Names without borders

Mar 1st 2007

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.

One more week to enter the Baby Name Pool!

Feb 23rd 2007

If you're reading this blog, you should enter the Baby Name Pool. Here's why.

The Pool, now in its second year, asks you to guess names that rose and fell in popularity in 2006. In a sense, it's about fashion -- what's hot and what's not. But names are so rich in cultural connections that it's really about the broad zeitgeist. Last year you would have beat all comers by keeping an eye on MTV ("Laguna Beach" spawned the hot name Talan) and auto racing (Danica, thanks to driver Danica Patrick). But names reflect our serious sides, too. The reverent name Johnpaul and its feminine counterpart Karol also soared in 2005. And true style mavens might have predicted the cross-breeding of hot styles: the androgynous surname trend + the rise of Emily and Emma = hot new Emery and Emerson.

You live in the world and you bring your own unique perspective. Maybe you happen to know three baby Mathildas; maybe you wish you could name a baby Akon. Maybe you just remember what you've seen on TV -- last year not one of the 500 entrants thought of Talan or Johnpaul.

So take a stab! Give your impression of the year in names by entering the contest at babynamepool.com

Off with their heads

Feb 9th 2007

Last time, I looked at current trends in the popularity of different name initials. Vowels as a group are still soaring, leaving consonants behind. You can see the effect in names of every stripe. You want traditional, formal and regal? That would be Alexander today, not Frederick. Dignified Old Testament style for girls? Hmm, try Abigail, not Miriam. If you're considering a slightly offbeat name, you might lean toward vowel options to make the name more fashion-palatable--Adelaide over Millicent, say. Or you might steer straight toward the least fashionable letters to stay as offbeat as possible.

But the names most affected by swings in sound fashion are the most contemporary choices. Contemporary-style baby namers are willing to mold and refine a name to sound just right to their ears. So how does a creative modern namer address the decline of consonants? No problem. Just chop off the head of last year's hot name.

Madison has been a hit girl's name for 20 years and has begun a quiet decline. But Addison, unheard of 20 years ago, is suddenly booming. The '90s hit Kayla is fading? OK, here comes Ayla. You can find it happening in the middle of names too. Kaitlyn is falling while Kaylin is rising...and Aylin's rising even faster.

Sure, there are families of names where the vowel and consonant versions rise together. Aiden, Caden, Jayden all hit around the same time and are all soaring. But it's harder to find examples of hit vowel names on the decline that get a makeover by adding a consonant. Ashley isn't being reborn as Kashley or Amanda as Tamanda. 'Cause consonants are so 20th century, ya know?

The strongest candidates for a stylish trim--just a little off the top--seem to be the names that attract creative/contemporary namers to begin with. Look for little Bayleighs and Harleys to morph into Ayleighs and Arleys soon.