In my world I have a variety of nations and city states but I also have a history/background that means they are not and have not been completely isolated. In fact there was once a continent spanning empire from which these nations evolved.

Knowing the historic (base) culture for each group, what process can I use to help blend two (or more) cultures together? How do I emulate the natural evolution that occurs via conflict and trade etc etc etc evident in my world?

As a specific use case, to narrow the focus of the question, lets look at location names:

In this map we see current day (still a medieval setting). At one point, lets say 1000 years ago a Roman like empire that started in Nation A and ruled every nation on the map collapsed. The empire lasted lets go with 600 years.

What considerations need to be accounted for when determining how this empire impacted the names of locations (cities, forts) and geographic landmarks (mountains lakes etc)

EDIT: A very good point on including language in the question. I should have considered that. A and C come from the same language family and are slightly different dialects. B is a separate family as lets pretend the folks from B invaded from across the sea, or fled and landed here. Group D is from an entirely separate group as the mountains kept them from meaningfully interacting with the other nations for centuries.

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  • $\begingroup$ The question here is something like this: How do I analyze and/or simulate the effects of cultural contact with respect to the disparate cultures themselves? $\endgroup$
    – CAgrippa
    Commented Oct 1, 2014 at 6:24
  • $\begingroup$ @CAgrippa yes that is what I am trying to get at. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Oct 1, 2014 at 14:03
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Don't forget about name conflicts, e.g. British say English Channel, while French say la Manche; and renamings, e.g. Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul. $\endgroup$
    – dtldarek
    Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 11:49
  • $\begingroup$ @dtldarek I upvoted your comment because I agree generally, but on the two examples, it seems that there's a likelihood the French name means the same thing ("channel") and "Byzantium" is the name of the empire, which may have been used interchangably with "Constantinople" which the city was named after emperor Constantine (a renaming, not a conflict and the names refer to different things, only being used to refer to the same thing colloquially) and "Istanbul" is a corruption of the greek phrase that means "In the City", and the "City" was "Constantinople" back then. Same origin essentially. $\endgroup$
    – mechalynx
    Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 22:01
  • $\begingroup$ See also this question on Constructed Languages: conlang.stackexchange.com/questions/665/… $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 7, 2018 at 11:59

8 Answers 8


How do features get names?

Since we are all English speakers here, a great example would be to look at how names on a brand new continent came to be when colonized by English speakers. I'm not Australian, so we'll have to stick with North America. There are actually a bunch of great examples of names changing over time, so lets look at some. The best examples are the 50 states, all with relatively interesting names. Lets classify how the states got their names.

From some native word, through another European language (5):

  • Alaska - from uncertain placename, through Russian (Аляска).
  • Arizona - from O'odham language, possibly ali sonak, meaning small-spring, through Spanish.
  • Illinois - from some unknown term, through French
  • New Mexico - from spanish Nuevo Mexico with the 'new' translated directly. Mexico itself comes from the Nahuatl term for the Valley of Mexico, home of Mexico City.
  • Texas - from tejas, the Spanish name for the Caddo tribe, meaning 'friend' in Caddo.

From a native people (9)

  • Alabama - from Choctaw name for the Albaamo or Albaama, a people from near modern Montgomery. The Choctaw word means 'plant-cutters' or something like that
  • Arkansas - from a Sioux name for the Kansa people (meaning 'people of the south wind'), in a French pronunciation, influenced by the name of Kansas.
  • Iowa - from endonym of the Ioway people.
  • Kansas - from a Sioux name for the Kansa people, in a French pronunciation.
  • Massachusetts - endonym of the Massachusset people, meaning 'of the blue hills.'
  • North Dakota - endonym for the Dakota people, meaning 'ally'
  • Oklahoma - from the Choctaw word for all Native Americans. The concept didn't really exist pre-European invasion, but after the Choctaw were moved to Oklahoma with many other tribes (i.e. the Trail of Tears), they started using okla humma or 'red people' to refer to the tribes as opposed to the white man. Choctaw chief Allen Wright inserted it into treaty negotiations with the US Government in 1866.
  • South Dakota - you got this
  • Utah - endonym of the Ute tribe, meaning 'people of the mountain'

From a native place name (12)

