Names That Bridge Cultures: Arya to Zahara
As more and more of us travel the world and meet people from vastly different backgrounds, we are increasingly on the search for international names that are truly multicultural. Many people try to find names that work in both cultures and languages in terms of pronunciation and spelling, but have you ever considered using a name that genuinely has roots in two (or more) languages?
Below are 20+ names that, due to glorious serendipity and the finite ways that humans can put sounds together, have distinct origins in two cultures.
Multicultural Names: A—I
Anima is a name that could work in so many languages, blessed as it is with easy spelling and pronunciation. It works equally well in the East and in the West, as its roots can either come from Latin, where it means “soul”, or from Sanskrit, where it means “minute, tiny”.
This one may surprise you. Anita is probably most familiar as the diminutive form of Anna, but did you know that Anita is also a Sanskrit name meaning unguided?
Arya is becoming increasingly common in the West, as a variation of Aria and, most recently, as a nod to Game of Thrones. However, Arya is also a unisex name in India meaning “noble”.
In English-speaking countries, Asa is best known as a biblical name stemming from the King of Judah. In this Hebrew context the name means “healer”. However, Asa is also a Japanese name with an equally pleasant meaning: “born in the morning”. While they do have slightly different pronunciations (AY-sa vs AH-sa), this is one cross-cultural unisex name that could really work in an increasingly global world.
Another Game of Thrones name, Asha claims two distinct heritages: In India, it is a feminine name derived from the Sanskrit word for “wish” or “desire”. In Africa, Asha is a Swahili name derived from the Arabic name Aisha meaning “life”
This name is ancient in both the Persian and Japanese cultures, yet feels fresh and modern. The Persian meaning “thistle flower” and the Japanese meaning “greatest” make this a fabulous choice for the globetrotting family raising a plucky daughter.
In both the Polish and Hebrew languages, Basia is pronounced “Basha” and is a diminutive of another name – Barbara and Batya respectively.
Baz has come into prominence since the fame of Australian director Baz Luhrmann introduced us to it (which is ironic given that he wasn’t born with the name!). In English-speaking countries Baz can be short for Sebastian, Basil or Barry; however in Kurdish communities, the name Baz means falcon.
Caris is often used as a variation of the Welsh name Carys, meaning “love”; but it is also a name that is derived from the Greek word Charis meaning “grace” or “kindness”. All ultimately come from the same root word as Charity and Carita, so either way, this name has a beautiful meaning.
Like so many of these names, Duska has two equally lovely meanings. Occasionally seen as a feminisation of the English word dusk, Duska is also a Croatian name meaning “soul” or “spirit”. If claiming the Croatian heritage, the pronunciation is “doosh-ka”.
Boxer Evander Holyfield brought this name to wider attention, which is appropriate given the meanings that can be attributed to this name. The Greek name Evander means “strong man”, while the Scottish name derives from the Norse term for “bow warrior”. Evander feels modern despite these two ancient roots and would work well among the 21st century’s Xanders and Evans.
Occasionally used as a variation of the English name Harris, Haris with one r is also an Urdu and Bosnian form of the Arabic name Harith, meaning "cultivator”. Harrison is still a popular name in the West, but the time might come when Haris, its multicultural cousin, might start getting a look in.
Thanks to charismatic and talented Idris Elba, Idris is probably one of the most famous dual citizens on this list. As an Arabic name, Idris means “to study” and is the name of one of the Koranic prophets. As a Welsh name, Idris means “lord”. Both roots are powerful and positive, making this a great choice for a cosmopolitan child.
Multicultural Names: K—Z
In the Tamil culture, the name Kala means “virtue”, but over in the Pacific, Kala is the Hawaiian variation of Sarah, a name that means “princess”. Kala has strength as an international name beyond these roots as a name that is easily pronounced in most languages.
In both the Hindi and Arabic cultures, Kamal is a masculine name that stems from quintessential cultural symbols. In Hindi, Kamal evokes the lotus flower — though its feminine version is better known thanks to Vice President Kamala Harris. In Arabic, as one of the ninety-nine qualities of Allah, Kamal is associated with perfection.
