A topic I see pop up on baby name websites pretty frequently is multicultural names, or names that work in multiple languages. It makes a lot of sense that this is a popular category of names – choosing a name that contains common sounds and syllables can be a great way to give a child a connection to their heritage while making sure the child and all of their relatives can confidently and easily pronounce the name. However, this strategy produces a sort of “Modern Vaguely International Style” of short, vowel-heavy names (think Maya, Hana, Kai), and leaves behind a lot of lovely international names that are just a little bit more specific to their language of origin.
In this post, I want to highlight what I’m calling “Distinctive International” names: a handful of my favorite names from around the world that bring to mind their specific culture or language of origin (to me at least). This is not about whether the names are “easy” or “hard” for English speakers to pronounce; my goal was just to choose names that did not seem like they could be from anywhere. This list is also by no means a complete or balanced survey of the world’s names – that would be an interesting but much more involved project. This is just a list I threw together off the top of my head, and the names on it are biased towards people I’ve met and tv shows I’ve watched.
I hope my list gets you thinking about your own favorite distinctive international names!
I once had a coworker named Azadeh, and I always thought her name was beautiful. This is a Persian name, and the last syllable sounds like “duh”, not “day”.
This was the name of a cute and spunky little girl on the Korean show Hometown Cha Cha Cha – if the show took place in the US in the early 2000s instead of South Korea around 2020, this character definitely would have been named Zoe, and I felt like her name really captured that same spirit. (I see a lot of variability in whether Korean names are transliterated with or without the hyphen, but I chose to hyphenate because I thought “Bora” would look like it was supposed to rhyme with Nora.)
This is one of the names used in the Scottish Gaelic Duolingo course, and I think it’s very fun. It sounds like “ELL-a-sat”, and is generally considered to be a Gaelic version of Elizabeth.
If you read (or watched) Howl’s Moving Castle and thought Howl was just a made up wizard name, no! Howl (or more commonly Howell) is an anglicization of the Welsh name Hywel.
I found this name while browsing the Yoruba Names Dictionary the other day. The correct spelling with all of the diacritics is Ìfẹ́layọ̀. There are a lot of Yoruba names starting with “ife”, which means “love”, and this name means “love is joy”, which is a nice sentiment, but this name stood out to me because it is so fun to say.
I met someone with this name once and I thought it was so pretty. It’s a Hebrew name that means “tree” (I think it comes from the generic word for tree, not a specific species), and sounds like “ee-la-NEET”.
This is the name of a cat on Alma’s Way, my toddler’s favorite tv show. I’ve never heard of a person with this name, and when I google “Ladli” I find a lot more clothing brands than people, but when I google “Ladli name”, several websites assure me that it’s a Hindi name meaning “loved one” or “dearest one”. I’m a little bit suspicious that it might be more of an endearment than a commonly used name, but either way, I think the two Ls so close together make it fun to say.
Mahendra is used pretty widely in India (from what I can tell online). It’s from Sanskrit and means “great Indra”. There are a handful of Hindu/Sanskrit names ending in “-endra”, which I think are usually related to Indra. I think it’s a really charming sound, and I was tempted to list 5 or 6 names with that ending, but this is one of my favorites.
This was the name of a minor character on the Chinese show Meet Yourself, and every time anyone said her name I just thought it was so lovely. In the show, she tells her friend her name means “south star”, but it turns out she is actually named after a plant, so between Google Translate and Wikipedia, I think the characters for her name must be 南星.
Nancy’s recent post about baby names in Coconino County, Arizona prompted me to scroll through the state-specific baby name data for Arizona (you can get that here), and I found Nizhoni, which has been used for 5 to 17 babies per year since 1998. It’s a Navajo name meaning beautiful, and I think it is also a beautiful name (you can hear pronunciations at Wiktionary and Forvo).
This is the Ukrainian version of Alexander, which I think is also sometimes used in Poland. The O at the beginning transforms Alexander into something that feels completely different, and every time I hear it I am delighted.
Rhodri is very Welsh and very charming! The rh in Welsh is a voiceless r, you can listen to it here.
This is another name from the Scottish Gaelic Duolingo course. It’s the Gaelic version of George, pronounced “SHO-ras”.
I’m not sure where I first heard this Arabic name, but it’s been stuck in the back of my head for a while now. I think it’s a very cozy, friendly sounding name – Tasnim sounds like someone who is always smiling.
Every time I see this name at the top of the Turkish baby name lists, I get jealous that I have never met a little Zeynep. It’s the Turkish version of the Arabic name Zaynab, which is already a pretty cool name, but I think the Turkish version has just a little bit of extra zest.
Sources: If I didn’t link any specific source for a name, I probably got the meaning & origin information from Behind the Name or Wiktionary. This was more of a quick fun thing than a well-researched list, so double check anything I said before counting on it as fact.
What are your favorite distinctive international names? Are there any languages or parts of the world whose names you’re especially fond of?