rnn-fun: English place names

I’m playing with neural networks to generate funny place names. The first results are for populated places in England.

  • Creswell Green, Staffordshire
  • Fressingfield, Suffolk
  • Salterbeck, Cumbria

geograph-3150880-by-John-Firth

These are genuine English places that you can go and visit. As is Upton Snodsbury, pictured above. These beauties of nomenclatural artistry are from my training data, the Ordnance Survey’s OS Open Names dataset, the motherlode of UK placenames. After processing, I had 32,637 genuine names of “populated places” (i.e. settlements) in England. That’s plenty for training a network, although for extra geek points an extra 131 names would’ve been better. After an hour or so of making my laptop whirr away, I was ready to go. The results were a joy.

  • Bollonby, Dorset
  • Shettleton Vale, Dorset
  • Woolsly, Dorset
  • Upper Haggerlane, Dorset
  • Knighton, Dorset
  • Ovansley Barcots, Dorset
  • Brownthwaite, Dorset
  • Leeenhill, Dorset
  • Harkstourt Paw, Dorset
  • West Bank, Somerset
  • Newmalk, Dorset
  • Abbey Green, Dorset
  • Chefton, City of Plymouth
  • Springham, Devon
  • Stokesage, Devon
  • Sherrady Paroe, Devon

These are very convincing English placenames. Apart, perhaps, from Leeenhill, which has just one too many eees. Some are accidentally genuine – there is an Abbey Green in Dorset, it turns out. Also, the network appeared to have become obsessed with the South West. Looking more closely, I realised that not only had it learned the right form for entries here (a name and a county), it had learned that the same counties tended to go together, since my training dataset had great runs of data in county order. That wasn’t a regularity I wanted it to learn, so I randomised the order of the training set and set it off again. This time the results came in random order, but were still top-quality:

  • Tregounden, County of Herefordshire
  • Kingstworth, Swinghamshire
  • Liston, Devon
  • Hatwell Holt, County of Herefordshire
  • Lower’s Common, Staffordshire
  • West Curwood, Hertfordshire
  • Topworth, North Yorkshire
  • Rykerook, Somerset
  • Marton, Cumbria
  • Glumhill, Staffordshire
  • Lines, Milton Keynes
  • St Egerperferton, County Durham
  • Penty Fiehall, Cumbria
  • Weetloss, East Riding of Yorkshire
  • Little Sandy Park, Kent
  • Lewtin, West Sussex
  • Great Burton, Rutland

It’s not perfect – Tregounden is clearly in Cornwall, not Herefordshire. But it’s pretty convincing. If there isn’t a Glumhill in Staffordshire, there should be.

Almost all of the counties are genuine ones, but there are occasional fancies, like Swinghamshire, home of Kingstworth. There was also

  • Wimmer, Bourcestershire

which perhaps suggests the network had absorbed The Archers as part of the quintessence of Englishness.

Most of the names are very convincing. And even with the ones that aren’t, you can see what it was thinking. We all know – well, all people who know England well know – that you’d never get somewhere called St Egerperferton, but it’s a good guess. And while there are some straight Lines in Milton Keynes, there are a lot fewer than people imagine, and they don’t get called that.

Some of the suggestions have just the sort of is-that-actually-rude feel to them that makes English toponymy such a joy:

  • Sniddington, County Durham
  • Bockpole, East Sussex
  • Runter End, Cambridgeshire

But, of course, if you look hard enough through the data, you can find ones that are clearly quite rude. Or at least are sufficient to raise a schoolkid-like snigger:

  • Up Bumberidge, Hampshire
  • Bumlangout, North Yorkshire
  • Weston, Bumcershire
  • Milly Load, Nottinghamshire
  • Mounton in in the Woop, Bath and North East Somerset
  • Old Functon, Oxfordshire
  • Lower Mincor, Oxfordshire
  • Randiskerton, North Yorkshire
  • Thornwithich, Pooestop
  • Bookenby Weece, Northamptonshire

I think I vote Pooestop my least favourite fictional county, perhaps even worse than Bumcershire.

Next stop: I introduce the neural network to place names in the Celtic fringes – Scotland and Wales – and see whether its toponymical genius will work there too.

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Author: dougclow

Academic in the Institute of Educational Technology, the Open University, UK. Interested in technology-enhanced learning and learning analytics.

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