Could it be time to reclaim this one from Barbie? Ken is a Japanese name meaning “healthy; strong”, while in English is it used as a shortened form of Kenneth, a Gaelic name meaning “born of fire” or “handsome”. Ken would work so well for parents looking for something that is powerful and positive in both the East and the West…if we can get past the doll!
Kim has not two but three heritages, making it truly international! In Scandinavia, Kim is often used as a shortened form of Joachim (meaning it is pronounced Keem). In Vietnam, Kim derives from the word for gold and is used as a feminine name. In the West, Kim is used for both boys and girls, often as a standalone name in the case of boys, and as a shortened form of Kimberly for girls. Kim is sometimes seen in Russia as a name used by Soviet die-hards as it is an acronym of the Communist Youth Party. Who’d have thought a Kardashian name could be so cultured?
Laila is best known as one of the many spellings of the Arabic name Leila / Layla, meaning “night” and in this vein has shot to popularity in the US (currently in the Top 200). However, the Sami people of Finland have long used this name as their version of Helga – a version which is probably more pleasing than the original to most English speakers.
In Latin-based languages, Lina is often used as a diminutive of any of the dozens of feminine names ending in -lina, such as Carolina, Adelina, Selina, Evangelina etc. In Arabic, Lina is a stand-alone name meaning “tender”. Meanwhile in India, Lina is also a stand-alone name derived from a Sanskrit word meaning “united”. A name that works in so many cultures is a bit of a superstar in this age of the global village.
As a German diminutive of Louisa, Lulu is a cute-as-a-button girls’ name that feels modern and spunky. Lulu is also an Arabic name, meaning “pearl”, and could be used by anyone fond of a gemstone name.
In Arabic, Malik is a powerful name meaning “king”. But less well-known is Malik’s Greenlandic roots – there, Malik means “wave”. So there you have it – a name that works in the desert and in the snow.
Being short and sweet is almost enough to make any name international – but Nia has roots in both Africa and Wales. In Swahili, Nia means “resolve” or “purpose”. In Wales, Nia is used as the local variation of Irish Niamh, and therefore means “bright”. Nia has a third claim to multiculturalism in that it is and also has significance as the fifth day of Kwanzaa – an African-American celebration honoring African heritage across the African diaspora.
Dutch parents have long used this traditional diminutive for Nora or Eleonora as a standalone name – so much so that Noor now has its own diminutive: Noortje. As such. Noor is a perennial favorite of the Top 100 in both the Netherlands and Belgium. However, Noor is also an Arabic name meaning “light”. Wouldn’t Laila and Noor make a cute sibset for an international family?
Many of you will be familiar with this Spanish girl name meaning “peace”, but did you know that Paz is also a Hebrew name meaning “gold”? In its Hebrew usage, Paz can be both a feminine and a masculine name.
In Yiddish, Raisa is “rose” and in Arabic, the name is the feminine version of Rais, meaning “leader”. Beyond the Middle East, Russia claims Raisa as a name harking back to a 4th century martyr. Raisa works in so many places – a true rose of a name.
Samir is an Arabic name meaning “companion in evening talk”, one of the most fabulous name meanings out there, we think! In Sanskrit, Samir means “air” and is therefore a popular name in India as well. Samira is the feminine version of the name in both cultures.
Talia is a town in South Australia, from a local Aboriginal word meaning “by the water”, and is common as a girls’ name in Australia (often spelled Tahlia). Talia is also a Hebrew name meaning “dew from God”, and the Italian version of the Greek name Thalia. Talia can also be used as a shortened form of the Russian name Natalia.
If Angelina used it, you know it must be multicultural. Zahara is a Swahili name meaning “flower”, and is also a Hebrew name meaning “to shine”. In its similarity to the name of the Sahara desert, Zahara is likely to retain a distinctive and globetrotting feel to it, even as Zara becomes more commonplace.
This is edited from a post originally published in December 2017.