Naming people and places while avoiding explicit coding and stereotypes
I am writing a fantasy story and am worldbuilding. The planet is earthlike in nature (liquid water, oxygen atmosphere, etc). The people on the planet (humans) were created by the four gods that created the planet (earth, air, fire, water deities) and the people were born from the land which they inhabit. To clarify, people living in a tropical rainforest climate have dark brown/ reddish brown skin to blend in with the trees while people living in a desert climate have beige-y bronzed skin to blend in with the sand.
I study evolutionary biology, so I’m using that to help create the races of people on the planet. They are adapted to their environments, accounting for skin color, muscle tone, eyesight, etc (kind of like how animals adapt to their environments, but not in a derogatory way or anything) Each race has their own culture stemming from the geography and the resources available to them.
My problem comes when trying to name people/places/things. My first instinct is to draw upon existing languages and adapt them. Ex: tundra/snow inhabiting peoples speak a language similar to existing scandinavian/russian/eastern european languages and tropical inhabiting peoples speak a language similar to pourtuguese/spanish or telugu/malay/javanese and so on and so forth
However, I’m trying to make the cultures of my peoples unique, drawing upon multiple cultures and my own imagination for inspiration and not simply coding one specific race or ethnic group. How should I go about naming people and places of different races without alluding to an existing culture? Is that even possible? For example, would it be rude to draw upon traditional west african languages for inspiration of naming places and people in a tropical setting if the culture I create is nothing like the culture of west africans?
Or am I just over analyzing things? *sigh*
There are plenty of worldbuilding and culture-coding articles on WritingWithColor (look in the tags), but in regards to your primary concern of naming things, there is a subject that I don’t think we’ve gone over too often: phonotactics.
Phonotactics is basically …The “rules” of what can be a word in a given language. It’s a study of the patterns and constraints in a language’s soundset, a sort of quantifying of why “vlim” could pass for a word in English but “mtar” couldn’t. If you look up, for example, ‘Spanish phonotactic constraints’ you can find breakdowns of what consonant and vowel combinations occur and do not occur in the language, and even syllable patterns and vowel-to-consonant ratios. With some reading on phonotactic constraints, you can get the vibe of a given language and use that as a scaffolding to make up unique names that sound like they come from a real language, capture the ‘vibe’ of a given language, and yet not be an explicit (or obvious) copy.
Now, which languages would you want to pick for which cultures?
Naturally, you would do well to NOT pair cultures that have a rocky history with one another (for instance, I would not by any means use a French-based language on a Vietnamese-like culture), but picking a language based off of shared climate/terrain and not shared culture, is completely legitimate. There is study on the correlation of climate and language, after all. For example, look at the work of Caleb Everett, correlating tonal languages with humid regions.
After doing this, if you wanted to take linguistic world-building a step further you could consider the terrain of your world and identify the conquerors, the traders, and the isolationists within it, and look at the geography of the world and locate the places where these different cultures are most likely to interact and thus have a transformative effect on the languages in the regions they most commonly interact. Decide whether there is an attempt in some nations to standardize its language(s), such as through an official language or a universal writing system.