'Molly' and 'Leo' are gentle; 'Kate' and 'Kirk' are sarcastic

What’s in a name? Plenty, according to new study into sound symbolism

July 2015

The first study to explore sound symbolism using peoples’ first names has revealed that we tend to ascribe certain personality traits to certain names based on how they sound.

Using dozens of popular baby names, researchers at the University of Calgary explored what people infer when they hear a name with either round sounds or sharp ones.

“We gave people a pair of silhouettes. One of them was round and blobby, and one of them was very sharp,” explains co-author David Sidhu, a PhD student in the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Arts. "We had a single name and we said, 'Choose a silhouette that you think matches it,’” he says.

“Half the time the names were soft sounding, like Molly, and half the time they were sharp like Kate or Kirk. We found that people are more likely to choose the rounded silhouette for a name like Molly but a sharper silhouette for a name like Kirk.” And, people were more likely to say that Molly or Leo were easygoing and gentle, whereas Kate or Kirk were determined and sarcastic.

Exploring the meaning of sound

Furthermore, the study explored gender differences and found people are more likely to associate female names with the round shapes and male names with the sharp shapes.

Researchers have long known that non-words like “bouba” are associated with round shapes while non-words like “kiki” are associated with sharp shapes. But this is the first study to explore sound symbolism in names. “We are moving sound symbolism out of these non-words or nonsense words and discovering something fundamental about the relationship between sound and meaning,” says co-author Penny Pexman, a psychology professor in the Faculty of Arts.

Social consequences of a name

“With names, people are trying to cut down the uncertainty in the world and if you know you’re going to meet a Bob, you want to manage your expectations about what Bob might be like,” she says. As well as thinking about other Bobs we’ve met, we use the sounds in the name to help generate expectations about Bob’s personality. “We were really interested in the social consequences of naming,” says Pexman.

“It’s the way that these words feel,” explains Sidhu.  “A ‘buh’ feels a lot softer in your mouth than a ‘kuh’ sound, so because of that we attribute different qualities to these softer sounds.”

“What’s in a Name? Sound Symbolism and Gender in First Names” is published in the journal PLOS ONE.


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