Our article is dedicated to the relation of a given name’s phonological structure and the gender of the referent. Phonology has been shown to play an important role with regard to gender marking on a name in some (Germanic) languages. For example, studies on English and on German have shown in detail that female and male names have significantly different phonological structures. However, little is known whether these phonological patterns are valid beyond (closely related) individual languages. This study, therefore, sets out to assess the relation of gender and the phonological structures of names across different languages/cultures. In order to do so, we analyzed a sample of popular given names from 13 countries. Our results indicate that there are both language/culture-overarching similarities between names used for people of the same gender and language/culture-specific correlations. Finally, our results are interpreted against the backdrop of conventional and synesthetic sound symbolism.
1 Gender marking on names
Names are usually said to have no lexical meaning. However, there is one piece of information, which is quite commonly coded in personal names: the name bearer’s gender (cf. Alford 1988: 66–68). Depending on the language/culture, different types of personal names are involved in the marking of gender, e.g., given names, the family name, and/or unofficial names. Among these types of personal names gender marking is assigned most often to the given name (cf. Oelkers 2003: 134), which we focus on in the following. As we will outline in the next section, there are different ways to mark gender on a given name including specific phonological structures (Section 1.1). This will be exemplified by studies on German and English (Section 1.2). These studies show that – in these particular languages – there are strong correlations between semantic (e.g., femininity) and phonological properties (see below). For both German and English, it has been discussed how these correlations relate to the concept of sound symbolism (cf. Section 1.2). However, there has been little agreement yet: While some scholars interpret these correlations as instances of synesthetic sound symbolism (e.g., Cutler et al. 1990; Oelkers 2003, 2004; Pitcher et al. 2013; van de Weijer et al. 2020; Whissell 2001) others argue in favor of conventional sound symbolism (e.g., Cassidy et al. 1999; Hough 2000; Nübling 2018). With our study, we want to add an important perspective to this discussion by considering a range of disparate languages/cultures. This promises to shed new light on this topic as one important controversy centers around the question whether we are dealing with arbitrary and language/culture-specific cues to gender (i.e., conventional sound symbolism; see, e.g., Cassidy et al. 1999: 378) or with non-arbitrary correlations, that are valid beyond individual languages/cultures (i.e., synesthetic sound symbolism; see, e.g., Oelkers 2003: 228). The basic questions we want to answer are: Are correlations of name phonology and gender language/culture-specific or are there language/culture-overarching similarities? Which phonological properties indicate (at least by tendency) gender? Hence, we add a contrastive perspective to the discussion on sound symbolism in the domain of onymic gender marking (and we investigate name giving practices in some countries which have not yet been studied in this respect, see below).
The remainder of this paper is structured as follows: After the short overviews of gender marking on names in general (Section 1.1) and by phonological means in particular (Section 1.2), we summarize two central positions on how phonological gender marking on names relates to the concept of sound symbolism (Section 2). Section 3 is dedicated to our own study: We describe the sample selection, the transcription, the annotation, and the multifactorial modelling of the data. The findings are discussed in Section 4 and Section 5 draws a brief conclusion.
1.1 Types of gender marking
According to Alford (1988: 66–68), gender is the most frequently marked information on proper names. Gender marking languages are traditionally assigned to one of three types – the semantic, the formal, or the conventional type:
Gender can be marked by the semantics of the name. In this case, desirable characteristics are assigned via a name according to gender stereotypes. E.g., the Turkish male name Ylmaz is etymologically rooted in an adjective meaning ‘fearless’ and thus fits a male gender stereotype. The same holds for female names such as Gül (‘rose’) which is, for example, associated with beauty and thereby connected to central components of the female gender stereotype. Hence, we are dealing with a case of ‘doing gender’. Languages/Cultures belonging to this type of gender marking on names comprise, for example, Japanese and Chinese.
Gender can also be marked on the basis of formal means (e.g., suffixes). In languages/cultures belonging to this type (e.g., Italian, Ojibwa, or Garo), gender is overtly marked and can be deduced from the form of (a specific part of) a name. For example, Italian names ending in -a are (with some exceptions, such as Luca) female, while names ending in -o are male.
Finally, there can also be separate inventories in a language/culture (Alford 1988: 65–68). In this case, gender is associated with a name by convention. For example, one simply has to learn that certain names, which are commonly used in Germany (e.g., Doris), are used for females while others (including phonologically very similar ones) are used for males (e.g., Boris).
However, phonology also seems to play an important role – even in languages/cultures that are assigned to the conventional or the semantic type of gender marking (i/iii). Studies on English (cf., e.g., Cassidy et al. 1999; Slater and Feinman 1985) and German (cf., e.g., Nübling 2009; Oelkers 2003) – languages/cultures which are usually assigned to type (iii) – have shown in detail that female and male names show significantly different phonological structures, which are discussed in the next section.
1.2 Prosodic-phonological cues to gender in German (and English)
In her study on German given names Oelkers (2003) showed that female and male names differ significantly with regard to the prosodic-phonological features ‘number of syllable’, ‘main stress’, ‘portion of vowels/ consonants’, and ‘quality of stressed vowel’. The main results are that female names contain on average more syllables than male names, female names show initial stress less often than male names, for which initial stress is the dominant pattern, and – most importantly – female names prove to be more sonorous in general. This can partly be explained by two facts: female names have more vowels than male names and female names show significantly more final vowels on average. The final sound of a personal name has in general proved to be a structural position which particularly contributes to the gender differentiation of given names. A further result is that female names have more stressed front vowels than back vowels on average. According to these results, the German given name Katharina [ka.ta.ˈʁiː.na] can be classified as exhibiting predominately ‘female’ phonological structures (four syllables, penultimate stress, balanced portion of vowels and consonants, final vowel, stressed front vowel) while Rolf [ˈʁɔlf] exhibits predominantly ‘male’ structures (one syllable, higher portion of consonants, final obstruent, stressed back vowel). Table 1 summarizes these findings on prosodic-phonological differences between female and male names in German (for similar results obtained with other samples and a slightly different method, see Nübling 2009 and Nübling et al. 2015: 131–137) and lists possible phono-semantic explanations for these differences (we will comment on these explanations in Section 2).
|Female Names||Male Names||Phonological ‘meaning’ (reported for female names)|
|Number of syllables||More syllables||Fewer syllables||Longer words = higher sonority;|
Euphony = female stereotype
|Main stress||More non-initial stress||More initial stress||Deviation from unmarked pattern;|
Exotic = female stereotype
|Portion of vowels/consonants||More vowels||More consonants||Vowels = sonority/ soft sound structure;|
|Final sound||Vowel final||Consonant final||Softness = female stereotype|
|Quality of stressed vowel||More front vowels||Fewer front vowels||Front vowels = smaller size;|
Small size = female stereotype
In German, these phonological patterns seem to be so firmly established and associated with the respective gender that they can be transferred to other types of names, such as brand names, and are thus used for gender marketing. In this area, the association of phonological properties and a certain gender is used for the marketing of products that have either a male or a female target group (e.g., deodorants; cf. Ackermann 2011). Here, phonological properties are part of other marketing aspects such as the coloring of the products.
