I'm wondering if there are any general morphological properties of proper names. If a word is used as a name, it will be constrained by whatever syntactic constraints that language uses from proper names, but are there any kind of cross-linguistic rules regarding any kind of morphological changes that take place.

For example, if a new town was founded, and its name is derived from the word "cheese", and we added, say, "ton" or one of the many other morphemes common to place names in English, would we need to make any morphological changes to "cheese" to produce a name, or would you end with Cheeseton? Are there any cases were changes would need to be made? What about when combining more than one root word - can we say anything about the formation of town names back when morphemes like "ton" and "chester" still had a separate lexical meaning, and thus would have been treated differently? And for any such rules that might exist, are they any different from the rules governing the morphology of any other noun? And what about the names of people, languages, cultures - are there any general rules for where they come from? How does this extend cross-linguistically?

I'm aware this a huge topic, so if there is published material on the topic, approaching it from a linguistic perspective, I'd be appreciative to be pointed in that direction even if no-one has any answers themselves.

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    Onomastics is the classical name for the study of proper names. Place names figure prominently in it, but it's not limited to them.
    – jlawler
    May 15, 2013 at 17:16
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    ...and toponomastics is a discipline within onomastics, which is the study of place names in particular. May 16, 2013 at 12:26
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    You might enjoy the website of the American Name Society, particularly the link to Names: A Journal of Onomastics. Apr 24, 2014 at 0:06
  • @DangerFourpence It's even an official Gummint Job: I had a roommate once who was a "Geo-Names Specialist" for the Defense Mapping Agency. Apr 24, 2014 at 0:09

1 Answer 1


what about the names of people, languages, cultures - are there any general rules for where they come from?

I'm especially fascinated by the ethnic adjectives we assign to the people and languages of a given place.

In English, we have a euphonic (literally translated from Greek: "good sounds"; i.e. it "sounds good" to us) sense that gives us "Seattleite" for Seattle, but "British" for Britain and "Kansan" for Kansas. "Kansite" doesn't "sound right" to us. We have an impressive list of potential suffixes to chose from when forming a new ethnic.

"England" is a great example of the kind of compound toponym you mention that evolved over time. It was originally Engla-land (engle the Anglos + land land of) in Old English and the haplology reduced the repeating "la-la" in the middle to form "England". Even with a steadfast rule of compounding toponyms from -land, -ton, etc., they are still susceptible to the evolution of cultural euphonics and their modern snapshot may not be immediately recognizable as an old compound.

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    Welcome to SE Linguistics and thank you for your answer! For the benefit of your readers, could you include a brief definition of what you understand by euphonic? Is it just that people are used to Kansan and not Kansite or do you think speakers who have never heard the word Kansan would still prefer it to Kansite?
    – robert
    Aug 24, 2013 at 19:08
  • Thanks, @robert. I added the translation of euphony for hopefully better clarity.
    – kiminoa
    Aug 26, 2013 at 20:15
  • Thank you, @kiminoa, for the translation, which is helpful. It still wonder whether you mean that people are used to Kansan and not Kansite by hearing the former repeatedly but note the latter, or do you think speakers who have never heard the word Kansan would still prefer it to Kansite? "sound right" seems a rather subjective term (sounds right to you, to me? why does it sound right?) and your answer would be all the more convincing if you could define it in more objective terms.
    – robert
    Aug 26, 2013 at 20:48
  • @robert, I haven't read any articles on the how of the subjectivity. I assume its innate as a native speaker, perhaps especially so with languages flexible enough to take on lots of on-the-fly neologisms that are understood by other speakers like it happens in English. I did intend to say that "Kansite" wouldn't "sound right", even if a native English speaker had never heard "Kansan" but was familiar with other ethnic adjectives. It would be interesting to study the why of it. Do chemists find "Kansite" less euphonic because it sounds like an oxyanion rather than an ethnic adjective?
    – kiminoa
    Aug 26, 2013 at 21:56
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    Before thinking about the why of it, is the whether of it even established? Are the studies e.g. showing that people's answers converge when you ask them "Assume there's a place called X. What would you call people from X?"
    – dainichi
    Sep 26, 2013 at 4:47

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