I meant to say something about this a few months ago right after I read the book, but now is as good a time as any.
Anyway – back in July, I read the books Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete by Gene Wolfe. The premise is, there is a soldier in ancient Greece, named Latro, who received a wound in battle and now has no long term memory – he forgets everything in 12 hours or so (though this increases as time passes and at the end he can remember the past about 18 hours). This loss, however, has made him able to see what others cannot – the supernatural. He can see the gods, who have some special plan for him that he doesn’t understand.
There were many things I liked about the books. What I want to talk about, though, is the proper nouns found in it. Specifically, the geographic names. They’re in ancient Greece, so they’re dealing with cities like Athens, Sparta, Corinth, etc. But Athens is called “Thought”, Sparta is called “Rope” (and its inhabitants “Rope-Makers”), and Corinth “Tower Hill”. Thessaly (I think) is called Horseland, Egypt “Riverland”, the Peleponnesian peninsula is “the Silent Country”, and so on.
These seem to be pretty much direct translations from the Greek (though I don’t know Greek). Athens is named for Athena, Athena is the goddess of Thought, which means that her name basically means thought, and anything named after her is named after thought. Corinth is apparently just a description of what the city is; a tower on a hill.
Yet calling the cities Rope, Thought, Tower Hill, etc, seems very strange to the modern reader. This isn’t just because we know the real names of the places and we’d expect them to have those names. It’s also because names aren’t, in modern languages, supposed to be normal words. Think of the names of various countries; none of them mean anything in English other than ‘this place on a map’. Some of them mean things in ancient languages, like Latin. Some are named after people – Washington D.C., for example, or San Francisco. But very few are normal English words. Some are, but most aren’t. (I do wonder if this is true for only English, or for other modern languages as well. I’m not sure about that, but I suspect it is.)
Why is this? Since we’re talking about philology, I’m going to bring Tolkien into this. The Elves when they first awaken call themselves Quendi, “The Speakers”. But that is the only place quend* is used. “Quenya” is the name of the language. I read a book that claimed that, as soon as they called themselves Quendi, the stem quend* became a proper name and they didn’t use it any more to refer to speaking. So there are related words, but once Elves became “Quendi”, the term “Quendi” doesn’t mean “speaker”, it just means “elf”. It seems to me that the same process occurred for place names. Athens might have once meant, essentially, “Thought”, but now it is just the name of a city in Greece. As soon as there was a goddess named Athena and a city named after her (or really a bit afterwards), Athen* stopped meaning “thought”.
I don’t know how long this process takes, but it seems to me that it is accelerating in the modern day – because we are forced to actively give names to things. The city is called “Athens” because its patron goddess is “Athena” who is called that because she is Thought. The word thought just came to mean Athena and then Athens. They didn’t come to the acropolis, post a flag and say, “This is Athens”. The name evolved organically. Compare that to how cities are made in the United States.
This seems to me like a very important thing to remember when making up names for a made-up world. Just because we very self-consciously give places names nowadays doesn’t mean that’s how names are normally made. You can’t just randomly assign names to places and expect it to sound authentic.