Those correlations of (targeted) gender and phonological structure of a name cannot only be found in German. Cassidy et al. (1999) found very similar patterns for (product and) given names in English (see also Cutler et al. 1990; Fredrickson 2007; Pitcher et al. 2013; Slater and Feinman 1985; Whissell 2001; Wright et al. 2005; for an overview cf. Elsen 2016: 120–126). Just as in German, English female names have more syllables than male names, show more often non-initial stress as well as a greater ratio of open to closed syllables on average and predominantly end in a final vowel. The results are depicted in Table 2.
|Prosodic-Phon. feature||Female names||Male names|
|Number of syllables||Larger number||Smaller number|
|Main stress||Non-initial stress||Initial stress|
|Final sound||Vowel final||Consonant final|
|Ratio of open to closed syllables||Greater||–|
To date there has been little agreement in the literature on how these findings relate to the concepts of iconicity and sound symbolism: are we dealing with synesthetic or with conventional sound symbolism? This controversy will be addressed in the next section.
2 Synesthetic versus conventional sound symbolism
According to Oelkers (2003), specific prosodic-phonological structures are not distributed randomly over female and male names. Instead, she interprets these differences phono-semantically. The main idea is that certain phonological properties (e.g., the vowel /i/) tend to be associated with semantic concepts (e.g., smallness), some of which are associated with gender stereotypes (e.g., femininity; sexual dimorphism plays a role here). Oelkers (2003) argues that phonological differences between male and female names reflect these associations of phonological property, semantic concept, and gender stereotype. Parents seem to “give names to children in a manner that is aurally (i.e., through sound) metaphorically congruent with gender stereotypes (i.e., shared beliefs about the traits of women and men)” (Slepian and Galinsky 2016: 512; see also Section 4).
Oelkers’ (2003) main claims concerning specific phonological properties are briefly summarized in the following. The finding that female names have more syllables is explained in such a way that longer words are perceived as more melodious than shorter words. Euphony again is connected to central components of the female gender stereotype (according to Oelkers 2003: 144). A similar explanation applies to the two factors ‘higher portion of vowels’ and ‘vowel final’: vowels make a name more sonorous, which is usually perceived as sounding softer, and softness fits better to the female gender stereotype than to the male one. As far as the position of the main stress is concerned, exoticism is the decisive characteristic: Since initial stress is characteristic of Germanic languages, male names represent the unmarked case more often, which, according to Oelkers (2003: 160), can be associated with the male gender stereotype. Female names deviate from the unmarked stress pattern more often and thus correspond to the female gender stereotype due to their markedness and exoticism. Finally, the distribution of the quality of the stressed vowel can be associated with the famous size-sound symbolism (also known as frequency code, cf., e.g., Hinton et al. 1994: 10; Ohala 1983, 1984). Oelkers (2003: 227) argues that sounds that have been shown to be associated with bigger size (e.g., dark vowels such as /a/, /o/, /u/) are connected with masculinity (for an early study on the mapping of size and sound cf. Sapir 1929). This size-sound mapping is one of the best studied relations in the field of sound symbolism. For instance, Knoeferle et al. (2017) have shown in a recent study which acoustic cues best characterize ‘large’ and ‘small’ sounding phonemes. Consistent with the predictions, their experiment has shown that size judgements were indeed higher for sounds with a higher F1 (which reflects the progressive opening of the jaw) and simultaneously a lower F2 (which increases with vowel frontness) and for sounds with a longer duration.
In sum, Oelkers (2003: 227) claims that German female names are characterized by prosodic-phonological features that make them sound softer and more melodious compared to male names. Additionally, female names sound rather ‘exotic’ compared to typical German prosodic-phonological structures. Male given names, on the other hand, sound ‘harder’, and have rather unremarkable structures (Oelkers 2003: 199). Thus, the prosodic-phonological structures of given names do not only determine the gender of a name but also transport stereotypical ideas of gender (as they exist in many other areas of life) according to Oelkers (2003).
Oelkers (2003: 227–228) assumes a non-arbitrary mapping between phonetic properties of speech sounds and their meaning – namely gender in the case of personal names. Hence, she argues for a case of sound symbolism where semantic concepts – such as femininity – that have no audible characteristics are coded phonologically. This case of sound symbolism has been called synesthetic sound symbolism by Hinton et al. (1994: 4–5). In the following, we adopt this term (although the more common use of the term synesthetic relates to sensory experience).
The hypothesis that ‘fe/male sounds’ exist implies that the prosodic-phonological patterns that we find in German given names must be valid beyond (closely related) individual languages if not universally (Oelkers 2003: 228). Accordingly, Oelkers (2003: 227–228) explicitly argues against Cassidy et al.’s (1999) claim that “phonological cues to gender appear to be language specific and psychologically arbitrary”. On the basis of data from countries where English is the majority language also Cutler et al. (1990), Whissell (2001), and Pitcher et al. (2013) reason in favor of synesthetic sound symbolism.
By contrast, Nübling (2018) (and similarly also Cassidy et al. 1999 and Hough 2000), argues against synesthetic sound symbolism and states that no sound as such is male or female – it is only due to convention that some phonological patterns are associated with the information [± female] (i.e., conventional sound symbolism in the sense of Hinton et al. 1994). Furthermore, she claims that correlations between a name’s prosodic-phonological structure and the assigned gender can be explained from a diachronic perspective: In German -a (sometimes also -e) has attained the morphological status of a gender suffix by deriving female names from many male names for centuries (cf. Example (1)) – the other direction is blocked in German.
