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“Whatever you do, if it’s a girl, don’t call her Natasha,” was the first bit of advice a Turkish friend gave me about having a baby in Istanbul. While a common and inoffensive name in the US and Russia, in Turkey and many other European countries, Natasha doesn’t have the best connotation. It tends to be slang for, well, a certain kind of professional woman from Eastern Europe, or just a gold-digger; not things with which you want your baby to be associated. Naming a baby is always a difficult decision, but when you live a place where local names sound foreign to you, your own country’s names become foreign names as well.
Since the beginning of my pregnancy abroad, I’ve been certain I wanted to learn the baby’s gender as soon as I could, feeling that enough things were a mystery when having a baby in a foreign country and I didn’t need to add to them. My husband and each of our mothers disagreed, feeling a surprise is nicer, but suddenly my husband came home from work having changed his mind. He explained that he could never get the Turks to understand why he’d want it to be a surprise and try to tell him that he could find out nowadays. “But you know they can tell now? They can see in the ultrasound,” they’d say, perplexed. This is a similar reaction to my questions about cloth diapers or natural childbirth. There’s a newer and better way, they argue, so why wouldn’t we want that?While my husband and I are both American, we initially considered a name to reflect our baby’s Turkish birthplace. We loved Sofia, for Hagia Sofia, and it works with many languages and pronunciations. Unfortunately, we aren’t the only ones: Sophia/Sofia is now the most popular baby girl name in the US, meaning that in 2016, kindergartens will be full of Sofias. While we are also big fans of Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey, the names Mustafa and Kemal just wouldn’t go over so well in America as they do here. Perhaps Constantine for a boy, in honor of one of the city’s former names? The one season I watched of American Idol with the smarmy contestant Constantine Maroulis ruined that name for me, and I couldn’t deal with a boy nicknamed Connie. Maybe something to reflect our neighborhood of Nişantaşı, but spelling and pronunciation would be tricky in English.
The Turkish alphabet is mostly similar to English (thanks to Ataturk!), with a few notable exceptions. The letter C is pronounced as a J, so the Turkish name Cam is actually more like Jam, but if you add a tail under it, it becomes a “ch” sound. English amight have the “ch” and “sh” sounds, but our keyboards don’t have Ç or Ş. The Turkish alphabet lacks X and substitutes it with “ks,” familiar if you’ve taken a taksi to Taksim Square. There are two forms of I: with the dot sounds like “ee” and without the dot is “eh” or “uh.” Then there’s the tricky Ğ, which has no sound at all, except elongating the vowel before it, often making it a “ya.” Hence the former royal residence and now luxury hotel Çırağan Palace is pronounced “Chuh-ran.” Let’s not forget the pesky umlauts that sometimes accompany O and U, and mean that months after moving here, taxi drivers still don’t know what I’m asking when I say Ortaköy. I won’t even get into vowel harmony, which often changes a letter’s pronunciation entirely, but otherwise Turkish is relatively phonetic.
Language lesson over, there are many names which just don’t translate culturally. The best example is the Turkish boy’s name Ufuk, which sounds perfectly respectable in Turkish, but not so nice in English. Kıvanç is a popular name that sounds nice in Turkish but to English ears “kuh-wanch” sounds like a polite euphemism for a rude body part. Berk is common enough here, but say the name to a Brit and learn what it’s slang for in the UK (idiot is the nicer way to say it).Americans would also snicker at Tuba, Voltan, and Fatih, while Turks would think Adam (meaning man), Dennis (sea, spelled Deniz) Dana (veal or calf), or Erik (plum) are a bit silly. An American/Turkish couple I know have named their son Aslan, which means lion in Turkish and sounds cool in either language but I hope he’s called Lan for short on visits to the US.
Going back to the Natasha problem; after a few months, my Leningrad-born-but-US-naturalized husband decided he wanted a Russian name and only a Russian name for the baby. I immediately nixed names like Svetlana, Vladimir and Olga, giving elaborate descriptions of the sour-faced old Russian masseuses I associated the names with (apologies to any Svetas, Vlads or Olgas reading this, I’m sure you are lovely people).My husband speaks fluent Russian whereas I only know a few basics and curse words, so anything I can’t even pronounce like Nadezhda (long form for Nadia) is out. Nikita is a cool name and while it’s for a boy, the movies and tv shows La Femme Nikita have permanently associated it as a feminine name. Ditto for Sasha, actually a diminutive for Alexander, but better known now as one of the first daughters. I began to call the baby Rasputin partially to mock my husband until it started to actually seem like a viable choice.
In case you wondered, we did finally see our baby’s gender and it turns out we are having a Natasha, er, a girl. I’ve been leafing through the book Russian Fairy Tales as a source if I want to name the baby after a swan maiden or bear hunter’s wife. I imagine we’ll continue to argue about her name until she is born, so if you have good ideas for Russian girls names, I’m open to suggestions. If you want to learn more Russian, Turkish, or other foreign names, check out HearNames.com. Each listing has an audio sample as well if you are still wondering how to say Ufuk without getting slapped.
Image from Cafe Press Turk Onesie store.
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