Boys’ and Girls’ Names–and the size of their sounds

By Mark van Vugt, VU University Amsterdam

What do first names tell us about their owners? According to Shakespeare’s heroine Juliet (in Romeo and Juliet) not much: “What’s in a name” Juliet says “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

It would seem that choosing a first name for your baby girl or boy is an entirely personal matter for the parents and beyond any serious scientific scrutiny. Well it is not! First, some first names just happen to more popular than others in any given period. In the 2012 US boy names top 100 appear names such as Jacob, Mason, and Cameron which are way more popular than others (such as Kennan or Alexei). This is also true for girl’s names. Sophia, Lily, and Isabella are among the more popular current girl names in the US. This effectively means that parents are culturally influenced in naming their children.

But there is an even more interesting psychological phenomenon at work here. If we compare the popular boy names and girl names, the boy names sound larger than the girl names. Take Jacob and Lily, for example. Even though they have the same number of syllables, Jacob sounds larger than Lily. The reason is that the “a” and “o” vowels sound larger than the “i” as well as the “e” vowels. Try pronouncing these names!

Technically speaking, it is the phonemes that differ. For instance, the “e” in the boy’s name Eli is longer than the “e” in the popular girl’s name Emily. So the phonemes in boy’s names are longer than those in girls’ names.

Scientists from Australia and the UK have now discovered that this difference is not entirely coincidental.  Baby naming reflects a deeper psychology that most parents are not aware of. On average, boy’s names sound larger than girls’ names. The researchers examined data set of ten years of the most popular British, American, and Australian baby names. They found that the boy names (e.g., “Joshua”) were significantly more likely to contain larger sounding phonemes, while the female names contain significantly smaller sounding phonemes (“Emily”).

What could be the explanation for this? According to the researchers it has to do with sexual dimorphism – the anatomical difference between males and females . In humans, as in many other animal species, males are larger than females. Further, larger size comes with all sorts of benefits in males. For instance, taller men have better salaries, are considered sexually more attractive, and they have more children. They are even more likely to become US presidents! The same is true for shorter females, they are also deemed more sexually attractive, and they get more children.

This size-sex difference may also appear in the language we use. This is called sound symbolism. Baby name preferences may be a product of this. Larger sounding boy names such as Joshua and Nicholas may reflect a desire of parents to get larger and perhaps more masculine sons. Furthermore, smaller sounding girl names such as Melanie and Kylie may reflect a desire among parents to have more feminine daughters.

An interesting question for further research is whether this also applies to first names in other languages like Spanish, German, or French. Another interesting question is whether this sound symbolism also tells us something about the personalities of the children. Is a Lily a more feminine girl than an Allison? Is Cameron a more boyish boy than Henry? This still waits investigation. Finally, are these sex-stereotyped names indeed a predictor of social success? Do the Emilys of this world have more social success than the Taylors and do the Jacobs of this world turn out to have more children than the Jacks?

Mark von Vught is a professor of psychology at the VU University Amsterdam and a research associate at Oxford University. Twitter: @ProfMarkvugt.  A version of this article appeared in Psychology Today.

 

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12 Responses to “Boys’ and Girls’ Names–and the size of their sounds”

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Erinm Says:

January 15th, 2014 at 5:44 am

I always thought Aaron and Erin sounded the same but now I notice the ‘A’ sound makes Aaron far more ‘boyish’ 🙂

paigemontana Says:

January 15th, 2014 at 5:47 am

Wow interesting!

orphanedhanyou Says:

January 15th, 2014 at 9:42 am

men ‘HAVE more children’ and women ‘GET more children’?

Ursa_minor Says:

January 15th, 2014 at 10:35 am

I so noticed that too orphanedhanyou. Maybe the writer wanted to avoid the redundancy of repeating “have more children” twice?

Ursa_minor Says:

January 15th, 2014 at 10:45 am

Very interesting though, if this is true it exposes a bit of lame thinking that most people wouldn’t admit to, “I want my daughter to be little”…sounds weird, you never hear parents say that… but that’s essentially what this article is saying that people want on a subconscious level and I’d believe it. I personally find tallness to be more attractive for both genders.

wildewest Says:

January 15th, 2014 at 11:11 am

It’s even true in the words we use to describe each other… a “big” boy vs. a “big” girl, a “little” woman vs. a “little” man. The connotation is totally different in each situation. I completely believe this, but find it very interesting to think about. I think that a lot of women find picking girl names to be easier because as a culture, we typically pick more creative/pretty/dainty names for girls and more traditional/masculine names for boys.