Thus, we are dealing with reanalyzes at the morphology/phonology interface: Morphologically (by suffixes such as -a) caused phonological effects (open final syllables, more syllables, shift to non-initial stress, etc.) result in specific sound patterns and are associated with femininity. By contrast, the sound structures of morphologically unmodified names (closed final syllables, fewer syllables, initial stress, etc.) are associated with masculinity. Hence, Nübling (2018) interprets correlations of gender and phonological structure as language/culture-specific conventions.
Against this backdrop, a study which takes different languages/cultures into account suggests itself. This is where our study takes its point of departure. In the next sections, we compare the relation of gender and phonological structures of names across different languages/cultures. By doing so, we want to assess whether the observed correlations of name phonology and gender are valid beyond single languages/cultures.
3 Empirical investigation: phonological cues to gender in 13 languages/cultures
3.1 Sample selection
In order to fill the outlined research gap, we analyzed two samples of popular given names. Sample 1 consists of names from linguistically rather disparate countries, namely China, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Japan, Poland, and Turkey. These countries differ not only concerning their majority language but also with regard to gender marking on given names. All three types introduced in Section 2 are covered, i.e., the conventional type (which predominates, e.g., in Germany), the semantic type (which predominates, e.g., in Turkey), and countries where gender is often marked by formal means such as final -a for female names (e.g., in Poland). With this sample, we want to find out whether there are language/culture-overarching phonological cues to gender.
Sample 2, by contrast, consists of names from European countries where an Indo-European language is primarily spoken, namely Bulgaria, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Poland, Romania, and Spain. This sample allows us to study possible language-family/culture-specific correlations of name structure and gender.
For each country, the 30 most popular names per gender were selected on the basis of recent (maximum five years old) and trustworthy statistics on the naming of newborns, such as those made available, for example, by public authorities. A country was only selected for the study if such statistics were available – which excluded some interesting areas/countries.
Table 3 gives an overview of the composition of the two samples. (See also the link to the data samples on Zenodo in the Supplement below).
|Sample 1 (Heterogeneous)||Sample 2 (Indo-European)|
|Country||Majority language||Language Family||N||Country||Majority language||Language Family||N|
For all countries, the official (and thus registered) full forms of the names were used. This is not without problems because it can be assumed that, for example, a Mevlüt is sometimes called Mevo in Turkish. The problem of the unofficial shortening or change of the name applies to many languages/cultures. However, for our study we decided to choose the official names since reliable and representative information on unofficial names in the selected countries can hardly be gathered. In addition, one can assume that official names have at least a certain relevance in the countries at hand. Only Russia, for which it is generally known that the full forms recorded in official statistics are exceptionally rarely in use and the unofficial names have little in common with the registered ones (e.g., Alexander → Sascha; Maria → Mascha), was not included in the sample for exactly this reason.
After sample composition, all 780 names were transcribed with the help of native speakers and were annotated for a range of prosodic-phonological features, such as the number of syllables, the average sonority, et cetera. The transcription of the names and the annotation of factors such as sonority are the subject of the next section.
3.2 Transcription and annotation of the data
First, a few essential procedures regarding transcription have to be addressed. In general, for all names narrow phonetic transcriptions were made based on speech recordings or native speaker competence. This was always based on what our informants (of whom all are linguistically well informed) perceived as default pronunciation. Affricates and diphthongs were always transcribed and counted as a sequence of two segments each (e.g., James [dʒɛims] = six sounds). Hiatuses were only counted as two syllables if they appear non-contracted as in the German female name Mia [ˈmiː.a]. Names that are usually contracted were transcribed accordingly (e.g., Julia [ˈjuːl.ja]). This method is arguable (see, e.g., Nübling 2009, who consistently counts hiatuses as two syllables). However, since the transcription used here treats female and male names equally, possible biases between the genders should be minimal.
After phonological transcription all names were annotated for prosodic-phonological features that have been mentioned in the literature on the correlation of name phonology and gender (Cassidy et al. 1999; Cutler et al. 1990; Lieberson and Mikelson 1995; Nübling 2009; Oelkers 2003; Pitcher et al. 2013; Slater and Feinman 1985; Whissell 2001). One factor refers to the entire name structure, namely the number of syllables. The other factors – namely sonority and the vowel quality – refer to specific structural positions within the name, such as the final sound.
Let us first come to the factor vowel quality. As mentioned in Section 2, the quality of vowels can give rise to different associations with regard to the size of a denotatum. Applied to gender, this means that smaller-sounding vowels correspond to a female gender stereotype and should therefore occur more frequently in female names. As Knoeferle et al. (2017) have shown the opening of the jaw as well as frontness play a significant role for the size-judgement. Accordingly, we made a distinction between palatal (e.g., [i], [e], [y]) and non-palatal vowels (e.g., [a], [o], [u]). Unlike, e.g., Oelkers (2003), who only considers the quality of the stressed vowel, we counted all palatal and non-palatal vowels in one name, but not the final sound. We excluded the final sound here because the name final position has been shown to be especially prominent with regard to gender coding in many (Indo-European) languages. It is often the most sonorous, but also ‘large’ sounding vowel /a/, which indicates femininity (cf., e.g., Kürschner 2018: 306; Lieberson and Mikelson 1995: 935; Nübling 2018: 244; Oelkers 2003: 195). This structural position should therefore be considered separately in order to avoid the possibility that the final sound obscures other more subtle phonological cues to gender.
The second factor that needs to be explained in more detail is sonority. As Nübling (2009: 81) notes in her analysis of German given names, it is too simplistic to assume a dichotomy between vowels and consonants and to put them in opposition to each other. It is well known that a continuum extends between vowels, which are highly sonorous, and consonants. This can be shown with the sonority scale in Figure 1 (Nübling 2009: 81; cf. also, e.g., Neef 2002; Vennemann 1982).
