One of the interesting pastimes during pregnancy is choosing a name for the baby. Since we can’t be sure about the gender of the baby, we have to consider both boy and girl names.
The question then comes down to what sort of names to choose. Most people choose names either from their own culture or the culture they are surrounded by. For immigrants, the question can sometimes be quite important. I have heard arguments on both sides. On the one hand, a name in one’s native language is one of the basic links of one’s child to a culture they won’t exactly be part of. On the other hand, giving a strange (to the community one has settled in) name to one’s child can point the child out as an outsider.
We don’t care much about these issues, but there is a related problem that’s important. It is pronunciation. We want to pick a name that’s simple, beautiful as well as pronouncable by both Pakistanis and Americans.
The emphasis on pronunciation comes from the way my name has been distorted all my life. My name is “Zakaria” (زکریا). It’s a Hebrew name from the Old Testament. It is also found in the Quran as the Prophet Zakaria who was the father of John the Baptist (یحیی) [Yes, I know there are some differences between the Bible and Quran about my namesake]. Because it is a Biblical name, there are lots of different spellings and pronunciations. That, by itself, is not so problematic.
My pronunciation problems started in Pakistan over a confusion about the meaning of my name and some features of Urdu. My name means Yahweh (God) remembers. Now, remembrance of God is popularly known in Urdu and Arabic as zikr/dhikr (ذکر). Notice the difference in the first character in zikr (ذ) and in Zakaria (ز). They are two different letters, both pronounced as “z” in Urdu and Persian, but having somewhat different sounds in Arabic [In fact, there are four letters in Urdu that have the “z” sound]. This caused spelling errors of my name in Urdu, so much so that my Urdu teacher in middle school would try to “correct” my name on any work I turned in. I finally did win that battle with him.
The pronunciation errors were, however, not a result of this issue. They owed their explanation to another peculiarity of Urdu (and Persian and Arabic): lack of vowels. We have long vowels in Urdu but the short vowels are never written down. There are diacritical marks for short vowels, but they are almost never used. Let’s take a look at my name. Letter by letter, it would be transliterated from Urdu to English as “Zkrya.” Add in the people’s assumption that my name is related to “zikr” and you get “Zikree-a.” That used to piss me off.
Our pronunciation problems obviously weren’t over when we came to the US. Here, people do all sorts of stuff to my name. Those who call me “Zachary” or “Zachariah” are ok by me. The most common mistake, that I don’t like, though is to elongate the second “a” to say “zakaaria.”
I have been used to people mispronouncing my first name since birth. So I have gotten over it. However, I never thought someone would drastically mispronounce my last name. It really is pretty simple: “Ajmal.” The worst mistake you can make is elongating one or both of the short a’s. But I have heard worse. People have tried to think of the “J” in my last name as either a Spanish or German one. That sounds so awful, I usually don’t recognize it.
Enough about my problems. There are issues with Pakistani names due to lack of similar sounds in English. For example, Talha (طلحہ) has a soft “t” that doesn’t exist in English. There are other letters and sounds as well. I remember how amused I was to first hear the word khakis from a native English speaker. Its origin is Hindi/Urdu خاکی and we don’t pronounce “kh” as “k” at all.
Names in Pakistan can either be local (i.e., Punjabi, Sindhi, Pushto, etc.) or borrowed from Persian, Arabic or Turkish. There is a large number of such borrowed names.
When a name from a different script is transliterated into English, there are always multiple versions. For example, Muhammad/Mohammed, Usama/Osama, etc. Talking to Kianoush, it also seems that my Urdu-speaking instinct for transliteration is different from his Persian-speaking one. For example, where I would think an “i” as the appropriate vowel, he likes to use “e.” The Turks also use much more different spellings for the same words. This not only means different spellings for the same word, but also different pronunciations based on those different transliterations.
Therefore, we are limiting our search to names from either the US or Pakistan which would work in both places. Even if the name is strange to one country’s ears, they shouldn’t have to struggle to pronounce it.
Here are some online resources for names.
- 1990 US Census name distributions: A list of first and last names in the US arranged by their popularity.
- Behind the name: Lists of names from different cultures/languages and their meanings.
- Popular baby names from the Social Security Administration.
- Name Statistics: Check the popularity of specific first and last names in the US.
- Baby Names lists more than 6,000 names. I noticed Persian and Arabic names in addition to European ones.
- Parenthood has Norse, Phoenician, and Aramaic in addition to the regular ones.
- Babycenter allows you to search names by first letter, last letter and number of syllables.
- Popular baby names seems to have a good collection of names as well.
- Or you could invent a name.
- Muslim names: This requires a long discussion which will have to wait for part II.
Feel free to suggest any names you like in the comments.
Next: What’s a Muslim name?