Monday, 22 October 2012

It's a Language Thing

File:Red Carnation NGM XXXI p507.jpgWe all want to give our children, or hypothetical children, names that we like. There is always the compromise game  we have to play with our partners, but family and friends tend to like having their opinions heard, too. Families have traditions we may not always be keen on, names we aren't fond of are somehow the ones that have to be passed down, and the mother-in-law just isn't down with Jacob or Luke; she wants Rupert for her first grandson. You so often hear advice telling parents to go with the names they feel comfortable with, to ignore all the other pesky voices. But what happens if one half of the family just can't pronounce the name you're in love with?

My parents are Portuguese, and many of our family members speak no English and struggle with pronouncing English names. Although I may like them, some names become no go areas because they don't translate well. Take classic William. A Portuguese person's first instinct would be to pronounce him as Viliam, or to change it entirely to Guilherme. You can imagine the problems that may arise: the grandparents are upset because they can't say their grandchild's name correctly, and the parents are upset because they feel that their choices have been disregarded. The truth is, you can't, and shouldn't, ignore the fact that one side of your child's extended family won't be able to pronounce his or her name. Naming a child becomes more than just about tastes; it becomes about choosing a name that works well for two different families from two different backgrounds. 

But there are plenty of names that do work and that will bridge the gap between languages. Since my family are currently going through this dilemma, I've come with a few 'tips' that might be useful to others. I'm using examples that relate to our English/Portuguese problem, but I think they can apply to other languages also.

Pick names with similar pronunciations

Before you get set on a name, check to make sure that its pronunciation doesn't change. Don't think that just because David keeps its spelling that its pronounciation remains the same. It doesn't. If you don't like the pronunciation in your partner's language, move on to another name. It's a sure bet that one side of the family will call him Dah-VEED rather than DAY-vid. There are many, many names out there that don't change that much, take Gabriela, Elsa, Jessica and Marco as examples.

Keep it short and simple

The shorter the name, the less likely there is to be confusion. One syllable names are ideal - think along the lines of Max, Elle and Tess. Their simplicity and straight-forwardness will make sure that everyone can easily pronounce your child's name. Keep it fuss free.

Nicknames are your friends

You love Leonard but don't want your child to be known as Leonardo to his Portuguese relatives? Easy. Let him be known as Leo. Like I mentioned above, short names tend to work better, so a nickname is ideal if you still want to use a longer, more English sounding name.

Think details

It's crucial to do research into your partner's language to avoid any surprises. Remember that certain letters behave very differently. Your Hannah and Hugo will have their names pronounced as Anna and OO-go in Portuguese. Other tricky letters include R and W, and proceed with caution when using names that include PH and TH.

Look out for word names

There are some names that actually sound very much like words in other languages. Emma will remind any Portuguese person of the word 'ema', which means emu; Ella means 'she', and Donna is the equivalent of the title Mrs. The meaning isn't always negative, though: Alma translates to 'soul', and Luz to 'light'.

Unisex doesn't always work

While English speaking countries are embracing unisex names, most other counties aren't. Gender is more defined in the Portuguese language, and Portugal is a country that has naming laws stipulating if a name is feminine or masculine. Most names that end in -a are for girls, -o belongs to the boys. If you like Ezra, don't forget that many might instantly think 'baby girl'. Danielle, regardless of its spelling, will be thought of as boy's name.

Don't forget about variations

If you have chosen to go with a name you like and not worry about the other side of the family, remember that variations may be an issue. Your sweet Peter will likely become a Pedro and your lovely Natalie will go by Natalia. If this will be a big problem, then you better stay away from names that are easily translatable. Keep in mind, however, that if someone can't pronounce your child's name, they will wiggle around until they find a name that they can pronounce. Your Gwendolyn may well be downsized to just Lyn.

This all seems like a lot, but it really isn't. It will become clear when a name works and when it doesn't. The most important thing is not to alienate an entire family; you don't necessarily have to honour a heritage, just don't completely ignore it. And don't forget that this shouldn't be about personal tastes - it should be about choosing a name that works in two different languages. You've decided on Eddy, it works in both languages, but your father-in-law doesn't really like it? Well, he'll learn to live with it.

Image: The red carnation is a symbol of the Portuguese revolution of 1974, now known as the Carnation Revolution.