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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