  • Connecticut - from the river, Mohegan quonehtacut, meaning 'place of long tidal river.'
  • Hawa'ii - from the name of Big Island in Hawaiian.
  • Kentucky - from the Kentucky river, etymology uncertain, possibly from Iroquios.
  • Michigan - from Ojibwa name for Lake Michigan, mishigaama, meaning 'big water'.
  • Minnesota - from the Dakota name for Minnesota River, means 'cloudy water.' The 'Minn' pre-fix for water is all over up there, as Minnetonka, Minnehaha Falls, Minneapolis ('city of water', in Greek-Dakota fusion) etc.
  • Mississippi - from the river, from Ojibwe, misi zibbi, meaning 'great river.'
  • Missouri - from the river, from a Miami language exonym for the Missouri tribe, possibly somethign like ouemissourita, which means 'people of the dugout canoes.'
  • Nebraska - from the native name of the Platte river, native group and meaning uncertain.
  • Ohio - from the river, from Seneca/Iroquois meaning 'good river.' The natives used the term for what we now call the Allegheny river.
  • Tennessee - from the name of village of an unknown tribe near modern Newport, TN. Recorded by Spanish explorer Juan Pardo as 'Tanasqui' in 1567.
  • Wisconsin - from the river, from the French interpretation of an unknown native place name.
  • Wyoming - named after the Wyoming valley of Pennsylvania (home of Scranton and Wilkes-Barre) which was named from an uncertain native term for the Susquehanna River.

From another colonial language (which means Spanish) (5)

  • Colorado - from the river Rio Colorado, meaning 'coloured river.'
  • Florida - from the phrase Pascua florida, Spanish for Palm Sunday, which was the day Juan Ponce de Leon landed in 1513.
  • Montana - from Spanish for 'mountain.'
  • Nevada - from Spanish for 'snow-covered.'
  • Oregon - from Spanish place-name 'orejon,' itself of uncertain origin.

From something English, possibly the 'New' of that thing (5)

  • Indiana - literally, 'Land of the Indians.'
  • Maine - unknown, possibly from Maine, province of France.
  • New Hampshire - from a county in southern England.
  • New Jersey - from an island in the English channel
  • New York - from a county and city in northern England. Pretty much everywhere says it was named after James, Duke of York, and future James II (as in the King James bible). That, however, doesn't make any sense. How can a city be the 'new' of a person? It was named after the region of which James was duke.

From a person (10)

  • Delaware - from Thomas West, 3rd Baron de la Warre, first governor of Virginia.
  • Georgia - from George II, King of England.
  • Louisiana - from Louis XIV, King of France.
  • Maryland - from Queen Mary, wife of Charles I of England.
  • North Carolina - from the latin spelling of Charles I, King of England.
  • Pennsylvania - 'Penn's woods' in Latin, after Admiral William Penn, father of the William Penn who founded the colony.
  • South Carolina - you can figure this one out...
  • Virginia - from Queen Elizabeth of England, the Virgin Queen. Allegedly.
  • Washington - from Gorgeous George, father of the Nation.
  • West Virginia - you can see where this is going

From something really wacky (4)

  • California - from the name of the queen of the Amazons in a 1510 Spanish novel. The name of the queen was Califia, which is believed to have been derived by the author, Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo, from the Arabic title Caliph. Given by Diego de Becerra and Fortun Ximenez to the region that is now Baja California in 1533.
  • Idaho - made up and proposed to Congress by a wierd dude named George Willing. Congress decided to name the territory Colorado, but some settlers had already appropriated Idaho Springs for their settlement (which is in the modern state of Colorado). Then a county in Washington state was named Idaho county, before that county and others were split off into a state.
  • Rhode Island - the full name of the state is Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Providence is the capital and largest city, and is named after the religious term. Rhode Island originally referred to what is now Aquidneck Island in a 1637 declaration by Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island...even though he founded a colony at Providence Plantations, not at Rhode Island.
  • Vermont - from 'French' for Green Mountain...from someone who doesn't speak French. Green mountain would be mont vert in French, so someone probably thought it sounded cool and French when they named it, but used the English word order instead of the French. That's like naming your state using google translate, which sounds like the most Worldbuilding thing ever.


Well there you have it. Native place or people names are most common, then adapatations from other colonial languages are about tied with people's names. Then comes 'new' things, and finally you could use pretty much anything from a character in your favorite book to running some term through Google translate. Happy naming!

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ +1 just a comment on the Vermont thingy. In french we do change the order of nouns and adjectives quite often (though with color adjectives it does give a sense of being somewhat pompous if not used in a poetic context) ! Another famous example would be Snow White (Blanche-Neige) or a saying that goes "Bonnet blanc et blanc bonnet" (meaning that two things are pretty much the same). So it could come from actual french and the 't' in vert was dropped because it is difficult/ugly to pronounce midword. $\endgroup$
    – Riff
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 8:07

The best I can do is provide some examples.

