"What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet."
(William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II)
Names. It is said that man gives names to everything and anything he can lay his eyes upon, because without a name he cannot visualize an object. And if he cannot visualize it, he cannot understand it. For us, the GMs, naming is a heavy task. Not only to we have to come up with names for every character our players will run into, but for every town they visit, every street they walk down, every inn they visit and every hero they hear tales about. Furthermore, we need to make all these names make sense and fit together. In the real world, names not only have meaning, but also flavor and sound. For instance, when you hear the name Jean LeBeau you can automatically recognize it is French, or that Connor McCloud is Scottish. In this article I will attempt to point out some points that should be considered when creating such a naming system, and some techniques (and dirty tricks) to help you do so.
Real languages tend to have strict set of rules about which consonants are available in the language, which can appear in which part of a word, which can or cannot follow which, which vowels exist and which vowels can follow which consonants. None of our last names is Tolkein, and we are not about to create a language of out own here, but it is important to decide how our imaginary languages sounds like. For instance, you could decide that the Elvish musical tongue is full of vowels, and does not contain any consonants originating in the back of the throat. Moreover, you can decide that since the language sounds almost like music, closed syllables are allowed only at the end of words, not their middle. Thus, we can immediately see (or rather, hear) that names like Elihan or Trikulog sound Elvish while names like Akhmed and Arpiakh definitely do not. A dirty trick that you can imply here is to shamelessly copy from a real language. For instance, you can decide that the Elvish tongue in your campaign world sounds remarkably like the Spanish language of our world. You don't really need to know Spanish in order to do this properly - you just need a firm concept of how Spanish sounds like.
Back in the day, especially in closed ethnic societies, all names had the same structure and format, and so should the name in your campaign. For instance, a person's last name could point to his occupation (such as William Thatcher or Jon Archer) or place of birth (usually with the addition of some suffix such as Mark Idahonian). Another variation on this theme is having the last name reference the person's father. Often, these names are concatenated to describe the person's family tree, such as: Salem Ibn Siam Ibn Rani Ibn Dazlim Ibn Daud Ibn Yusuf. It is also customary in some cultures to name the first born children after some ancestral figure, usually the grandfather or one of the (deceased) uncles. Make sure that all the names in a certain culture you create have a similar structure and follow the same rules. This way, when the characters stumble across the last resting place of the great hero James McIsher, they can automatically conclude that he was a Hobbit (because of the sound and structure of the name), that he hailed from the city of Isher (because of the Mc prefix in his last name) and that he has a great uncle that was also called James (this they know that Hobbits are named after their great uncles), and that he was tenth brother in his family (since Hobbits are named in an alphabetical order).
First of all, do not feel alarmed by this article. All the ideas given here are merely suggestions. Feel free to ignore or change some or all of them as you wish. Second, remember that you do not have to construct overly elaborate name systems for each and every culture when you create it. Instead, you can simply come up with a name the strikes your ear for a character you or one of your players create, and then construct an entire name system de-facto to explain it. Remember: Your players don't have to know everything you do or do not know about the campaign world.