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I wanted the names in my fantasy world to sound like they came from a coherent language, so I found a language that on paper (via Google translate) looks how I want my language to sound. When I wanted a name, I translated a relevant word, then changed/added/removed letters to make a new word.

The problem I have is that the new words I’ve come up with still appear to mean something in that language: Google translate either still recognises the original word or else comes up with a translation to a different word. If I change enough letters that Google no longer recognises it as any word from that language, the characteristics of the language that I like end up disappearing.

I really don’t want the original language to be recognisable, because I don’t want anyone to think that the people in my fantasy story are in any way connected to the people who speak the original language. I would like it to be an inspiration, nothing more, nothing less.

How can I go about keeping the essence of how the language looks but moving far enough away for it not to be recognisable?

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  • Just to explain, I accepted the answer that made the most sense to me as a beginner with limited knowledge of linguistics. Theodore's answer sounds like it's probably useful to someone with more experience but I wouldn't know where to start with defining phonology and phonotactics. Feb 5, 2023 at 18:32

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Maybe a massive consonant swap can help depending on the structure of the language you are starting with. David Crystal reports in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language a game where the Javanese 20 consonants (in Javanese order) are h, d, p, m, n, t, ḍ, g, c, s || j, b, r, w, y, ṭ, k, l, ñ, ŋ are matched in a mirror fashion, i.e., h and ŋ are switched and so on. This should make words and some of the character of the resulting language different enough to be not immediately intelligible, not even for uninitiated native speakers of the starting language.

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  • The words seem to have a lot of vowels, but this is a logical idea. I shall experiment, thank you. Jan 29, 2023 at 21:10
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    You could rotate phonemes within classes, e.g.: p → t → k → p, w → l → y → r → w, i → e → a → o → u → i. Feb 3, 2023 at 20:49
  • @AntonSherwood, yes that's basically what I've ended up doing. Feb 5, 2023 at 18:26
  • @Mousentrude I'd love to see the result someday. Feb 5, 2023 at 19:04
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Since you're only worried about proper names with a cohesive sound, and not a whole language with grammar and all, it might be fruitful to start with the definition of the phonology and phonotactics of the language you'd like to use as a model.

Pick valid words at random according to the phonology/phonotactics and plug them into Google Translate to see whether you've created a real word by mistake. Make sure to use "detect language" because you may have accidentally made a word in another language.

You could even use software or a web-based generator using your preferred phonology.

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