The ideal invented name should be realistic, evocative, and consistent. That is, it should look and sound like a possible name, and not like a collection of random syllables. If possible, it should invoke the same sense of adventure that “Terra Australis” and “California” did several centuries ago, while resembling nearby names enough that the illusion of a consistent language is created.
These goals can be accomplished in two ways: by spending decades inventing a language as Tolkien did, or by faking them.
The easiest way I have found to fake these goals is with the help of a dictionary or a vocabulary list from an actual language. My basic technique is to write several hundred syllables on bits of paper and place them in an envelope. Then I draw 1-4 syllables at random, and try to arrange them into something that sounds like a word. Sometimes, I need several tries to get a usable word, but, when I do, I create a list that I can draw on as I prepare a map or name characters. It would be simple to write a simple script that is applied to a file containing the list of syllables, but so far I haven’t bothered.
However, that is not all I do. In addition, I:
- Study the language I am using just long enough to note its conjugations and declensions so I can add them to the syllables I pull from the envelope.
- Observe characteristic syllables from the language. For instance, if I were using Latin, they might include “ium” at the end of a town name. Similarly, if I were using Ole English, they might include “wulf” or “raed” at the end of a name. Sometimes, I invent these characteristic syllables for myself. Diphthongs are also useful, so that “th” might suggest Viking cultures.
- Slip English words or their approximations into my coinages to aid the evocativeness. For example “Tjashaha” contains the word “shah” in the hopes of suggesting the Middle East, while the last syllable of “Narghast” suggests “ghost” and with any luck provides a Gothic air.
- Decide on suffixes and prefixes that indicate rivers or mountains. For example, in Tolkien, the suffix “or” seems to mean something like “land of” (consider Eriador, Gondor, Mordor).
- Take care to have a variety of syllables and first letters in the names that I create.
To apply the coined words, I need to have a sense of history – specifically, what lands have settled, invaded, or otherwise influenced by which culture. Typically, all the words based on a particular language will come from a limited number of regions. At the edges of these regions, the influences of different languages will overlap, providing mixed names and more variations for both landmarks and personal names. Now and then, there will be a few outliers due to isolate pockets of a particular language, or perhaps to merchants and adventurers.
When I need to use a word, I start with the list I created, asking myself the subjective question, “Does this word sound like a king’s name?” (or the name of a town or a river). If I have been careful with my coinings, I can find a useful name in the list I prepared in advance. At other times, I have to use the same techniques on the spot, and create some possible choices on the spot. However, the basic techniques remain the same. At every step of the way, I try to build up layers of plausability, creating the illusion of depth from a very small sprinkling of linguistic consistency.