Its not uncommon for different cultures to have related names for the same place or feature. Most are adaptations of the same word into the local language.

Mont Blanc is the French name for a mountain on the French/Italian border. There has been trade between France and Italy, the Italians refer to the mountain as Monte Bianco (which also translates as White Mountain).

Another example is Paris, although spelt the same an English speaker says the word very differently to a native French speaker (who says Paree).

There are two examples here of how two different names have arisen for the same place. The first is based on the translation of the same into a different language (as French and Italian sound quite similar the names are close). Unfortunately I've not been able to find any definitive reason why the difference in pronunciation of Paris. My personal theory is that this is because of the differences on how the two tongues would interpret the written word (think letters written between ambassadors) however I'd got no evidence to back this one up.

My suggestion to creating shared names would be to decide on a definitive name for a feature (used by one society) and (assuming you have a language feel for the second) to adapt the word to sound more like the latter.

Many natural features are named on a "Say what you see" mentality. There are many examples of this (White Mountain, Ben More - Gaelic for big hill, Aonach Eagach - knobbly ridge). Following this method and translating names into the nation's language keeps the relationship between your names. The similar names come from the language roots themselves.

So the wood between B, C and D may be called "The Black Forest" by B, C may call it "Teh Blaak Furst" and D may call it "Um Floret Blaah". The same words, similar sounding words but each have their own sound.

As pointed out by @CalWest (Please feel free to suggest an edit if I've not captured what you're saying) in the comments you need to determine the origins of the languages for these nations. Presuming they come from an older civilisation it's probably fair to assume they come from the same language-family. You should determine the roots of the language when creating these languages.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ This is the right answer, the key phrase here is missing though. language-family. Do all the cultures share the same root proto-language? Do they all come from the same branches of that language family, or from different ones? English & Farsi are both Indo-European, but different branches. Also, in general with naming of places, humanity has subconsciously gone for a "say what you see" methodology. $\endgroup$
    – Allerion
    Commented Oct 2, 2014 at 8:20
  • $\begingroup$ @CalWest I've tried to expand my answer to include your comment, pleas feel free to edit if you don't think I've expressed it correctly! $\endgroup$
    – Liath
    Commented Oct 2, 2014 at 8:30
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ "Paris" changed pronunciation in French, not in English. French at one point lost most of its consonant sounds at the ends of words. English and written French preserve the older pronunciation. $\endgroup$
    – Joe
    Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 18:37

Historically, names of cities are quite stable: a city might change ownership repeatedly due to conquest, but the only changes to the name will be pronunciation shifts to accommodate the language of the new owner, and perhaps adding a descriptor in the new language. The main driver of change will be natural shifts in pronunciation over time.

As an example, the Celtic "Lindon" became the Roman "Lindum" and acquired the descriptor "Colonia", which was shortened to the Old English "Lincylene", which became the medieval "Lincoln".

Rivers are a different matter. It's not uncommon for different stretches of a river to have wildly disparate names, and which one becomes "the" name for the river depends on who is doing the mapping. Case in point: the Mississippi could very well be known as the Ohio if the mapping had been done by explorers crossing the Appalachians rather than explorers coming up from the Gulf.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Actually the names of major European rivers have been stable for at least two millenia. Many European river names are much older. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 1:06

The oldest layer of names are names of rivers and major mountain chains; they may be several millenia old, coming from the unknown language of the people who inhabited the land in prehistory, long before the ancestors of the modern nations of Aquaxians and Belutids and Cegotrans and Dagrons came to this land.

  • Many European rivers have names which suggest that they are of Pre-Indo-European origin, with roots such as Al-, Alm-, Iser-, Sal-, Salm-. The major rivers have names which go back to the Antiquity: the Seine, the Rhine, the Rhône, the Danube and many others; some of the great mountain chains, the Alps and the Carpathians, also have ancient names, the origin of which is lost in the mist of time.

In each of the languages of the four nations the ancient names have evolved according to the specific sound change rules; after several millenia this can render them unrecognizable -- consider that once upon a time the English eye, the Sanskrit akṣi and the Italian occhio were the same word, *h₃ókʷs.

For example, the great mountain range which separates the Dagronia from Belutida and Cegrotania was a very long time ago called the K´asoms (which would mean the Grays in Proto-Indo-European); in Dagronian, this changed to Shasha; in Cegrotanian, the Shans /ʃɑ̃z/; in Aquaxian, which is a related to Cegrotanian but much more conservative, the Cânî; while the Belutids call them the Hasen.

