This will be the first post of a new format I’m trying for this blog. It’s simply a collection of words with a common theme, and commentary that should help inspire you to add words to your conlang’s lexicon. Today’s theme is about words for different kinds of land and related terms. This list will focus on physical geography, and will be about larger regions rather than smaller local features.
Images used for visual prompts are sourced from Pexels, unless stated otherwise.
Land, Ground, Earth, Terrestrial
There’s an interesting distinction between ‘land’ and ‘ground’: land suggests a large area and is contrasted with the sea; while ground suggests a smaller area and is usually contrasted with the sky. ‘Earth’ mainly refers to a substance, but could also be synonymous with ground.
In English, we can use zero derivation to derive the verb ‘to land’. This refers to both from the sea or the air. In Chinese Mandarin, this word is a compound, dēnglù, literally ‘to step on land’.
Chinese Mandarin also has a dvandva, hǎilù, which refers to sea and land collectively. This word is also used as a metonym to collectively refer to the army and navy. This is also a good idea for deriving a word for ‘world’; my conworld’s name, Sha̤nhaa, is Nìmpyèshiu word meaning ‘mountain-sea’ as there are mountains in the east and a sea to the west.
Continent, Subcontinent, Region, Landmass
We often define the continents as a ‘continuous masses of land separated by seas and oceans’. However, they are really just culturally agreed upon regions. In my opinion, the best way to define a continent is just by listing them. The term ‘subcontinent’ refers to a large significant region within a larger continent. This word is usually used for the ‘The Indian Subcontinent’. A similar word to this is region, which is a bit more vague, but can refer to places such as ‘The Middle East’ or ‘Oceania’. The word ‘landmass’ could be considered a synonym for continent, but can refer to a literal continuous mass of land above sea level. It can also include islands.
There’s an interesting word in Chinese mandarin: Wǔzhōusìhǎi, literally ‘five-continent-four-ocean’ which means ‘all over the world’.
I recommend some great you-tube videos explaining the origins of the names of individual continents:
- How Did The Continents Get Their Names? – Cogito
- Exonyms vs. Endonyms: Rename Continents? – Altas Pro
Continental, Inland, Landlocked, Mainland
The word ‘continental’ is used as an antonym of insular. Even though the noun ‘continent’ can refer to a landmass and surrounding islands, the adjective ‘continental’ typically doesn’t.
Landscape, Scenery, Environment
–scape part of ‘landscape’ is actually a variation of the Germanic suffix –ship which is also related to the word shape. –scape is reanalysed as a suffix meaning ‘scenery’ or ‘view’, like the words moonscape, dreamscape or seascape.
The Mandarin word for ‘environment’ is huánjìng, which is a compound of ‘ring’ and ‘place’.
In Japanese, the word sabaku ‘desert’ is written with the Kanji 砂 (alternatively 沙) sa– ‘sand’ and 漠 –baku which means ‘vague’, ‘obscure’, ‘vast’ or ‘boundless’.
Plain, Savanna, Grassland, Shrubland, Steppes, Tundra
Grassland in Chinese Mandarin is cǎoyuán, literally ‘grass-level’, and the word for savanna is dàcǎoyuán ‘big-grass-level’.
Ice cap, Polar, Arctic
Arctic is from the greek word arktikós, meaning ‘bear’. I like to think it refers to polar bears, but it actually refers to the constellation Ursa Major.
Forest, Woods, Woodland
In English, the word woods can be usually used as a plurale tantum (a word that only has a plural form), although the singular can be used in some contexts. This is probably because the term ‘wood’ is acting as a metonym for ‘tree’ rather than being a direct metonym for a small forest.
Weirdly, jungle is from the Sanskrit word jaṅgala which means ‘arid, or desert’. I’m not exactly sure why this is, but I assume it’s a metonym. Jungle also has potential for some interesting metaphors: Jungles are overgrown and you could be easily lost in one. The word ‘rainforest’ is a more formal synonym and lacks the figurative senses of ‘jungle’.
Wetland, Swamp, Marsh, Bog, Moor, Moorland
The word swamp may be related to the old English word swamm meaning ‘mushroom or fungus’. Swamp may also be related to the words ‘sump’ and ‘swim’. Marsh may have come from a proto-Germanic word meaning ‘sea’. And bog may come from the Old Irish word for ‘soft’.
The word wild comes from the Proto-Indo-European word *wei- meaning ‘grass’ or ‘hair’. In Chinese Mandarin wilderness is kuàngyé literally ‘vast-field’.
Area, Acre, Hectare
Units for area can simply be derived from squaring units of length. That would be the most mathematically elegant way of creating them, but perhaps you might want something more organic. Traditionally, an acre isn’t defined as a square unit, but a rectangle of one chain (66 feet or 20.1168 m) by one furlong (10 chains, 660 feet or 201.168 m); this is the equivalent of 10 square chains or 4,046.86 m2.
The term Hectare is actually a metric based unit, derived from SI prefix for 100 hect-; and are, a lesser known unit of area defined as 100 m2.
Terra Incognita, Virgin Territory
Terra Incognita is a Latin phrase that means ‘land unknown’, and is frequently used on maps. A similar term is Virgin Territory, which implies that the land is undeveloped rather than unexplored. And no, it does not refer to a new micronation founded by incels.
Thanks for reading the first of my word lists. Please give some feedback of the format; Was it helpful? Interesting? Boring? Also, any recommendations for changing the formatting and suggestions for future themes will also be helpful. I hope this to be a more regular feature on my blog that takes up less of my time, as I would like to spend more time on worldbuilding and creative writing projects (which would be more irregular content).
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Fantastic post and a lot of fun! Your section on words for “world” being some combination of land and ocean (like Sha̤nhaa) reminded me of another example: Earthsea. And I think etymonline (https://www.etymonline.com/word/jungle#etymonline_v_6557) has a good explanation for how Sanskrit word for “desert” came to mean “jungle”.
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Thanks for the comment. For some reason, I didn’t think of looking up origins of the names of other fantasy worlds as I was just drawing from experience. And thanks for the link, very interesting.
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