According to the sonority scale, vowels are most sonorous. Within the group of vowels open vowels (/a/) are more sonorous than mid vowels (e.g., /e/, /o/) and mid vowels are more sonorous than close vowels (e.g., /i/, /u/). In addition to considering such sonority differences within a group of sounds the scale also incorporates the fact that not only vowels at the top of the scale, but also consonantal sonorants (and voiced fricatives) are highly euphonic and give names a sound that is perceived as soft (cf. Nübling 2009: 81). The sonority decreases continuously towards the right end of the scale. Accordingly, voiceless plosives have the lowest sonority and thus the highest degree of consonantality. In order to operationalize the factor sonority, values – based on Nübling (2009) – have been assigned to all sounds. These values are shown in Figure 1 in the top row. In accordance with this scale, numerical sonority values were assigned to every name as a whole and to special structural positions of the name, i.e., the initial and the final sound.
|Number of syllables||1–5 syllables||Higher number of syllables = female gender cue|
|Number of non-palatal vowels (excluding final sound)||0–3||Higher number of non-palatal vowels = male gender cue|
|Sonority of first sound||1–10 points (on sonority scale)||Higher sonority = female gender cue|
|Average sonority (till final vowel)||1–10 points (on sonority scale)||Higher sonority = female gender cue|
|Sonority of final sound||1–10 points (on sonority scale)||Higher sonority = female gender cue|
Finally, it should be briefly mentioned why certain factors that have been proven to be relevant in individual languages are not (or: cannot be) taken into account in our crosslinguistic study. These are stress position, the ratio of open versus closed syllables, and the number of consonant clusters. The main stress – which has been shown to be a significant factor in some Germanic languages – was not considered here due to different types of lexical stress realization and different stress positions in the languages of our sample. Thus, the stress types are not comparable and a derivation of hypotheses regarding gender cues seems questionable.
The ratio of open and closed syllables in a name depends on the respective language: are we rather dealing with a syllable or with a word language (cf., e.g., Auer 1993; Caro Reina and Szczepaniak 2014)? German and English – languages in which the factor has been shown to be relevant – have traits of word languages, i.e., the prosodic domain of the phonological word is central. However, there are also syllable languages in our sample, i.e., languages in which the prosodic domain of the syllable is central, which, among other things, is reflected in an optimized CV-structure (e.g., Japanese). Therefore, it is a priori clear that the ratio of open and closed syllables cannot be relevant across all languages included. The same holds for the number of consonant clusters per name.
In the next section, the crosslinguistic relevance of the factors discussed here will be examined in two multifactorial analyses.
3.3 Binary logistic regressions
3.3.1 Heterogeneous sample
In the previous section, various features were discussed that have been said to be typical for female or male names in German and English. As shown, there are some striking parallels between these two languages. However, this is not particularly surprising as English and German are geographically close and genetically related. In order to examine whether these factors are also influential when it comes to a sample of names from linguistically rather disparate countries, the data were analyzed with a binary logistic regression model. This will be described in this section.
In the first multifactorial model the variables number of syllables, number of non-palatal vowels (excluding final sound), sonority of first sound, average sonority (till final vowel), and sonority of final sound were integrated. Hence, we started with a maximal model. Here (and in all following models), gender is the dependent variable. Independent variables that have no significant influence were removed from the model in a step-down procedure based on the Akaike Information Criterion (AIC). By this procedure, two out of five variables – i.e., number of syllables and sonority of first sound – were removed as they do not improve the quality of the model. The specification of the final model is given in (2).
Table 5 gives an overview of the significance of the predictors. In addition, the effect sizes (log odds), standard errors, Wald Z, and p-values are listed. The concordance index shows that the model discriminates acceptably: C = 0.784 (cf., e.g., Hosmer and Lemeshow 2000: 162).
In contrast to p-values, effect coefficients (here we used log odds) do not indicate whether an influence is significant, but its direction and its strength. Log odds are centered around 0 and reach from +Infinity to −Infinity. Thus, a coefficient of 0 would mean that there is no difference between the levels of the predictor with regard to the choice between female and male names. Coefficients greater than 0 mean that the probability that the respective name is a male name is greater than the probability of a female name. For example, number of non-palatal vowels (excluding final sound) has a positive coefficient and thus an increase in the number of non-palatal vowels (excluding the final sound) increases the odds for a male name.
Based on the included variables, the model predicts the gender of 341 names (i.e., 71 % of the tokens) correctly (cf. Table 6).
|Actual||Predicted||Correctly predicted gender|
Altogether, the coefficients confirm our hypotheses: Female names have a more sonorous final sound, a higher average sonority (till final vowel), and fewer non-palatal vowels than male names. To test whether these significant predictors are relevant for all languages/cultures or whether the significance is based on high values in only some languages/cultures we checked possible interactions with the factor country in a second step. In order to do so, we compared a first regression model where we included the factor country but no interaction term with regression models respectively including interaction terms for country*number of non-palatal vowels (excluding final sound), country*average sonority (till final vowel), and country*sonority of final sound. Then, we compared the model with no interaction term with the models with an interaction term via ANOVA and tested whether the interaction term improved the model significantly. This was the case for the sonority-factors. Especially, the factor sonority of final sound is highly language/culture-dependent (3):
As Table 7 shows, the gender differences regarding the sonority of the final sound are particularly high in European countries. Contrarily, in Non-European countries, such as China and Japan, the final sound seems to be irrelevant with regard to gender.
In contrast to the sonority of the final sound, the factor number of non-palatal vowels (excluding final sound) seems to be language-/culture-overarching as the comparison of the model with and without interaction term shows (4).
This result can be illustrated by the monofactorial analysis given in Table 8: In all countries in our sample male names have on average more non-palatal vowels (if one ignores the final sound) and the differences between the countries are much weaker compared to Table 7.
The results described in this section showed that there are three groups of variables:
variables that did not have a significant effect at all (number of syllables and sonority of first sound),
variables that have an effect but whose significance is based on only some countries in the sample (average sonority till final vowel and sonority of final sound), and
one variable that proved to be important across all countries: number of non-palatal vowels (excluding final sound).
As there is only one variable in group (iii) it is not surprising that the model can only explain a moderate proportion of variance (Nagelkerke Pseudo-R2 = 0.300) – the vast majority of variables is irrelevant for some countries in the sample. In the next section, we test whether the model quality improves if a linguistically more homogeneous set of countries is analyzed. In order to do so we compiled a sample of names from countries where an Indo-European language is the majority language. Comparing the resulting model and the model described in this section will clarify whether we are dealing with language family internal tendencies.
3.3.2 Indo-European sample
The analysis of the second sample mostly matches the procedure described in Section 3.3.1. To avoid repetitions, not all steps are explained in detail again. We started with a maximum model and removed all variables that have no significant influence in a step-down procedure based on the Akaike Information Criterion (AIC). Only sonority of first sound was excluded. The specification of the final model is given in (5):
Table 9 contains relevant values resulting from the regression analysis.