It is thought that about three or four thousand years ago the ancestors of the Aquaxians and the Cegrotans populated the entire peninsula, on both sides of the great mountain range which they called the Kasœ. Ancient writers preserve the name of this ancient population as the Hediven. In time, the Hedivan language differentianted into (conservative) Aquaxian and (innovative) Cegrotanian.

In Dagronia there are many toponyms of Hedivan origin, or of Hedivan origin as transmitted through the imperial Aquaxian, but in Belutida they are fewer; linguists explain this discrepancy by the particularly quick and violent invasion of the ancestors of the Belutids. However, even in Belutida topnymical suffixes of Aquaxian origin are common, comparable to -chester (fort), or -foss (ditch or canal), -wich (village), -ville (town) in English toponymy.

  • In order to reflect a plausible derivation of toponyms you must make up the sound-change rules for each of the languages, and then start with a Hedivan name and apply the rules in their historical sequence to obtain the modern Aquaxians, Belutids and Cegotran and Dagronian forms. You may want to imitate well-known sets of sound changes; for spectacular examples look up the Germanic sound shifts, or the sound changes which separate (western) Indo-European "centum" languages from (eastern) "satem" languages. For example, say than Dagronian modified the ancestral toponyms following the sound changes which lead from Indo-European to Sanskrit to Hindi, Belutid followed the Germanic sound changes, while Aquaxian and Cegrotan, more conservative, went somewhat along the lines of the evolution from Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Italic to Latin to French.

  • For Belutida you may limit the number of place names derived from the imperial Aquaxian; after all it is not uncommon for a war-like people to erase quite a lot of the pre-existing toponyms.

  • For Cegrotanian you may wan to follow the French or Chinese tendency to drop final consonants with or without tonogenesis.

  • For examples of how names change consider that Roman Colonia became German Köln, Latin Aquae became French Aix /eks/, or the Celtic name which the Romans wrote Eboracum became Jórvík in Old Norse and then York in English.

  • One thousand years can be a long time or a short time in language evolution. Supposing that after the fall of the Aquaxian empire there followed a few dark centuries like in European history after the fall of Rome that is enough time to change, for example, Sequana into Seine /sen/, or Souconna into Saône /so:n/, or Campania into Champagne /ʃɑ̃paɲ/.

  • $\begingroup$ You mention the pre-Indo-European hydrology, but miss the early Indo-European hydrology. The *danu root probably meant river, since a great number of Eastern European rivers now bear names derived from it: Danube, Dniepr, Dniestr, Don, Daugava, Donets, etc. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 16:05
  • $\begingroup$ You are right, but then that's fully expected -- after all, most languages spoken in Europe are Indo-European. The point was that hydronyms can send reflexes over a very long time span. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 16:23

The obvious solution is to design some constructed languages (well, parts of it) to name your places.

You don't need to go very far in the language construction process, some basic words for geographical features (like mountain, hill, plain, river, creek, city, town, forest, swamp, meadow), colours, animals, basic adjectives (like big, small, rich, new, old) will do as a starter. Combine terms to form your names.

Now, you have different people in different nations, you can choose to create unrelated languages for each of them; or you can try to emulate language change by applying some sound shifts to a proto-language and some replacement of basic words with new ones.

Tolkien was a master in these techniques, study his names and invented etymologies (there are dictionaries to Tolkien's languages available).


Given the collapse of the Civilisation, it would make sense to assume that the enforcement of naming conventions, regardless of their genesis, would be far less industrial. This would give way to the more insular conventions of the modern Nations that would have a somewhat more grassroots social evolution at the point we're introduced to them- in medieval Current Day.

I point this out to highlight the significance of folklore and cultural myths and legends, which would have for a good part been intricately intertwined with the territorial geography, given the localised nature of society in each Nation's (A, B, C, D) rise. Taking this stance, the considerations that would have to be made are thus:

  1. What cultural impact did the collapsed civilisation have on the modern states- that is, did whatever cultural roots that have become amplified over the course of each nation's evolution, take Nation A for instance, regard the collapsed Civilisation as rival or ally?

This becomes significant in considering to what extent they would have allowed the names, and naming conventions, formulated by the Civilisation to withstand the progress of History. A good real-world example of this would be previously-colonised nations reverting place-names to their pre-european titles, post independence. This can be easily gauged by the linguistic influences retained or discarded by each nation.

  1. What are the socio-cultural/ethical norms, and relationships, facilitated by distinct features of the topography- especially those not precisely within the boundaries of any nation?

