NANP: Cold Names

Today’s guest for Names: A New Perspective is one of my favourite authors of this year, Kate Elliott, who has penned several SFF series over the years, like Spiritwalker, Jaran, Crown of Stars and others. I’ve only read her first Spiritwalker novel, Cold Magic (my review), but I’ll be reading the sequel Cold Fire in a few days, and then the third book Cold Steel hopefully next month. For me, Kate’s writing defines itself through detailed and thoughtful world-building, of the kind that Brandon Sanderson and Frank Herbert have done with their Mistborn and Dune Chronicles novels. World-building is something I love and Kate’s alternate Europe in Spiritwalker is one of my favourite SFF worlds. Here’s what Kate has to say on the topic of names in Cold Magic and its sequels.

KateElliottSpiritwalker01Cold Names

by Kate Elliott

The most difficult geographical challenge I faced in writing the world of Cold Magic is that according to the fantasy alternate history I have constructed there are no Germanic-descended languages and thus no Germanic place names on the continent of Europe.

Because of the extended Ice Age and large ice caps and shelves covering much of far northern Europe, there is no Scandinavia, no England as we know it, no Germany. No Germanic-speaking tribes develop the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language tree. Instead Europa offers up a melange of Celtic, Roman, Mande (Malian), and Phoenician cultures and languages, with a tangled history that bears both similarities to and differences from our own.

Now I grant you that I deliberately borrowed elements of Anglo history and Anglo novelistic tropes as stage settings and devices for the Spiritwalker books. I have reasons for that which I won’t go into here.

But when it came to geography I tried to be strict: Insofar as I was able to manage it, Germanic-derived place names are never used because those names never existed.

Obviously it is impossible to get across that there are no Germanic-descended languages in this world because I am writing in English. Nor can I declare outright that I’m not using Germanic place names because my heroine Cat would never stop to think about the lack of Germanic place names which after all do not exist in her world or her consciousness.

What this meant for writing Cold Magic (and its sequels) is that I had to examine every place name I used to see if I could determine its etymology.

Fortunately many modern place names are already of Celtic or Latin or Greek or Punic/Phoenician derivation. Rome remains Rome. London was Londinium becomes Londun. Carthage still exists although I use Qart Hadast because it is closer to the original language. Marseille turns back to Massilia, the name used in the classical era.

In other cases I had to seek out the earlier name of a place that now carries a Germanic derived name. For example, Colchester’s earliest name was the Celtic, Camulodunum; I compress that to Camlun.

A particularly good discussion of how the map in Cold Magic gives the reader additional information that is not in the book can be found in this review of the book by Edward James on Strange Horizons online website.

In many cases I sought out the oldest name I could find for a place, usually recorded in Roman or Greek records. Orleans in France evolved from its Roman name of Aurelianum but it was originally called Cenabum when it was a principal town/fort of the Carnutes tribe; I shorten that to Cena. Some of the towns and cities in Iberia (what we call Spain) are Phoenican: Gadir is now known as Cadiz but it started life as as a Carthaginian colonial port. Because of the expansive nature of the Roman Empire and their record-keeping I was able to track down older Celto-Iberian place names (in Spain), many of which we know of because they were recorded by the conquering Romans. General Camjiata, for example, hails from Numantia, near modern Soria; Numantia was an important political center in the Iberia of that time and the Romans laid siege to it and eventually razed it (although it remained inhabited for some time afterward in a diminished form).

It is quite fascinating to see how names shift, which change and which retain their original roots. Physical features show great resilience in terms of name permanence. Many rivers in Europe retain ancient names or appellations even if the form of the name has changed over time. The Thames is a good example. So are the Alps (even if in the world of Cold Magic they are covered by a massive ice cap).

When writing an epic fantasy meant to include a depth of history it is worth considering which places and features change names, and why, and which become so deeply embedded that they do not change even if the spoken language changes around them.


Kate Elliott on Twitter, and Web.

I mentioned Kate in a recent editorial, “Women in SFF Part 1“, in which I list some of my favourite women authors, past and present. Do check it out!

The next guest author on the blog is Bruce Cordell, and his post will go up this coming Monday on the 24th. You can check out the full schedule in the link up top.

Posted on June 20, 2013, in Debut Authors Guest Series, Guest Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Oh, how totally cool. Now I’m all envious of your name places and want to run away with them. 🙂


    • Except for Adurnam (which is the Adurni Celts and “nam” suffix), none of them are made up. That’s the best part. Oh, and Expedition. And a couple of the cities in North Amerike since the history of that continent is so very different.


  2. The fact that I was entranced by your map, the glaciated geography, new and different towns and places names and entities (such as the various tribes and peoples) should be of no surprise to Kate whatsoever


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