This is kind of along the lines of my last question on why words for "say", "tell", and "talk", etc.. But it is more philosophical, not sure if it's better for the world-building community.

I am working on a conlang for a world, and am wondering if I should include these listed words (city, county, state, country/nation). Zipcode is a clear physical boundary with a number. City, county, state, and nation seem simply like "government boundary" or "administrative boundary". I know Google Places API supports these:

administrative_area_level_3 (also possibly city)
locality (city when supported)

So to me that tells me these names for these administrative areas are legacy, based on an evolutionary vocabulary talking about the size of the place and how the rules get structured. For a nation, it controls states. A state controls counties, counties control cities. But why did we call them these names? Why not just have "admin level 1" and "admin level 4", etc.? And also, the first civilization (like Sumer) were city-states? Or cities, within an empire? It is so convoluted and confusing.

"Neighborhood" makes sense, because that is what surrounds your house (like mathematical neighborhood). But there are two uses of neighborhood, that mathematical definition, and admin level 5 or whatever boundaries (sub-city casual boundaries).

Must these terms be defined? How can I avoid defining them?

My conlang is an auxlang, but I don't want a 1-to-1 mapping from English/US to the conlang. I would like to "clean up" some of the legacy terms, like this case, if necessary. City seems like an arbitrary boundary which is extremely hard to define. And like Google Maps shows, it doesn't work in all places. So having it be a tree of nested administrative boundaries makes more sense. Do any languages do it like that?

I am thinking for equivalent conlang words:

  • globe
  • globe-government-1 (nation)
  • globe-gov-2 (state in some cases, county or province or city in others)
  • globe-gov-3 (city, or county or province).

This doesn't make it clear that in China "city" is level 4 or level 5, while in the US it is level 3 or whatever. But I don't think you really need that distinction, do you? Not sure what to make of this complicated situation, how to simplify it.

  • 1
    Can you confidently predict that no level will ever be inserted? Sep 29, 2022 at 2:16

2 Answers 2


The simple answer is we have these words because they're useful. People find it easier to talk about state government vs city government, rather than talking about level two government vs level four government. And governments are not all alike! In America, a "state" and a "territory" are both administrative units smaller than a "nation", but the difference between them is very politically important—states get representation in Congress, territories don't. Or, English has borrowed the word "satrapy" to describe a certain level of ancient Persian administration, simply because they functioned differently enough from "states" or "counties" that it's easier to use a different name for them.

The specific words we use exist for historical reasons, such as a "county" being the region governed by a count. But the existence of different words for these different levels is simply something that speakers have found useful. It's often important to be able to distinguish between a state, a territory, a province, and a region, and these words have specific implications (and sometimes specific political meanings) that "hierarchy level 3" does not.

  • But what about weekdays, in some languages they are called "day 1, day 2", etc., I don't see why we couldn't name the levels.
    – Lance
    Sep 29, 2022 at 3:46
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    @Lance The difference between states, provinces, and territories is generally much greater than the difference between one culture's conception of Tuesday and another's.
    – Draconis
    Sep 29, 2022 at 4:35
  • @Draconis Further, the differences between tiers of administration are not merely quantitative. (Also there are differences within tiers.) Oct 13, 2022 at 2:58

The first word of the set to exist was likely some form of city or village, since that was where humans lived permanently. Most cities have pretty clear, if not sharp, unofficial borders. Where they don't, it's often because they've grown together. Note also that cities aren't a subset of any of the above, except in a purely administrative sense; Kansas City is in Kansas and Missouri, Sault Ste. Marie is in the US and Canada, and Baarle is in Belgium and the Netherlands.

Some sort of word for kingdom probably came next. Note that this doesn't map directly to the modern idea of nation, as kings were often the subjects of emperors and thus the kingdom part of an empire. The concept of empire changed between the Roman Era and the Victorian Era, but the resulting entities were both called empires.

In the modern day, nations have started forming unions, like the Commonwealth of Independent States and European Union. Will this congeal into another administrative block? If so, a simple numeric tower doesn't have space for it. One could tag it an empire, but there's strong social reasons they aren't using the word "empire".

I don't know your goals. This would give an auxlang a very "a priori" feel. For a bureaucratic race, I can see them obliviating all previous distinctions. (I would think city would exist, though, since most places aren't tiled into cities; there's still a lot of farms and wilderness out there.) For a real-world language, there's no way it could match reality, which is more complex than even the current vocabulary. Puerto Rico is a territory, not a state (which is a big difference in the US), and a lot of times gets its own entry in lists of nations. Hong Kong is a SAR (special administrative region), not province. Flattening everything is easy but problematic.

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