Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Naming of Places (Part 1)

“Ged saw that in this dusty and fathomless matter of learning the true name of every place, thing, and being, the power he wanted lay like a jewel at the bottom of a dry well.  For magic consists in this, the true naming of a thing." -- A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. LeGuin
There is no magic in this world -- or at least so far as I know -- but the naming of places on a map holds a kind of magic.  Take a featureless stretch of map and give it an evocative name:
And it magically becomes an interesting feature.

In this series of postings I'm going to be working a naming system for Dragons Abound.  Right now, Dragons Abound uses the naming system that Martin O'Leary developed for the fantasy map generator that inspired Dragons Abound.  This generates place names in invented languages, and many of them certainly sound like something you might find in a fantasy novel -- “on Genum" on the map above being one example.  There's a nice logic to this -- certainly we wouldn't expect some random fantasy world to speak English, so we wouldn't expect their maps to have nice English names.  Using all invented names helps maintain the consistency of the map.

On the other hand, there are some drawbacks to that approach.  On the little map excerpt above, I've added the English word “Point" to the name “on Genum" and that helps the viewer (you!) understand that the name belongs to that mass of rocks sticking out of the coast.  I could certainly have generated a word in the invented language to mean Point, e.g., “Nam" and used that.  On a big enough map with enough points you might even figure out that “Nam" means “Point".  But that's making the viewer do a lot of work.  And even on modern maps we don't generally do this.  For example, US maps label the lake on the border of Switzerland and France “Lake Geneva" even though its name in the local language is “le Léman."

And because the invented names don't mean anything, their ability to evoke interest is limited.  If I translate “The Lost Coast" into an imaginary language -- “Em Usu Eno" for example -- it may sound more “fantasy" but it also doesn't bring to mind the picture of a deserted shoreline.  If I use an English name and pick it correctly, I can be more descriptive and atmospheric.

Another reason to use English names is strictly personal -- I'm an English speaker and grew up reading the great English fantasy classics and playing Dungeons & Dragons.  And while those books had their share of invented names, they also had a backbone of vaguely medieval-English names that still mean “fantasy" to me.  That said, there's still room for a layer of invented fantasy names to lend an air of mystery and history to the map.

One advantage of an invented naming language is that it only has appear consistent; it doesn't have to actually make sense.  In an invented language, I can call one mountain range “The Na Ri Casto" and another one “The Lansa Casto" and you get the notion that “Casto" means something like mountains and “Na Ri" and “Lansa" are adjectives or descriptors or specific names.  But if I'm naming mountain ranges using English I can't just throw together a random adjective and random noun and call a mountain range “The Fallacious Arithmetic."  The words need to fit together and be an appropriate name for the map feature.  Even if I know enough to use “Mountains" as my noun, the sensible adjectives are not entirely obvious.  “The Hazy Mountains" seems reasonable, but “The Distinct Mountains" does not.  For some reason, “The Blue Cow Mountains" seems plausible, even though “Blue Cow" itself is nonsensical.  The need to create sensible names makes naming much harder in English than in some imaginary language.

My academic background is in artificial intelligence and specifically in natural language processing, so I'm well aware of how difficult it is to name things the “right way".  That would involve having some sort of model of the things to be named (mountains, rivers, islands, bays, points, etc.) as well as a deep understanding of how things get names (e.g., The Blue Cow Mountains named after a blue-gray rock formation that looks something like a cow when viewed from the pass to the Arid Plains).  Thinking about this, I am reminded of a stream near my home named “The Ten Mile Run."  It's named this way not because it is ten miles long, but because at one time it had ten mills along it's length.  Years later someone copied a map and wrote “Ten Miles" instead of “Ten Mills" and the typo somehow became the official name of the stream.

There are many other complications in naming things.  Many things are named after people or other place names, such as “New York" or “Smith's Landing."  These are generally “proper names" -- names that refer to a specific thing but have no meaning beyond that.  Names get borrowed as well, as for example with the many Native American names in the US.  And although we treat these as proper names, they often meant something in their native tongue, e.g., “Massachusetts" meant something like “Near the Great Blue Hill".

My hope is that by carefully picking patterns and vocabulary I can get good names most of the time.  I'll also rely on people's apophenia to see meaning where none exists and come up with an explanation for names that don't make obvious sense -- the way I did for “The Blue Cow Mountains."  There's a lot of room for creativity in naming.  I'll indulge some of that, but my goal for this first attempt is to generate wide variety of acceptable names.  I can always come back in the future and explore some of the more challenging ideas.

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