The model closely resembles the one described in Section 3.3.1. The only additional predictor that reached significance is number of syllables. The coefficients of the other variables match their counterparts from the analysis of the other sample with regard to their direction. However, the sonority variables deviate more strongly from 0 which means that they have a stronger impact on the dependent variable. The additional variable and the higher impact of two variables are reflected in a better model quality, which is shown in Table 10. According to Hosmer and Lemeshow (2000: 162) a C index above 0.8 indicates “excellent discrimination”.
|Heterogeneous sample||Indo-European sample|
|Index of discrimination (C)||0.784||0.885|
Given that both samples comprise the same number of names these differences demonstrate that our variables can explain the variance in the comparatively homogenous Indo-European sample better than the variance in the much more heterogeneous sample analyzed in the previous section. This can also be shown by the confusion matrix in Table 11: The gender of more names is predicted correctly compared to the model described in the previous section (cf. Table 6 above). The following section discusses what our empirical results imply with regard to sound symbolism in the domain of phonological gender marking on names.
|Actual||Predicted||Correctly predicted gender|
4 Discussion – synesthetic versus conventional sound symbolism
As we have outlined in Section 1, there is no consensus in the literature whether correlations of phonological features and the name bearer’s gender are language/culture-specific or crosslinguistically valid. Our results indicate that the majority of such correlations are not valid beyond related languages in geographically close countries. Using the example of the final sound’s sonority, we have shown that there are important differences between the countries in our first sample. While the sonority of the final sound is a phonological cue to gender in some countries (e.g., Poland, Hungary, Germany), it is completely irrelevant in others (e.g., Japan, China). The way countries cluster in our analysis suggests that phonological gender marking strategies coincide with other cultural, geographical, and linguistic classifications. For example, China and Japan deviate from European countries with regard to the relevance of the final sound’s sonority. The analysis of our second sample supports this idea: Our variables explain the variance in the Indo-European sample much better than the variance in the heterogeneous sample. There are two explanations for this observation. Firstly, all countries in the second sample are not only closely related due to their majority language but they do also share cultural traditions and borrowing played and plays an important role – which results in overlapping/related onomasticons (cf., e.g., Gerhards 2010: 158). Hence, there are several etymologically related names in this sample. For instance, variants of Alexander (which is an extreme example) can be found in the sub-samples from Bulgaria, Denmark, England, Germany, Romania, and Spain (see Appendices A and B). Although these names are pronounced slightly differently in the respective countries, they make the sample more homogenous and this partly explains the difference between the two models. Secondly – and more importantly with regard to our research question – the names in the second sample are also more homogeneous with regard to the structure of the names in general and with regard to gender differences in particular. For example, final a is much more common for female names than for male. This holds irrespective of etymologically related names and applies also to female names without related variants in the sample (such as Bulgarian Iwaila).
Overall, it is not very surprising that our variables explain the variance in the Indo-European sample better than the variance in the heterogeneous sample since our variables are taken from studies on phonological gender marking on names in selected Indo-European languages. Still, this difference contradicts the idea that all or many correlations of phonological properties and the name bearer’s gender discovered by, e.g., Oelkers (2003) for German, are non-arbitrary and potentially universal.
However, we discovered a solid correlation of gender and the name’s sonority (regarding the final sound and the rest of name) in certain countries. In the Indo-European sample the number of syllables also had a significant impact. These correlations seem to be firmly established but linguistically and geographically limited. Therefore, they seem to qualify as cases of conventional sound symbolism. Originally, the diverging phonological properties of female and male names were motivated by, e.g., specific word/name formation patterns. For example, the formation of female names by -a suffixation led to numerous names with comparatively more syllables and a maximally sonorous final sound (cf. Section 2). Subsequently, the frequent co-occurrence of comparatively many syllables and/or a sonorous final sound on the one hand and the semantic property [+female] on the other hand resulted in associations of phonology and semantics in this domain. Since the word formation pattern that triggered this development traces to Latin and is only found in European languages these associations are not universal (cf. Cassidy et al. 1999: 362; Hough 2000: 6; Nübling 2009: 100, 2018: 242; Oelkers 2003: 144–145).
Though, our analyses also revealed that one correlation is valid across all countries in our samples: the number of non-palatal vowels (excluding the final sound). Thus, this variable qualifies as a candidate for synesthetic sound symbolism. Indeed, a corresponding explanation is obvious. One of the most robust findings in the literature on sound symbolism is the fact that non-palatal vowels are associated with bigger size (cf., e.g., Elsen 2017: 492) and bigger size is often associated with the masculine gender stereotype. Against this backdrop, it seems to be explicable that male names have more non-palatal vowels in word-initial and word-medial position than female names across all countries in our samples. The claim that synesthetic sound symbolism is at play here (as put forward, e.g., by Cutler et al. 1990; Oelkers 2003: 227–228; Pitcher et al. 2013; van de Weijer et al. 2020; Whissell 2001) therefore seems to be justifiable from a crosslinguistic perspective in this particular case. However, synesthetic sound symbolism has only an indirect influence (see also van de Weijer et al. 2020: 16). A matching gender stereotype is also necessary to establish an association of the phonological (e.g., word medial [i]) and the semantic property (e.g., female name bearer).Figure 2 depicts this mechanism.
In contrast, conventional sound symbolism is based on the frequent co-occurrence of a phonological (e.g., word final [a]) and a semantic property (e.g., female name bearer) and does not involve a second semantic concept. This is depicted in Figure 3.
Interestingly, synesthetic and conventional sound symbolism conflict in the Indo-European languages. This holds particularly for the sound [a]. On the one hand sonorous word final sounds (such as [a]) are associated with female names (due to word formation patterns; conventional sound symbolism) while on the other hand non-palatal vowels (such as [a]) are associated with male names (via association with bigger size; synesthetic sound symbolism). Hence, the connotation this sound triggers depends on its position in the name: word final position triggers a female association; word initial or word-medial position triggers a male association. In word final position the strong association of sonorous sound and female gender resulting from the specific word formation pattern overrides the general tendency to associate non-palatal vowels with bigger size and masculinity.
