a quantifier. This is Bob & that is Bob, but this is Bob son of Greg and that is Bob son of Dave.

  • $\begingroup$ This is excellent show of linguistic theory, and it adds some details on interaction between different naming styles. Do I understand well that you imply that there were some other languages with naming styles corresponding to each of them, and then lesser cultures left their language and partially their names as well? If this is true, then it got buried under mechanics of translating names to the major culture's language. Otherwise, I don't see the point: how does it explain why different nations can converge in language but not in naming? $\endgroup$
    – Pavel V.
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 14:20
  • $\begingroup$ That all comes down to your definition of what a nation is. Do you mean political state, or ethnic grouping? Minority always adapts to majority, so long as the majority is the more powerful of the two. Think of the word assimilate and its connotations. Assimilation is generally thought of as smaller into bigger. China is a fantastic example of this. There are something like 36 ethnic minorities with their own naming styles, but the people of those cultures all have "official" Han Chinese names as well. Why language but not naming convention? Check out Hong Kong or Singapore. $\endgroup$
    – Allerion
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 14:28
  • $\begingroup$ "Standard Anglo cultures" are you implying that current anglo culture is the standard? $\endgroup$
    – Envite
    Commented Sep 21, 2014 at 8:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Envite: No, standard anglo-cultures as opposed to hybrid anglo-cultures, i.e. anglo + another/many other culture(s) combined. :) $\endgroup$
    – Allerion
    Commented Sep 21, 2014 at 12:23
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ One more point to your "first layer". Place names, two variants: 1) Somebody moving from one town to another would be called "Clark from Smallville". 2) Somebody owning a named farm or estate would be named from that farm/estate "Elvis of Graceland". Not all cultures would bother with "from" or "of" $\endgroup$ Commented May 9, 2016 at 8:31

Well I would look at the differences in English speaking countries, You have the US, Canada eh?, Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and Australia and New Zealand

There are some broad categories there, even in the US we have the South, the West, the West Coast the East Coast and the Midwest, all having differences.

Some times it's a matter of colour vs. color, rarely will you meet an American with the name of Nigel or a Brit named Billy Jo. If the two countries are different species the differences would be even more pronounced.

I believe the Navajo have almost 20 different words for shades of red, Eskimos almost 40 different identified types of snow, so the more prominent something is in a culture the more refined the language becomes to handle it. Personal names would follow in these as well.

If a country is very much into metal working, Smith would be too generic, the might be a lot of Blacksmiths, and silversmiths, but more likely you'll get Cuttlerysmith, Jewelrysmithe, Hingesmith as groups are much more specialized.

Added: What I was partially trying to get at is naming partially comes from national identity, where has the nation come from what are they good at etc. If someone told me their name was Jonathan Swifthorse or Redfeather chances are they are Native American, both names are English translations. Their past is evident there.

  • $\begingroup$ This is not what I thought about while asking, see my edit (last paragraph). $\endgroup$
    – Pavel V.
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 13:21
  • $\begingroup$ Added another paragraph, does that help explain my intent? $\endgroup$
    – bowlturner
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 13:32
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, definitely it is a good point, which could easily make a feeling of nation-specific naming, so +1. But it relies on one assumption: all names are defined from the "common tongue". This is not always the case - in my case the names are similar to Germanic and Romanesque ones but our "common tongue" is Czech, a completely unrelated language. This is partly a matter of translation, like when Tolkien translated Westron spoken by hobbits to English, but he didn't translate names uncomprehensible for the hobbits, Anyway, you can't make too different names seem plausible this way. $\endgroup$
    – Pavel V.
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 13:47

Kaine mentioned "catholic names" first, but it deserves greater detail: names based on religious tradition, which doesn't have to correlate with the language. In Europe, most names are just variants of the same names shared by most of Europe. This is because Christianity affected the names so much that the Christian naming style has overwritten original Germanic, Slavonic etc. styles. Most of us are named after characters from Bible or after some of Catholic (or Eastern Orthodox) saints. The biggest differences are due to language - the same basic names have different forms, so that they sound more "natural" to native speakers of different languages. There are also differences due to religion - different saints are more popular in different countries, Catholics prefer names of popular saints while Protestants slightly prefer names mentioned in Bible etc.

Now let's imagine that there is a large area where the language has always been the same or very similar, but there are significant differences between various nations. Language wouldn't enforce national variants of the names, but the religion would. Even if some nations would share the same religion, if one of the nations converted to the current faith due to missionaries from some foreign country speaking different language, it's quite likely that lots of the nation's names will have roots in the missionaries' language after few centuries.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Something I take away from this answer: one polis with one language and two religions could have different naming. Think Ireland, but instead of Catholic and Protestant, something like Catholic and Islamic or Jewish and Protestant. You'd have a lot of Johns one the one side and a lot of Mohammeds on the other, or maybe a lot of Aris on one side and Christophers on the other. That sort of thing. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan
    Commented Oct 9, 2014 at 19:56

Any number of real-world cultural quirks that seem nonsensical have a good sound historical explanation...if you know the history. Why do the regions have the same language? Was there an ancient political conquest? Was there, anciently or recently, the spread of an important religion? Was there the development of an important center of scholarship? These elements are often, but not necessarily always correlated.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .