Why chloe sounds so pretty, and jack so butch

Why Chloe sounds so pretty, and Jack so butch
Centre for Language and Communication Research If you heard that a friend had had a baby, and that they had named the baby ‘Manella’, we reckon that you and the vast majority of people in our British English-speaking culture would assume that the baby was a girl. If your friend told you that they had acquired a puppy with the name of ‘Drock’, we reckon that you would assume that the puppy was male. There is something about the sound of a name that suggests femininity or masculinity. But it is a cultural thing, and people from a different culture may well interpret the sound of names quite differently. And within our culture it is also a fashion thing, with a general tendency for girls’ names to be ‘in’ for a generation, but ‘out’ in the next. If we compare the present top 50 names for boys and girls, we can see what they have in common, and also what is distinctive, and of course it is the distinctives that will give us a clue about what makes a name sound more feminine than masculine. The first thing to note is that most names have two syllables: 65% in fact – 35 of the girls’ names, and 30 of the boys’. But what is then noticeable is that of the other 15 girls’ names, only 4 have a single syllable – and two of these are recognizable words, Grace and Jade. But there are 10 boys’ names with just a single syllable, so a single syllable seems to favour a 48 of the 50 boys’ names have a strong first syllable, like THOMas: the only exceptions are two traditional names AlexANDer and MoHAMmed. 7 girls’ names begin with a weak syllable, like ReBECCA and NaTASHA, so there is just a hint there too of a sense of But much more noticeable is the ratio of consonants and vowels. There is a rough average of 3 consonants per boy’s name, but only 2 per girl’s name. And there are more vowels in the girls’ names than in the boys’ names. Of course, we have to be careful here that we are talking about spoken consonants and vowels, not spelling. There are three spoken consonants, for instance, in Thomas (t, m, s) and only two in Chloe (c, l); the h’s in both cases don’t ‘count’ in speech. And there is only one vowel pronounced in James and only two in Sophie; the e’s in both cases are silent. It is also noticeable where the consonants and vowels occur. Only 7 of the 50 boys’ names begin with a vowel and they include several traditional names like Oliver, Alex(ander), Adam and Aaron; and only 12 boys’ names end in a vowel sound, like Joshua, Jamie, Charlie and Bradley, and linguists point out that the r at the end of names like Oliver, Alexander and Connor is not actually pronounced by most people in UK – otherwise there would only be 7. But girls have vowels everywhere. 16 of their names begin with a vowel, and – this is perhaps the most distinctive factor – 35 (ie 70%!) end with a vowel. And does it matter what vowels they are? Oh yes! 38% of girls’ names have the sounds ‘ee’, i and e in their strongest syllable (Mia, Olivia, Emily) whereas only 18% of the boys’ names. They both like a and ‘ay’ (Hannah, Amy, and Jack and Jamie), and all the other vowels are As for consonants, all these – l, m, n, r, ‘c’ – feature in both boys’ and girls’ names, but boys have many more d’s (Daniel, David, Adam, Dylan, Bradley and Brandon) and j’s (Joshua, James, Joseph, George, Jake, Jordan, Jamie, Jacob, Joe, Benjamin) than the girls do. And only boys’ names in the top 50 have w (William, Lewis, Owen, Edward). So boys’ names tend to be shorter, with a strong syllable at the beginning and have plenty of consonants at the beginning and end, especially d, j and w. • often have a weak syllable at the beginning There has been a strong tendency in our linguistic culture – lasting well over 1,000 years – to associate small dainty and bright things with the vowels ‘ee’ and i. Think of chicks and snippets, slim and nimble, glint and bleep; and even new words like chic and niche. This is by no means an invariable rule as words like big and thick show, but there has nevertheless been a strong, long-lasting association between these vowels and smallness. (Compare tick with tock, and flip with flop, and jingle with jangle.) There has also been a long-standing tradition – again in our linguistic culture – of adding a weak syllable with y (or ie) to make something sound smaller, cuter, more friendly, more homely. Think of piggy, pussy and horsey; presents become ‘prezzies’; a nice helpful person is a ‘sweetie’. Bob is a man, Bobby is more likely to be a boy, and Bobbie might even be a Vowels themselves are gentler sounds to produce than most consonants. Consonants tend to interrupt or interfere with breath passing through the mouth; make a p, or a s, or a j to feel this. And then compare them with the smooth, longer, production