In other words, if there were passes through the mountains or trekking-trails through valleys or such, their inhabitants would find themselves less associated with the larger nation-states as much as they would to largely indigenous, or nomadic, Tribes that would pose a higher frequency to these locations. So their customs, and their communication/relationship with nations that the geography facilitates would be far more significant in the naming of these locations. Also, given the medieval setting, it would be these cultural-pockets, so to speak, that were the true catalysts to commerce and cultural trade- giving the ideas fertilised on these routes particular significance in denominations across the entire social/cultural landscape. Think, the Silk Road.

  1. What is the cultural significance of the topographic features as of the nation that considers it within its territory: does it hold significance as some ethical allusion; do the gods live atop that mountain; did Nation A fight a battle on that piece of land that shares borders with Nation C- further still, was it won or lost?

This is where the relevance of folklore, myths, and legends of each individual nation would really kick in regarding the establishment of geographical identifiers. This would also be a junction conducive to the consideration of border conflicts: what is the all-round acceptance to the claims laid over distinct features of this shared topography by each nation, among the rest; and with whom does most Authority reside- which has the additional benefit of signifying hierarchies in trade and conflict (basically, the economic arena) among the four nations (A, B, C, D) on the map presented.

To sum up, the primary factors of consideration are the History, Language, and Economy of the new Nations; and to what extent they have derived or distanced themselves from the social and epistemological conventions of the collapsed Civilisation.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site Le Croc. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 19:08
  • $\begingroup$ What is the etiquette regarding 'thank you' comments on said site, exactly? $\endgroup$
    – Le Croc
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 7:12

One of the big things about place names is that they are typically very simple and usually either a description of the place or the name of who lived there. For English speakers relatively recent colonies like the US give a good illustration of this- there are many places with names like "Lone Pine" or "Scotts Bluff" which described the geography or who lived there. Most place names follow approximately that process. By creating a handful of terms for geographical features and some personal names in your various languages - along with the order that language tends to put them - you probably have all the tools you need to create a realistic interaction between different regions.

For a really good real world example of this, you can fire up your mapping application of choice and take a look at place names in Britain.

Here you can see the oldest names in the western regions where the celtic languages persisted - rivers called "Avon" ( from Afon, meaning river in brythonic celtic ), hills with "pen" in their name and so on. To get an idea of the original names, take a look at Wales.

Then you have Roman names - anything with a "cester" in it comes from the latin word for a fort - followed by Saxon names. Very typical "English" sounding names ending in "stead" or "don" or "borough" are usually of Old English ( which derives largely from the germanic peoples who get referred to now as the Anglo-Saxons ) and those predominate around the south east of the country.

As you move north you start to see scandinavian names, which originate from the viking invaders who populated much of the northern part of England in the late dark ages ( in your face, early medieval period! ) and established the region known as the Danelaw. Although England was united under Saxon rule by the late tenth century, you can still see the borders of the Danelaw in the placenames - Thwaite, Thorpe, Holm and By are all common Scandinavian place name endings.

There are relatively few Norman placenames, but again they exist - possibly because the Normans invasion was a top-down takeover rather than a repopulation of large areas and they integrated more with English culture as time went on.

One of the interesting things is that some place names end up as an accretion of the same word in different languages so you get a name like "Bredon on the Hill" which uses "bre" from the Welsh for "hill", "don" from the old English and "hill" from the modern English.

There is lots of good information around on Toponymy once you know that is the term for this.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This is a really good answer but I think you need to tie it back to the original question. Perhaps talk about how the borders of A, B, C and D move and how language/names move with them? $\endgroup$
    – Liath
    Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 9:34

When talking about cultures, you have to consider many factors, one of the primary ones being belief/religion. There are other factors, for example geography (food supply, water supply..)

Considering that all of the four current nations were ruled by one nation in the past, what was the belief/religion of the original nation? Culture is almost always derived from belief, for example the "birthday celebration" culture is derived from Pagan belief. Even though the vast majority of people don't hold Pagan beliefs anymore, they still practice this culture, meanwhile new beliefs are formed to support/justify the existence of the culture.

Take for example the culture of "Now Roz" (Persian New Years). It is held in autumn/spring, because that is when the harvest usually takes place. The Now Roz celebration is still taking place today, not because of harvest anymore, but because of identity (new belief attached to culture derived from old belief).

What is the point of the above examples? Today in Iran for example, there is a blend of cultures, Now Roz is still celebrated, but Eid is also celebrated. Now Roz is derived from geography, while Eid is derived from belief. That's the blend.


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