International names

I'm not a parent yet (and hope to keep it that way for a while!) but I'm a traveler and non-hispanic Spanish major, and I'm curious about the international names trend that has popped up recently.  I understand that in this increasingly small world, parents want their children to have names that are capable of crossing borders with relative ease, but what exactly does that mean?


Are people looking for names like Ana, Marie/Maria, and Sofia that are present in almost every culture?  Are they looking for names that are easily adapted, like Josephine to Josefina or Edward to Eduardo?  Or are they looking for names that are completely translatable, like Henry to Enrique or John to Johann?


When I lived in Spain, my host mom said my name (Nancy) and my roommate's name (Melody) as close to the English pronunciation as she could, but my other roommate Jessica became Yessica since the hard J sound doesn't exist in Spanish.  My interest in international naming took off last year reading a Spanish history textbook and seeing Enrique VII mentioned and having no idea who he was until I googled and realized the textbook was referring to Henry VII of England.  I find it so fascinating that over the course of history, different languages feel the need to translate everything, including names and places.  Like Germany, which is Deutschland to its own people, Germany to English-speakers, and Alemania to Spanish-speakers.  During a tour of Spain, one of my less intelligent classmates asked "Are we in Sevilla [Se-VEE-ya] or Seville right now?"

I understand that some of the translations come from the fact that some places are legitimate words (United States gets directly translated to Estados Unidos) and that many more come from the fact that languages don't all share the same spellings (Afrika/Africa) or sounds (The Hague is the closest most English-speakers will get to pronouncing the Dutch city of Den Haag).  But many translation just seem to be unnecessary, like going from Lisboa to Lisbon or Munchen to Munich.  A lot of these are from the imperial period of history and earlier, but do you think they're still relevant to naming today?


(I know all my examples are all Western European, with a heavy concentration of Spanish, but that's what I know best)


May 6, 2012 11:57 AM

I can answer for our own family; I have no idea how this compares to others in similar shoes.

Our Hungarian surname has 9 consonants, 3 vowels, plus a hyphen in the middle; nobody in the U.S. can say it, spell it, or alphabetize it correctly.

To contrast with that, I wanted our child's given name to be easy for English speakers -- but most of my family is still in Hungary, and Hungarian is my first language, so the name had to work well in Hungarian, too.

But I have a pretty broad definition of "a name": I was fine with names like Kathryn or Christopher (my sister- and brother-in-law), for which the Hungarian version involves changes in both spelling and pronunciation (Katalin, Kristóf). Names like David (my husband) and Julia (me) would be even better, of course: the pronunciation is somewhat different, but the spelling only changes minimally (Dávid, Júlia).

What we ended up with goes a step better: the spelling is the same either way (Julianna). The tradeoff is that there's some ambiguity in spelling and pronunciation in English (one 'n' or two, Julie-Anna or Julie-Ana), but I'm fine with that. (Julianna is not yet two, so she hasn't given any input.) In fact, at the shoe store yesterday the clerk asked which pronunciation she should use for our daughter, and I told her either one -- I usually say it in Hungarian, in which the initial consonant is different (YOU-lee-on-nah), so the difference between -anna and -ana is comparatively negligible.

My husband didn't want to know the gender beforehand, so we had to discuss boy's names, too. (The girl name was easy -- a matter of about two minutes discussion to come up with the middle name Éva, after my late mother-in-law.) We never did decide on a boy's given name (middle was to be Imre, a name passed down through three generations in my husband's family). Our not-very-short short list included names like Daniel, Luke, Thomas, and Peter, or in Hungarian: Dániel, Lukács, Tamás, and Péter.

There were some names that were off the table because the translations are just too dissimilar: Alexander (Sándor), Stephen (István), Nicholas (Miklós), Charles (Károly). Others were out because they felt too foreign in one language or the other, like Imre (Emeric or Emery) and Edward (Ede? Eduárd?). And of course, some names just don't translate, like Gyula (often equated with Julius, although they're completely unrelated) and Csaba (my father's name).

May 6, 2012 12:26 PM

I'm curious about what you think of Zoltan?  I knew a couple--one was the father of girls I went to school with (he was born in Budapest) and the other was a little boy at the time (now he'd be in his forties) born in the US.  It's certainly pronounceable in English, and I think it has a sort of sci-fi, superhero vibe in English.  And then there's Attila, which is, I think, way cool.  Despite the -a, I don't think anyone in the US would take Attila for a girl.  Bela (imagine the accent) OTOH would probably be confused with the presently ubiquitous Bella, despite Bartok, Lugosi, and Karolyi (again imagine accents where they should be).

May 7, 2012 12:26 AM

Zoltán has a completely different "feel" in Hungarian versus English -- as you mentioned, in the U.S. it has a definite association with comic books and such, whereas in Hungary it's just one of those standard boy names (20th most popular for babies in 2010), kinda like James or Joseph. It's been the 5th most common name in Hungary (in the population as a whole, not babies) since at least 2003. Some people like it, some don't, and most people know at least one or two bearers of the name personally, often from completely different age groups. It's not my style -- no particularly negative associations, but no positive ones, either.

Attila is also a perpetual favorite in Hungary, but Béla is starting to feel a bit "old" -- most people would assume Béla to be the dad or granddad in a picture of a family. (Neither one holds any particular attraction for me, same as with Zoltán.)

I don't really have a sense for what most Americans would think when meeting someone named Attila. Does it sound macho? Weird? Cool? What about a boy named Béla? (Or Géza, or Csaba, or Gyula?)

