When designing a world it is convenient to decide how places will be named: Elements like the continents and the oceans.

However, it is likely that the different cultures of the world will not agree on a common name for these places. Some might not even know there is an ocean or maybe they just don't care and will simply use the name already given to that place by others.

An example of modern naming dispute.

On Earth, a lot of places have the names they have now because the Europeans established the conventions. On the other hand, I know that the norms do not apply everywhere. For example, China is Zhōngguó (中国) in mandarin Chinese. It's not a translation of China, the meaning is very different. China comes from the Qin dynasty that established contact with the Europeans a long time ago. People in China will probably not use China to talk about their country unless they speak with foreigners.

How do we solve this issue in world-building? In real life, we would have an atlas in our own language and places would be named accordingly. Original names of other languages are harder to understand for those that do not speak the language.

  • Sometimes, the names are written using the same phonetic but adapted for the language : Beijing becomes Peking
  • Sometimes the name can simply be translated: United States, États-Unis (French)
  • Other times, it's completely different like with China

When making a map and designing a world, we can't have multiple names for each place, it's far too confusing. Maybe they could have multiple names but we got to have a common name at least for designing purposes.

  • We could have a culture dominating the world that imposed the names.
  • We could only use the local names for each place but what do we do when we have multiple names as for the oceans?
  • We could build the world using only one culture point of view? (even if that culture is not dominating the world)
  • $\begingroup$ What's the question? You seem to be asking a question and answering it in the same post. $\endgroup$
    – DonyorM
    Nov 14, 2014 at 2:49
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    $\begingroup$ Would it not be as simple as merely saying "most people call it X, but people from there call it Y?" Or are you against doing that? Doing as such can give the place/people some differences or some depth, no? You could, if you do look at it from both cultures, simply specify very clearly that the two words are for the same thing, but mean different things and why, and I know I would accept it if being told of such a place, just as I do with China. $\endgroup$
    – Crabgor
    Nov 14, 2014 at 2:55
  • $\begingroup$ possible duplicate of How do I blend cultures - naming world features? $\endgroup$
    – Liath
    Nov 14, 2014 at 7:50
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    $\begingroup$ Also consider including tautological names, like "River Avon" (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_tautological_place_names) $\endgroup$
    – xorsyst
    Nov 14, 2014 at 11:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Liath I would like to say that that I don't believe this is a duplicate. The suggested duplicate question talks about how two languages would have the same or very similar names for places, and how culture blending effects place names. This is more about how to make a map with very different place names. $\endgroup$
    – DonyorM
    Nov 14, 2014 at 12:10

3 Answers 3


There are a couple ways to decide what to name elements of a map:

Culture Map is From

When a map is from a specific culture, the names on the map will be the names that culture uses. So in your case, if the map was a Chinese map, it would show all the names the way the Chinese say them. This method works best if all the protagonists are from one culture, then the map can be from that culture. When the protagonists travel, the author has to translate names of places into the language of the map. Or, the author could write a glossary in the back, translating place names in various languages.

Names from the Dominate Culture

You could make all the names on the map from the dominate culture. In the European vs. Chinese example above, this method would result in all the names being European. This is usually a good method, as the dominate culture's names are often more widespread than a specific culture's names. For example, even if the protagonist was from China, he might go to Thailand. People in Thailand wouldn't know the Chinese names, but they would know the European names (mostly).

Use Local Names with a Glossary

Instead of using only one language for the map, instead use multiple languages. Each place name is the local language. For places with conflicting names, such as oceans, use the dominate culture's names or the name's of the protagonist's culture. A good extension to this method would be a glossary with the map, that translated place names on the map into the dominate culture's names or the protagonist's culture's names.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ There's a story in a Stephen Brust novel about a ford in a remote location that was called "the ford" - or Ben. When a new race moved in, they started calling it Ben Ford - or Ben Glo. The next country that moved in called it Benglo Ford - Benglo Ala. Next Bengloala Ford, soon shortened to Bengloalafurd. The author shared some dark hints that some wanted to start calling it Bengloalafurd Ford. $\endgroup$
    – Oldcat
    Nov 14, 2014 at 23:48

This problem isn't limited to places; it extends to every named facet of your world. Especially in worlds without internet and standardized encyclopedias, everything will have lots of different names. This is a little confusing, like real life.

I wrote a short article on this topic a few months back; my solution is to use meta-names so that I could consistently refer to things in my world by the same name when I'm writing canon articles.

Meta-naming is loosely based on the idea of having universal/scientific names (e.g. Homo Sapiens) to avoid the confusion of having different names for things in every language. For example, I'd meta-name a city "Kallapolis," because I like to mash up Greek roots (you could just use your native tongue for meta-names, in which case it'd be "Beautiful City"). In my "Kallapolis" article, I can list all the in-world (conlang) names of the city - the name the current rulers call it, the name the previous rulers called it, the nicknames the residents call it, and all its names in different languages. (Meta-names are also good placeholders for when I'm writing fiction but I haven't worked out the conlang yet.)

Meta-names are for organization during the worldbuilding process. Once you're writing fiction that takes place in your world, it makes sense to let your characters call it by the name of their culture, in their own language. If there are multiple characters referring to it by different names, your characters should be confused before your readers, and you can clear that up with dialogue. Same goes for maps - if you're making a meta-map use your meta-names, but if the map was drawn by a fictional character then just use the names of their language and culture. There are many possible approaches here, but this is what works for me.


Different names exist for a reason, or various reasons, as you have listed. The differing phonologies of languages are the technical aspect, but there's a deep political and historical divide behind the dispute.

Does your world exist to be a backdrop to a story? If it does, then the story most likely has a plot and a protagonist. These two determine what belongs on the map. If your character is a member of a powerful, conquering culture, and the plot involves his fighting against an uprising at a remote province, then the map would show the foreign/imposed exonym. Conversely, if your character is powerless, then the disparity between the names he uses and the names on the maps is very important.

The short version is, you can use a cross-cultural trade language that's known to most cultures in the subset of the world in which you're working. The language may be descended from a historical one that's under little dispute, and it doesn't have to be a trade language, either: academic, military, or (very often) mystical concerns can also determine a lingua franca. As centuries of European scholars corresponded in Latin and Greek.

The amount of detail you invest in making your world multilingual depends on what you choose to focus on. If your worldbuilding contains lots of information about borders, empires, cross-cultural affairs and political or diplomatic intrigue, then it's worth the effort to make a nod towards having multiple names, even if it's a minor one. If you deal primarily with metaphysical or esoteric subject matter, then you can probably get away with one language, or using just a few words in the "mystical tongue" for spells or other arcane artifacts. This is pretty common, and readers largely accept it.

You also have other possibilities. It's not uncommon for the written language to have several spoken dialects, if they are used across a very large area. Chinese and Arabic are both languages with a huge distribution where different regional "dialects" are so different they could be termed different languages, but letters, academic texts, tax records and maps can still be read by anyone with an education.

As a side-note, in my current worldbuilding project I used an approach similar to this. It's worth noting that my map covers a fairly small area, though. If your worldbuilding is more ambitious (most are) then you might find my method constraining. Most of all, it depends on what you're interested in.


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