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Picking the Perfect Multilingual Name

November 14, 2020 Clare Green
multilingual names

Need a name that works in different languages? It can feel like a mission, but we’ve got some tips and ideas to help you find a marvelously multilingual name.

If your family speaks multiple languages, you probably want your child to have a name that all their relatives can say. This may sound obvious — but parents who didn’t consider it have found it can be embarrassing and upsetting when grandma can’t pronounce her granddaughter’s name. Beyond practical reasons, you may also want a name that connects your child to the different parts of their heritage.

Or maybe you live in a linguistically diverse area, or plan on traveling, and you’d like them to have a name that makes sense to the people they’re likely to meet.

So how do you balance all the factors? A name that works across languages, that helps your kid blend in or stand out in all the right ways… and which you like as well?

No two families are the same, and the options will be different depending on the languages you’re working with. Here are five tried-and-tested strategies that multilingual families have used. Which one works for you?

1. Universal: a name that’s the same across languages

You could keep life simple with one name that everyone pronounces more or less the same way.

It’s easiest when your languages are closely related and/or have shared culture. For example, hundreds of names sound similar in English and French, but the pool is smaller for options that work in both Thai and Turkish. But there are some surprisingly international names out there. (As I’ll tell anyone who will listen, I once actually met a Welsh-Pakistani boy named Idris, and it’s one of the highlights of my namey life.)

There are even tools out there to help you get started on the Venn diagram of names, like MixedName.

The most popular names are also good options here, as they’ve made their way into parents’ hearts around the world. For example, Emma ranks highly in many European countries, and sounds pretty much the same whether you’re speaking Spanish or Swedish. So do names that are known internationally, like Arya and Lennon, even if they don’t come from any of your languages.

2. Chameleon: a name that adapts across languages

This is a more flexible strategy: a name that speakers of different languages can mould to their own shape.

For example, your son Gabriel might be “Gayb-riel” when he’s speaking English and “Gabb-riel” when he’s speaking French. Or your Polish in-laws might misspell your daughter’s name as Oliwia, but it sounds just like Olivia when they say it.

Classic baby names are ideal for this, because they’ve been around long enough to travel and get established all over the world. Or you could get playful and translate the meaning of the name, like the author Lev (lion in Russian) Tolstoy who is known as Leo in English, and Léon in French.

3. Hybrid: first name from one language, middle name from another

You want your child’s name to represent all their cultural backgrounds. But they’re so different they don’t have many names in common, and you don’t want to compromise on your favorites. 

This is where you can harness the power of middle names. Your daughter Josephine Seo-yun might be Posie at home, Josephine at school, and Seo-yun to her grandparents in Korea. And her full name when she’s in big trouble.

4. Decisive: a name from one language that everyone can pronounce

On the other hand, you don’t have to use a name from every language your family speaks. For many reasons, the best solution might be to just pick a name from one.

Names, like borrowed words, can travel across language boundaries, and people can adapt to say them, even if they’re not familiar. Less than a hundred years ago, there were no children in America named Noelani or Saoirse or Amir or Kwasi. Now there are hundreds, even thousands. Today’s unusual import could be tomorrow’s household name.

You may want to run it past the important people — such as family members or neighbors — to check how comfortable they are saying it, and how comfortable you are with the way they say it. Or, if you don’t want to reveal the exact name, you could get a feel by running through a list of  popular baby names in your language of choice.

It’s worthwhile doing a meaning check, too. Your Filipino family might love the name Malaya, but your Swahili-speaking relatives probably won’t.

5. Playful: name in one language, nickname in another

If the name you plan to use might be tricky  for some of your loved ones, offering them a nickname (or asking them to help choose one) is a way to create a special bond between them and your child.

Your son Alexander might be Alex to his friends, but he’ll always be Sandro to his Nonno and Nonna. Or maybe your anglophone parents just can’t manage Gugulethu, but are happy to call their granddaughter Treasure.

Multilingual names for siblings

So you’ve figured out the perfect name for your kid: you love it, it honors their heritage, and all the grandparents can say it. Now what to do if they get a little brother or sister?

You might want a name that works exactly the same way again. Or alternatively, the next child’s name could be a chance to redress the balance by swapping languages, or using a name you realize wouldn’t have been so difficult after all. Either way, a growing family can be a great chance to celebrate the richness of your children’s heritage in their names.

Did you have a multilingual mission naming your child? Did you use any of these strategies, or some other method? Leave a comment, we’d be fascinated to hear your stories.

About the author

Clare Green

Clare Green writes Nameberry's weekly round-up of the latest baby name news, including celebrity announcements, unusual naming stories, and new statistics from around the world . Clare, who has been writing for Nameberry since 2015, lives in England, where she has worked in libraries and studies linguistics. You can follow her personally on Instagram and Twitter.

View all of Clare Green's articles

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