of any vowel; try ‘oo’, a, and ‘aye’. Some consonants share some of these long, smooth vowel-like qualities, like l, m, n, r and that is probably why these four consonants appear most often in names – they sound When you add up these cultural and phonetic observations, they support the general impression of girls’ names being prettier, daintier and cuter than the short ‘butch’ boys’ It just so happens that those feminine features tie in with British people’s notions of what words sound the most beautiful. Professor David Crystal examined a few popular lists of what people thought were the most beautiful words in the language, words like melody, velvet, tranquil, lullaby, mellow, murmur, mellifluous and gossamer. In a recent BBC Radio 4 Today survey, serendipity was voted the nation’s favourite word. There can be no doubt that semantics plays a major role in these impressionistic evaluations – all these words have some kind of positive, even soothing, quality in their meaning – but also the sounds of the word were felt to make a positive contribution to this sense of loveliness too. The sound elements of these words, known as the study of phonaesthetics, are very similar to girls’ names: if you want to produce a beautiful word, it must • have at least two syllables – best to have three or more • have a strong first syllable, but not absolutely necessary, it could have a weak • have a relatively high vowel to consonant ratio • have vowels like ‘ee’, i, e, a and ‘ay’ So girls’ names actually sound more beautiful to us. And boys’ names? Who wants a boy with a beautiful name? Much better to have a strong name – one syllable, two at the most, strong at the beginning and plenty of consonants that are tough on the passage of breath in the A writer to The Guardian (Letters 17.5.2002) lamented the loss of ‘simple, manly names’ like Stan, Roy and Eric in our footballers’ names and seemed to wince at the arrival of Peguy at Liverpool, and Lilian at Man United. He could have included Arsenal’s Lauren and Ipswich’s Venus. The writer, of course, was wrong in at least three ways; you shouldn’t compare first names with family names; you shouldn’t compare British names with foreign names – as we said at the beginning, this is a cultural thing; and thirdly, Roy, Stan and Eric have disappeared from the list of popular names anyway – Roy and Eric dropped out of the top 100 boys’ names in the 1960s, Stan in the 1950s! But it was a bit of fun to apply the girls’ name features to present Premiership names and find pretty names like Vieira, Pires, Kanu, Edu, and Thierry (Henry) alongside Lauren for Arsenal, and Anelka, Hyypia, Riise and Litmanen alongside Peguy for Liverpool – the two top teams in the country! Man Utd are going to need more than Lilian and May to keep up with them! (Another Guardian reader (Letters, 25.5.2002) suggested new recruits to the cleaning ladies XI: Eadie, Flo, May, Peguy, Lilian, Marian (Pahars) .). But there is a more serious angle to this. Thousands of pounds are spent on researching new names of products that will appeal to the public – and these names have got to sound good. The Brand Institute based in Miami has a couple of basic rules: go for two, or at most, three syllables, and no more than ten letters. They gave us Relenza and Lipitor, which conform to the ‘phonaesthetic’ table above (see What’s got 10 letters, three syllables and costs up to £100,000, The Guardian, 11.1.2000). If you had flu, you are sure to prefer something called Relenza to take for it, than something like Grunk – even if you felt pretty ‘grunky’ yourself. We wanted to test this general hypothesis of feminine sounding names further. We gathered together nearly two hundred names that had been made up for characters in video and computer games, science fiction, films and comics and we could see immediately that the vast majority of female characters had names that corresponded to the feminine pattern of sounds; and likewise, the male characters tended to have short, ‘strong’ names with plenty of consonants. Their creators knew what to do, but there were a few odd cases. (I expected Kimhari to be female, but he is a male in Final Fantasy!) One consistently different feature was the use of a common noun for a character; that tended to spoil the general pattern, just like Grace and Jade do in the list of girls’ names. But we wanted to test this further, to investigate how young people interpreted these names for gender – they are the target audience for all these entertainment games, after all. Debbie selected 25 male and 25 female names for characters, mixed them up and asked 148 students to indicate whether they thought each of the 50 names was for a male or a female character. And they had very definite ideas; there were only 35 don’t knows in the 7,400 response Table 2 shows these responses arranged by proportions of femininity. There seem to be three discernible groups: 1-17 have more than a 2 to 1 majority in favour of femininity; a small group 18-25 where opinions are fairly evenly divided; and a large group 26-50 with a 2 to 1 In the top 17, there are 14 constructed names and three common nouns (Jubilee, Glory and Cloud). 