Both types of phonological gender marking seem to be important for name choices. Certain names are obviously perceived as more appropriate with regard to the gender of a child due to phonological properties. This reinforces correlations of gender and the phonology of the most popular names (which we analyzed here).
With regard to synesthetic sound symbolism the attractiveness of the associated meaning (e.g., smallness) also plays a role. While it might be the case that smaller sounding names are perceived as appropriate for women due to sexual size dimorphism, this does not necessarily mean that smallness is considered a desirable characteristic for women. This would diminish the attractiveness of the particular structure and would run contrary to a corresponding correlation of phonology and gender. As there are certainly cultures where this is the case it is likely that exceptions to the correlation of palatal vowels and feminine name bearers can be found (Pitcher et al. 2013: 5).
In our study, we addressed the correlation of name phonology and gender from a crosslinguistic perspective. Considering name giving practices in several (linguistically disparate) countries allows us to re-evaluate claims on how this topic relates to sound symbolism. Our empirical results yielded that the majority of the phonological patterns that have been shown to correlate with the gender of the name bearer in German and English (cf. Nübling 2009, 2012, 2018; Barry and Harper 1995; Cutler et al. 1990; Lieberson and Bell 1992; Oelkers 2003, 2004; Slater and Feinman 1985; Whissell 2001) are not associated with a certain gender universally. Instead, such correlations are limited to certain regions / language families. This substantiates Nübling’s (2018) claim that no sound as such is male or female and that specific correlations can be explained with reference to the diachrony of individual languages or language families. Also, cultural aspects (which lead to partly shared / related onomasticons) play a role here.
Even so, we also detected a phonological variable that correlates with gender in all countries studied: the number of non-palatal vowels (excluding the final sound). Here, an explanation based on synesthetic sound symbolism seems appropriate which supports Oelkers’ claim that correlations of name phonology and gender are not necessarily arbitrary. Thus, there is evidence for different kinds of sound symbolism in the domain of onymic gender marking. However, the instances of conventional sound symbolism outnumber synesthetic sound symbolism.
In addition to these results, our study has also revealed some directions for future research. For example, it would be particularly interesting to examine the relevance of non-palatal vowels experimentally. In such a study, one could ask participants with disparate linguistic backgrounds to assign “pseudonames” to female or male name bearers (cf. Cassidy at al. 1999 and Oelkers 2003 for similar studies with English and German speaking participants). Furthermore, it would be fruitful to analyze language families other than Indo-European more closely. Certainly, there are means of onymic gender marking that have not been considered here because it is obvious that they are language (family) specific. Another interesting topic would be the question how language and culture contact influence name structures and onymic gender marking. For example, it seems to be the case that Japanese names approach European patterns also in terms of phonological gender marking on names due to an increase of female names ending in a, which has been quite uncommon for Japanese female names in the past. In conclusion, there are still a number of open questions and issues that are worth addressing in the field of phonological gender marking on names. However, by adopting a crosslinguistic perspective, we hope to have shed some new light on this topic.
Many thanks are due to Beijia Chen, Semra Kızılkaya, Konrad Mazur, Malka Muchnik, Eva Meier, Takuma and Vera Melber, Nina Nikulova, Milena Osterloh, and Britta Stuhl for their help with the transcription of the names.
Supplement: The data samples are available for viewing at https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4911448.
Table A1 contains information on the sources of our name samples for all countries considered here. If available, a URL is given (including the date the material was accessed). The year from which the statistics originate is also given.
|China||2015||<https://www.qimingtong.com/article/0?fp=er#article||06/19/2018||based on a representative sample collected by the company QiMingTong in cooperation with the Tsinghua University Beijing|
|England||2017||<https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/livebirths>||03/11/2019||only data from England were considered for our study|
