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Are there specific rules / conventions at play when creating demonyms? Or are they merely formed organically over time - the most popular winning out?

There are many suffixes to choose from, but I cannot find concrete guidelines as to which is proper to use in which instance.

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Related: english.stackexchange.com/q/60464/2303 –  Robusto Mar 20 '12 at 18:55
    
I think this wikipedia article is a good resource. –  Matt Эллен Mar 20 '12 at 19:00
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up vote 4 down vote accepted

Generally, you have to go with what the locals call themselves. The names of foreign countries and their associated demonyms are often transliterated or reinterpreted versions of the original—or altogether fabricated because the original is unknown. As with any term in any language, the most popular wins.

These five suffixes seem by far the most common:

  • -(a)n (mostly for countries) as in African

  • -ian as in Oregonian

  • -ite (mostly for cities) as in Vancouverite

  • -er as in New Englander

  • -ese as in Japanese

Other suffixes listed in the Wikipedia article such as -ard as in Spaniard and -onian as in Newportonian are rarer and sound a little more old-fashioned. If you need to coin a new demonym, such as for a novel, then I would use one of the more common suffixes and leave it at that. People from Earth are often called Earthlings, but all of the other Solar planetary demonyms end in -an, including other names for Earthfolk such as Terrans, Tellurians, and in Futurama, Earthicans.

Speaking of -folk, it’s best left to things with a folksy sort of feel—Tolkien’s Shirefolk, for instance, parallels townsfolk, gentlefolk, menfolk, that sort of thing.

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Glasgow, Tasmania -> Glaswegian, Taswegian. Manchester -> Mancunian –  Mitch Mar 20 '12 at 20:23
    
-1: That's silly - the Japanese don't meaningfully call themselves "Japanese". I don't speak Japanese, but obviously they call themselves something in their own language. –  FumbleFingers Mar 20 '12 at 20:31
    
@FumbleFingers: …that’s why that sentence has more than one part. I’ll clarify. –  Jon Purdy Mar 21 '12 at 0:51
    
Incidentally, Japan actually is derived from the same word as the native Japanese nihon. The Chinese version of the word pronounced nippon(go) was transliterated cipan(gu) (now riben) and subsequently (mis-)reinterpreted. Their -ese is just jin, the ordinary word for person. –  Jon Purdy Mar 21 '12 at 1:02
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@Eamonn: It’s largely subjective. If there were a land called Purdy, its residents could be called Purdians, Purdites, Purdese, or even Purds (like TurkeyTurks). All of these offer some clues that the land is called Purdy; Purdan and Purder, however, sound like they refer to the land of Purd. In general, I would follow common sound and stress changes: Babylon (Xxx) → Babylonian (xxXxx); Rome (X) → Roman (Xx); Berlin (xX) → Berliner (xXx), &c. Find a name that’s similar and model your coinage after it, and just ask people what sounds good to them. –  Jon Purdy Mar 23 '12 at 4:11
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