12 of the 14 constructed names have three syllables or more; not one of them is a monosyllable. No less than 6 of them (43%) have the vowels ‘ee’, i and e; 13 of them end with a vowel, in a weak syllable. And there are very few of the more typical boyish consonants (d, j and w). Jubilee and Glory fit the general pattern too. Cloud is the odd one out. It was intended to represent a male character in Final Fantasy, but nearly 70% of the students interpreted it semantically. We suspect that for most people, the word cloud conjures up white, light, fluffy entities scudding happily across a pleasant blue sky – a pretty In the bottom 25, only 3 names had more than 3 syllables (Raziel, Garentex and Adelbert) – a staggering 88% had only one or two syllables. 92% began with a strong syllable, the 2 exceptions being Zidane and Garentex. There are very few cases of the vowels ‘ee’, i and e in constructed male names. 4 common nouns had the i vowel (Link, Trick, Switch and Din), leaving just 2 cases in constructed names (Brin and Krit). Consonants outnumber vowels by nearly 2 to 1. 22 of the 25 names began with a consonant, 17 end with one – excluding the r which Americans would tend, of course, to pronounce – otherwise the figure would rise to 22 And the middle section contains eight names which had features from both sides. Aeris and Elian obviously sounded pretty feminine as they were supposed to do; Syl is too short for a girl, but has got the i vowel. Cyan doesn’t have a feminine-sounding vowel, but does have an equal proportion of vowels and consonants. Taki has a k which was a good deal more common with the top 50 boys’ names than with the girls’ names. Storm is the most ambiguous; intended for a female character in X-Men, but interpreted semantically by almost half as a male. (What boy wants a girl called Storm?). Amarant and Venetri are male characters, but the choice and number of vowels misled nearly half in their interpretations; maybe Amarant sounded too like amorous and amaryllis to be masculine enough. The evidence is there in the actual choice, last year, of names for our children; in the rise and fall of name popularity; in the creation of names in our entertainment genres; in young people’s interpretations of those names, and older people’s impressions of foreign footballers’ surnames, that we British English-speaking people have a strong collective consciousness of what sounds masculine and what sounds feminine. It perhaps explains why Christopher and Timothy are losing their appeal, but Tyler and Louis are gaining – shorter and without those feminine-sounding vowels. And why pretty names like Mia, Erin and Millie are gaining popularity, but Susan and Ruth are not. But fashions change; after all, Susan was the most popular throughout the 50s and 60s, followed closely by Julie. But that was when the ‘oo’s were in! And even though the ‘ee’s and i’s and e’s are in now, Rita, Vera, Belinda, Gillian and Beryl are out. Yes, fashion can be hard for a couple of generations, but kind again later for great grandma’s nostalgically classy names like Today’s fashion also favours new American imports like Lauren, Georgia, Courtney and Paige for girls, and even for boys too: Jake, Ethan, Jordan. Celtic names are in favour too: Caitlin, Erin and Niamh (Neve for the Americans!) for girls, and Callum, Ryan, Liam, Cameron, Connor, and more, for the boys. Greek and Latin names for girls are in: Chloe and Zoe; Jessica, Olivia and Amelia, but they’re on their way out for boys: Alexander is dropping (though Alex is holding its own); Dominic, Jason, Anthony, Marcus, Gregory are all And it is girls’ names that change with fashion rather than boys’ names. Only one girl’s name has remained consistently popular – in the top 50 – in 50 years, Elizabeth; but no less than 16 boys’ names have remained in their top 50. It seems when we come to choose names – quite apart from any specific family considerations – we tend to conform to prevailing fashions: classy names from Edwardian and Victorian days, modern American, traditional Celtic and exotic, classical Mediterranean names for girls; and traditional, stable, Biblical names, but also modern American and Celtic names for boys. But above all, they’ve got to sound right – and there appears to be a national British consciousness of what sounds pretty and what sounds butch. Top 50 boys’ and girls’ names in England and Wales in 2001

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