Names without borders
Many globe-trotting readers have asked for advice on choosing names that "travel well." Foreign relatives, international work assigments, or simply a sense of the small world around us can make a global-ready name an attractive target.
You may have specific cultural targets. Indian-Americans, for instance, know the standard pool of "crossover names" -- Maya, Sarita, Neil -- that sound natural in both of the cultures they straddle. But suppose your goal isn't a specific cultural match but a broad accessibility? What can make an English-based name attractive and pronounceable for the rest of the world?
In one respect, current styles are already leading in that direction. As I've discussed in the past, American fashion has turned against names with multiple pronounced consonants in a row. English has plenty of these consonant clusters, in words (prompt, strange) as well as names (George, Martha.) Yet many languages simply don't permit clusters, or severely restrict them. Japanese and Hawaiian are familar examples. Think of typical names from those cultures, like Kalani Kealoha or Takahiro Suzuki.
Even languages that load up on consonant clusters may not permit the same ones as English. In Spanish, for instance, S* clusters don't start words: special is especial, Steven is Esteban. And unfamiliar clusters are notoriously frustrating tongue-twisters for ESL students. English speakers are similiarly tripped up by some Slavic name openings; think Ksenia and Sviatoslav. So rule #1 for smooth traveling: keep the consonants apart.
For single sounds, the vowel sounds ah, ee and oo are near-universal and vowels in general are pretty forgiving. In speech, a slightly-off vowel tends to be less disruptive than a slightly-off consonant. From the annals of ESL classes, the classic insanity-inducing English sound is TH, both voiced ("thy") and unvoiced ("thigh"). W is the least favored letter.
Finally, there's the question of endings. In many languages, names ending in vowels are more comfortable than consonant endings. Hawaiian and Japanese apply once again, along with Italian, Kiswahili, etc.
So where does this leave us? Frankly, with a lot of girls' names. You can use these rules to generate plenty of names, familiar and unfamiliar, with a simple, timeless feminine sound. Try Adina, Amira, Anna, Ayana, Leila, Lena, Malaika, Malia, Mari, Melina, Mika, Mira, Nina, Saniya, Shani, Sofia, Talia, Tamara, Tova...you get the idea. But boys are tougher. Not that options don't exist (Nico and Dario, for example). But by and large the closer you get to a globalized boy's name the farther you get from an American one. You may never have met an American girl named Adina or Shani, but would you blink an eye if you did? For an American-sounding boy, though, you typically have to slap a consonant on the end. Try Lucas, a hit name from New Zealand to Belgium, Sweden to Brazil.