By hyz
May 7, 2012 12:23 PM

Well, speaking only in terms of feel, and admittedly largely ignorant of the finer points of the relevant history, Attila of course brings to mind Attila the Hun.  My vague recollections of him from history class and popular culture are of a warmongering, ruthless ruler who traveled throughout Europe slaughtering villages and generally causing devastation wherever he went.  And that being my only association with the name, I'd say it is negative--not quite akin to Adolf, where I have more actual knowledge of the man, but in that realm.  And that is fully acknowledging that reputation attributed to him in the history I learned may be very different from the way his story is told and remembered in Hungary--I'm sure there were many ruthless warmongerers throughout the ages who were written up as heroes in my history books.  But since you asked about "what most Americans would think," I thought I'd share.  Using your adjectives, I'd definitely say the name sounds "macho", and only possibly "weird" if chosen by someone without near Hungarian heritage.  I actually know someone named Genghis (I want to say he's from Turkey, but now I'm not sure), and my thought process is similar--I have the same warmongering associations with Genghis Khan, and I do definitely think of Genghis Khan every time I interact with this guy, but I assume that is a fairly normal name where he comes from, so I don't think of it as weird, or as making any kind of pro-violence statements, or anything to that effect.

Bela seems cool to me--my primary Bela association is with Bela Fleck, whose music I like, so I am familiar with it as a male name and my association is positive.  I do think, though, that people not familiar with any of the famous Belas would assume the name was feminine in the vein of Bella. 

I don't have any strong associations with Geza, Csaba, or Gyula--the -a ending would lead me to tentatively assume they were feminine until learning otherwise.  I wouldn't be 100% certain on the pronunciation of any of them, but they are all short and look simple enough that I think most people could learn it easily if told once or twice. 

Zoltan obviously has a different feel here than in Hungary, because I think it would seem like strong choice here--unusual and exotic looking but relatively easy to pronounce, clearly masculine and strong-sounding, high scrabble value, fits the popular -n ending for many popular boys' names today, etc.


May 7, 2012 8:18 PM

I associate Béla with the musician Béla Fleck--a very positive association!


Zoltán with a Hungarian surname wouldn't give me pause because I'd just assume it was a foreign name. Zoltán Jones, however, would make me think that his parents were comic book fans. I don't know why, but it sounds like the name of a masked crusader to me.


May 11, 2012 10:14 AM

I agree with hyz. I also am not well versed in history and related topics but Atilla to me equals hun. The picture that that conjurs in my head (whether accurate or not) is a bit cave-man like. Some Nordic dude in an animal fur carrying a spear. Hmm I guess that would be a Viking warrior. This guy's name could be Atilla:

May 10, 2012 4:31 PM

Interesting topic. I live in Scandinavia where we have some to-the-rest-of-the-world unusual vowels in our alphabet; æ/ä, ø/ö and å. The usage of names with these vowels are going down, down, down, and I'm quite sure internationalisation is part of the reason.

Some of these unusual-vowel names are Søren (known to you as Soren) and Sørine (female version), Åsne (as in Åsne Seierstad), Björk/Björg/Bjørk (means beech, as in the tree), Björn/Bjørn (means bear), Lærke (means Lark), Åge/Åke, Kåre, Håkon, Frøydis, Gunnvør....  

As far as I can tell, parents are not exactly gravitating towards English/international names, but it's a factor that the names they choose can be pronounced sort-of reasonably correct in English. (E.g. Sofie/Sophie/Sofia/Sophia - even though the pronunciation is a bit different in Scandinavian compared to English, it's a plus that the name is known outside Scandinavia). 

May 11, 2012 2:28 PM

I would think that the diversification of names and much broader sense of what constitutes a "normal" name would have something to do with an increasing number of names from other languages being used by American parents (I don't have statistics, but am assuming that all those "new" names on the SSA charts are coming from somewhere and some percentage of them have to be coming from languages other than English). For instance, I would think the results of the test many new parents employ--"Could I imagine a president with my child's name?"--have probably shifted radically in the wake of a President Barack Hussein Obama. That is a name that would not have "felt" presidential to a lot of people thirty years ago. I personally find that comforting as my husband and I select a "foreign" name. (Again, a sign of the times, as my husband very purposefully Anglicized his name when he left the Soviet Union twenty years ago.) I think, slowly, but surely, the parameters for Americanness are expanding.

June 17, 2012 3:29 AM

Through marriage, I now have a Spanish surname. I am not of Spanish or Hispanic/Latin American descent, and my husband is only rather distantly so (he has grandparents he never met who hailed from Venezuela and imigrated to the English-speaking West Indian island my husband was born in). And yet, I wonder: if we had a child, would people assume he or she were a part of that culture, based on the surname? And I think, maybe that could be cool, to be a cultural chameleon, namewise.

So I've been kicking around in my mind the idea of naming any children we have with names that could work in both Spanish and English. For me, that primarily means finding names that could be pronounced the same in either language. It would be nice to find names that are in wide use in both cultures, provided I otherwise liked the name. But the pronunciation thing being the same for me is key, so I'd probably lean toward using a more "English" name that could be pronounced by Spanish speakers.

For example, the name Hugo exists in English and Spanish naming traditions, but I cannot abide the Spanish pronunciation ("OO-go"). 

But the name Liam, while maybe not a traditional Spanish name, would at least be pronounced in Spanish approximately as it is in English, which I find nice.

Of course I'd also have check to make sure the name didn't mean something negative in Spanish...