Saracita00 Says:

January 15th, 2014 at 12:42 pm

I get the point being made, but I think the argument falls a little bit flat when the #1 girl name in the country is Sophia. If you want to compare Jacob and Lily and observe which vowels “sound larger,” fine, but contrast Jacob with Sophia and the difference is rather obviously to the reverse.

You could even choose different names to contrast and argue that we want strong-and-dominant girls, determined by an abundance of distinctive consonant sounds — Elizabeth, Madison, Abigail — and sensitive boys, evidenced by a relative softness of consonants and abundance of vowel sounds — Noah, Ethan, Liam.

Similarly, other names in the Top Ten have no appreciable difference between the sexes: Noah vs Emma, Ava and Mia. Or Jayden vs Madison; William vs. Isabella; Alexander vs Elizabeth.

It’s an interesting argument, but I think if a researcher were to look for for another result, the same data could easily be interpreted differently.

littlewren Says:

January 15th, 2014 at 1:13 pm

This is interesting!

It explains why some of my favorite girl names – Bonnie and Maren for example – feel… big. I picture an independent brunette or maybe redheaded girl, tall and strong with some meat and muscle on her bones, when I picture a Maren or Bonnie. (I’ve never actually met anyone by either name.) I could never place why before.
Some other names that feel this way to me are Odette, Elia, Clementine, Faye, Delaney, Marilla, Maude, Olympia, Lola, Marina, Adair.

Daisychain Says:

January 15th, 2014 at 2:20 pm

Some of this is valid, but much of it is poorly argued and/or complete poppycock. As several people have pointed out, the author chooses names that prove his point. What would he make of the many girls names popular in the US that have decidedly long sounds (the equally long a in Kaylee and Aiden, for example)? What about the increasingly popular trend of using male names on female babies?

Also:

“According to the researchers it has to do with sexual dimorphism – the anatomical difference between males and females . In humans, as in many other animal species, males are larger than females. Further, larger size comes with all sorts of benefits in males. For instance, taller men have better salaries, are considered sexually more attractive, and they have more children. They are even more likely to become US presidents! The same is true for shorter females, they are also deemed more sexually attractive, and they get more children.

This size-sex difference may also appear in the language we use. This is called sound symbolism.”

Ahem. Mr. Psychologist (and/or the researchers he cites) is making a basic confusion between nature and culture here. Masculinity of sounds is entirely linguistic–cultural. Men being bigger (which, while generally true, is certainly not in many cases) has nothing intrinsically to do with “larger” sounds in language. It is arbitrary–cultural–what we take to sound masculine or feminine. There is no natural correlation between big males and big vowel sounds in their names (which, anyway, I’m not convinced they have anyway).

marisarose Says:

January 15th, 2014 at 2:42 pm

I don’t know enough to disagree, but I will say I like shorter, softer sounding boys names and longer, traditional sounding girls names better (Liam, Collin, Evan, Nathan vs Kathryn, Evelyn, Genevive, Juliette)

RainbowBright908 Says:

January 15th, 2014 at 8:43 pm

I’m totally confused by Kylie sounding small. K is a fairly harsh sound, and it has the exact same vowel sounds as Eli. How does Eli sound “big” but Kylie sound small?

I’m in agreement with @Daisychain.

StasMarie Says:

January 15th, 2014 at 10:17 pm

I want to disagree with the size issue. Models are always tall women. Men love long legs. Even the above commentators prefer tallness in females than shortness. I think this speaks more to the average height of women, which is short in comparison to cultural beauty standards. I mean, come on! Have you ever been a short woman trying to get a date? It’s hard out here!
Also, I would like to add another point. Look at the way it is culturally acceptable to call an adult female a girl, but it is an insult to call an adult male a boy. Nothing irritates me more than being called a girl. I didn’t put in decades of life on this earth to be called a child for the rest of my life.

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