|Germany||2017||<www.beliebte-vornamen.de/jahrgang/j2017/top-500-2017>||07/09/2018||based on statistics provided by selected regional register offices|
|Israel||2016||No published data available. Data were provided by the Central Israeli Bureau of Statistics on request via e-mail.||–||–|
|Japan||2017||<www.meijiyasuda.co.jp/sp/enjoy/ranking/index.html#/year/2017y/2>||07/06/2018||based on statistics provided by an insurance company|
|Romania||2009||<http://numedecopii.com/info.asp?id=nume-fete-2009>||02/14/2019||Data provided by the Romanian Ministry of Administration and Interior|
|Turkey||2014||Türkiye İstatistik Kurumu Matbaası [Turkish Statistical Institute]. 2014. İstatistiklerle Çocuk / Statistics On Child 2014. Ankara: Türkiye İstatistik Kurumu Matbaası. ISBN: 978-975-19-6341-3.||–||–|
|01 Viktoriya||11 Elena||21 Stefani||31 Aleksandar||41 Kristiyan||51 Samuil|
|02 Mariya||12 Michaela||22 Magdalena||32 Georgi||42 Viktor||52 Aleks|
|03 Nikol||13 Teodora||23 Karina||33 Martin||43 Teodor||53 Hristo|
|04 Raya||14 Bozhidara||24 Anna||34 Iwan||44 Bozhidar||54 Atanas|
|05 Aleksandra||15 Gergana||25 Niya||35 Dimitar||45 Simeon||55 Iordan|
|06 Sofiya||16 Ema||26 Vanessa||36 Nikola||46 Stefan||56 David|
|07 Dariya||17 Siyana||27 Tzwetelina||37 Daniel||47 Petar||57 Ioan|
|08 Simona||18 Iwaila||28 Ewa||38 Boris||48 Iwailo||58 Wassil|
|09 Gebriela||19 Kalina||29 Darina||39 Kaloyan||49 Angel||59 Kristian|
|10 Ioana||20 Monika||30 Plamena||40 Nikolai||50 Michail||60 Borislav|
|61 Zǐ·xuān||71 Jǐn·xuān||81 Mèng·qí||91 Hào·rán||101 Zǐ·muò||111 Jùn·jié|
|62 Zǐ·hán||72 Sī·hán||82 Yǜ·hán||92 Zǐ·xuān||102 Bó·wén||112 Zhì·yuǎn|
|63 Shī·hán||73 Kě·xīn||83 Zǐ·méng||93 Hào·xuān||103 Yī·nuò||113 Tiān·yòu|
|64 Kě·xīn||74 Zǐ·xuān||84 Zhǐ·xuān||94 Yǚ·xuān||104 Zǐ·hán||114 Míng·xuān|
|65 Yī·nuò||75 Ruò·xī||85 Yì·hán||95 Hào·yǚ||105 Zǐ·ruì||115 Zǐ·hán|
|66 Yǚ·xuān||76 Zǐ·xuān||86 Ruò·xuān||96 Zǐ·ruì||106 Ruì||116 Jùn·háo|
|67 Xīn·yí||77 Yǚ·hán||87 Yī·yī||97 Zǐ·xuān||107 Yǚ·zé||117 Hào·rán|
|68 Zǐ·hán||78 Yǚ·tóng||88 Ruò·xī||98 Hào·xuān||108 Míng·xuān||118 Yī·míng|
|69 Chén·xī||79 Xīn·yán||89 Yì·xīn||99 Jùn·xī||109 Yǚ·háng||119 Hào·yǚ|
|70 Zǐ·xuān||80 Ruò·xī||90 Shī·qí||100 Zǐ·háo||110 Zǐ·háo||120 Zǐ·chén|
|121 Ida||131 Laura||141 Aya||151 William||161 Valdemar||171 Alexander|
|122 Emma||132 Nora||142 Sofie||152 Noah||162 Elias||172 Villads|
|123 Sofia||133 Clara||143 Ellen||153 Oscar||163 Magnus||173 Christian|
|124 Ella||134 Karla||144 Lily||154 Lucas||164 Aksel||174 Johan|
|125 Freja||135 Isabella||145 Mathilde||155 Carl||165 Frederik||175 Adam|
|126 Josefine||136 Olivia||146 Maja||156 Victor||166 Felix||176 Arthur|
|127 Alma||137 Lærke||147 Frida||157 Oliver||167 Elliot||177 Liam|
|128 Alberte||138 Victoria||148 Emilie||158 Alfred||168 August||178 Theo|
|129 Anna||139 Mille||149 Marie||159 Malthe||169 Anton||179 Albert|
|130 Agnes||140 Luna||150 Esther||160 Emil||170 Nohr||180 Mikkel|
|181 Olivia||191 Lily||201 Phoebe||211 Oliver||221 William||231 Alexander|
|182 Amelia||192 Sophia||202 Sienna||212 Harry||222 Henry||232 Edward|
|183 Isla||193 Grace||203 Evelyn||213 George||223 Alfie||233 Theo|
|184 Ava||194 Evie||204 Isabelle||214 Noah||224 Thomas||234 Isaac|
|185 Emily||195 Jessica||205 Ivy||215 Jack||225 Joshua||235 Lucas|
|186 Isabella||196 Sophie||206 Matilda||216 Jacob||226 Freddie||236 Ethan|
|187 Mia||197 Alice||207 Willow||217 Muhammad||227 James||237 Max|
|188 Poppy||198 Florence||208 Elsie||218 Leo||228 Arthur||238 Joseph|
|189 Ella||199 Daisy||209 Chloe||219 Oscar||229 Archie||239 Samuel|
|190 Charlotte||200 Freya||210 Scarlett||220 Charlie||230 Logan||240 Mohammed|
|241 Emma||251 Camille||261 Julia||271 Gabriel||281 Nathan||291 Timéo|
|242 Louise||252 Léna||262 Romane||272 Jules||282 Arthur||292 Théo|
|243 Jade||253 Rose||263 Jeanne||273 Adam||283 Paul||293 Mohamed|
|244 Alice||254 Inès||264 Eva||274 Lucas||284 Nolan||294 Aaron|
|245 Chloé||255 Anna||265 Lou||275 Louis||285 Maël||295 Mathis|
|246 Mila||256 Sarah||266 Charlotte||276 Raphaël||286 Sacha||296 Axel|
|247 Léa||257 Zoé||267 Louna||277 Hugo||287 Tom||297 Antoine|
|248 Lina||258 Juliette||268 Mia||278 Léo||288 Noah||298 Victor|
|249 Manon||259 Ambre||269 Nina||279 Ethan||289 Enzo||299 Maxime|
|250 Lola||260 Lucie||270 Clara||280 Liam||290 Gabin||300 Clément|
|301 Emma||311 Leni||321 Sophie||331 Ben||341 Henry||351 Liam|
|302 Hannah||312 Clara||322 Charlotte||332 Jonas||342 Maximilian||352 Moritz|
|303 Mia||313 Lena||323 Ida||333 Leon||343 Luca||353 Julian|
|304 Sofia||314 Luisa||324 Lilly||334 Paul||344 Oskar||354 Leo|
|305 Emilia||315 Leonie||325 Laura||335 Finn||345 Emil||355 David|
|306 Lina||316 Amelie||326 Maja||336 Noah||346 Anton||356 Alexander|
|307 Anna||317 Emily||327 Mathilda||337 Elias||347 Max||357 Milan|
|308 Marie||318 Johanna||328 Lara||338 Luis||348 Theo||358 Philipp|
|309 Mila||319 Ella||329 Frieda||339 Felix||349 Jakob||359 Niklas|
|310 Lea||320 Nele||330 Lia||340 Lukas||350 Matteo||360 Carl|
|361 Hanna||371 Nóra||381 Dóra||391 Bence||401 Zalán||411 Gergő|
|362 Anna||372 Maja||382 Sára||392 Máté||402 Áron||412 Benett|
|363 Jázmin||373 Fanni||383 Csenge||393 Levente||403 Balázs||413 Bálint|
|364 Zsófia||374 Laura||384 Petra||394 Dominik||404 Kristóf||414 Márk|
|365 Zoé||375 Dorina||385 Noémi||395 Marcell||405 Péter||415 Zoltán|
|366 Lili||376 Lilla||386 Eszter||396 Dávid||406 Botond||416 András|
|367 Boglárka||377 Gréta||387 Mira||397 Ádám||407 Olivér||417Attila|
|368 Luca||378 Izabella||388 Flóra||398 Noel||408 László||418 Márton|
|369 Emma||379 Viktória||389 Zselyke||399 Dániel||409 Zsombor||419 Benedek|
|370 Léna||380 Réka||390 Liza||400 Milán||410 Tamás||420 Gábor|
|421 Tamar||431 Esther||441 Rachel||451 Noam||461 Yehuda||471 Raphael|
|422 Noa||432 Lia||442 Noya||452 David||462 Abraham||472 Shmuel|
|423 Avigail||433 Hanna||443 Miriam||453 Uri||463 Lavi||473 Ido|
|424 Maya||434 Rivka||444 Ema||454 Ariel||464 Israel||474 Michael|
|425 Yael||435 Roni||445 Ruth||455 Yosef||465 Itamar||475 Yitzhak|
|426 Adel||436 Romi||446 Yuval||456 Eitan||466 Omer||476 Chaim|
|427 Shira||437 Hodaya||447Alma||457 Daniel||467 Yonatan||477 Harel|
|428 Sarah||438 Ela||448 Halel||458 Itai||468 Yair||478 Shimon|
|429 Ayala||439 Michal||449 Ariel||459 Yehonatan||469 Yaakov||479 Amit|
|430 Talya||440 Chaya||450 Tahal||460 Moshe||470 Eliah||480 Alon|
|481 Sakura||491 Honoka||501 Sara||511 Haruto||521 Yuusei||531 Yuuki|
|482 Yui||492 Riko||502 Hina||512 Souta||522 Kanata||532 Sora|
|483 Akari||493 Mio||503 Iroha||513 Yuuto||523 Souma||533 Yuito|
|484 Mei||494 Saki||504 Kaho||514 Haruki||524 Aoi||534 Itsuki|
|485 Hana||495 Miyu||505 Hinata||515 Riku||525 Kaito||535 Kouta|
|486 Sana||496 Ichika||506 Hikari||516 Sousuke||526 Hayato||536 Haruma|
|487 Rio||497 Riso||507 Haruka||517 Minato||527 Haru||537 Hiroto|
|488 Himari||498 Ema||508 Kanna||518 Aoto||528 Asaki||538 Ayato|
|489 Koaru||499 Tsumugi||509 Momoka||519 Hinata||529 Yuuma||539 Ryou|
|490 Aoi||500 Yuina||510 Yua||520 Kouki||530 Rikuto||540 Eito|
|541 Julia||551 Oliwia||561 Nadia||571 Antoni||581 Adam||591 Bartosz|
|542 Zuzanna||552 Natalia||562 Marcelina||572 Jakub||582 Michał||592 Maksymilian|
|543 Zofia||553 Wiktoria||563 Gabriela||573 Jan||583 Marcel||593 Miłosz|
|544 Lena||554 Emilia||564 Michalina||574 Szymon||584 Stanisław||594 Tymon|
|545 Maja||555 Antonina||565 Kornelia||574 Franciszek||585 Wiktor||595 Oliwier|
|546 Hanna||556 Laura||566 Nikola||575 Filip||586 Piotr||596 Alan|
|547 Amelia||557 Pola||567 Helena||576 Aleksander||587 Igor||597 Ignacy|
|548 Alicja||558 Iga||568 Milena||578 Mikołaj||588 Leon||598 Tymoteusz|
|549 Maria||559 Anna||569 Martyna||579 Wojciech||589 Nikodem||599 Oskar|
|550 Aleksandra||560 Liliana||570 Jagoda||580 Kacper||590 Mateusz||600 Dawid|
|601 Maria||611 Mihaela||621 Larisa||631 Andrei||641 Florin||651 Eduard|
|602 Andreea||612 Bianca||622 Sara||632 Alexandru||642 Darius||652 Mario|
|603 Elena||613 Georgiana||623 Daniela||633 Ionuț||643 Denis||653 Matei|
|604 Ioana||614 Nicoleta||624 Miruna||634 Gabriel||644 Constantin||654 Bogdan|
|605 Alexandra||615 Cristina||625 Roxana||635 Ștefan||645 Robert||655 Răzvan|
|606 Ana||616 Teodora||626 Valentina||636 Cristian||646 Adrian||656 Rareș|
|607 Denisa||617 Diana||627 Rebeca||637 Mihai||647 Ioan||657 Valentin|
|608 Gabriela||618 Alexia||628 Raluca||638 David||648 Sebastian||658 Cosmin|
|609 Ștefania||619 Ionela||629 Sofia||639 Daniel||649 Luca||659 Marius|
|610 Daria||620 Florentina||630 Mădălina||640 Marian||650 George||660 Nicolae|
|661 Lucia||671 Carla||681 Olivia||691 Lucas||701 Leo||711 Carlos|
|662 Sofia||672 Sara||682 Elena||692 Hugo||702 David||712 Sergio|
|663 Maria||673 Noa||683 Adriana||693 Martin||703 Mario||713 Marc|
|664 Martina||674 Carmen||684 Laia||694 Daniel||704 Diego||714 Antonio|
|665 Paula||675 Claudia||685 Vega||695 Pablo||705 Javier||715 Bruno|
|666 Julia||676 Valentina||686 Vera||696 Alejandro||706 Enzo||716 Miguel|
|667 Daniela||677 Alma||687 Lola||697 Mateo||707 Izan||717 Gonzalo|
|668 Valeria||678 Ana||688 Irene||698 Adrian||708 Marcos||718 Jorge|
|669 Alba||679 Chloe||689 Jimena||699 Alvaro||709 Marco||719 Juan|
|670 Emma||680 Marta||690 Alejandra||700 Manuel||710 Alex||720 Angel|
|721 Zeynep||731 Meryem||741 Beren||751 Yusuf||761 Kerem||771 İbrahim|
|722 Elif||732 Nisanur||742 Ayşe||752 Berat||762 Ayaz||772 Ömer Faruk|
|723 Hiranur||733 Hira||743 Merve||753 Mustafa||763 Çınar||773 Umut|
|724 Yağmur||734 Belinay||744 Ada||754 Ömer||764 Ali||774 Furkan|
|725 Ecrin||735 Hira Nur||745 Defne||755 Ahmet||765 Enes||775 Mert|
|726 Zehra||736 Rabia||746 Fatma||756 Eymen||766 Muhammed|
|727 Azra||737 Ela||747 Asya||757 Muhammed||767 Yunus Emre||777 Hasan|
|728 Miray||738 Esma||748 Melek||758 Miraç||768 Hamza||778 Muhammed Emin|
|729 Nehir||739 Miray||749 Esmanur||759 Mehmet||769 Emirhan||779 Burak|
|730 Eylül||740 Sümeyye||750 Hatice||760 Emir||770 Hüseyin||780 Yiğit|
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