One of the great moments in being a grade-school word nerd is the discovery of onomatopoeia, that class of words that sound like what they mean: buzz, whoosh, hum, and the like. It’s an example of what linguists call “sound symbolism,” or when the sound of a word denotes something of its contents. In Harry Potter, for example, J.K. Rowling outfits Quidditch with novel words made of symbolic phonemes: As two marketing professors have observed in the Journal of Consumer Research, the game is played with “the large, dangerous Bludgers, the big, round Quaffle, and the small, fast Golden Snitch.”
The classic case study in sound symbolism is the “bouba/kiki” effect, as developed by German-American psychologist Wolfgang Kohler. As one paper on synesthesia — the blurring of senses — has found, if you present the below image to either children or adults and ask them to say which shape is called “kiki” and which is “bouba,” they’ll reliably identify the one on the left as kiki and the right as bouba, even if they’ve never seen the images before.
According to the researchers, “the sharp changes in visual direction of the lines in the right-hand figure mimic the sharp phonemic inflections of the sound kiki, as well as the sharp inflection of the tongue on the palate.”
In a fascinating new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology highlighted on Scientific American, Columbia University researchers Michael L. Slepian and Adam D. Galinsky show how a similar effect is at play with male and female names. Past research has looked at how a name affects how its owner is perceived — résumés with “white-sounding” names are more likely to be selected than those with “black-sounding” names, for example, and academics are rated as more hirable with traditionally male over female names — but the mechanics of what makes a name sound “masculine” or “feminine” hasn’t really been studied.
In one experiment, Slepian and Galinsky pulled data from the U.S. Social Security database to find 270 million names given to American kids from 1927 to 2013. Conforming with traditional gender norms, the male names were more likely to have hard, “voiced” pronunciation, and female names soft, “unvoiced” pronunciation. ” (To tell if a syllable is voiced, the authors say to pronounce “this” and “thin” aloud while you have your fingers at your throat: “This” vibrates the vocal cords, lending it voice, while “thin” does not.) If a syllable was voiced (like Adam or Ian), it was a hard sound, and if was unvoiced (like Hope or Tina), it was a soft sound. According to this analysis, if a name “sounds like” a boy’s name, it is because it’s spoken with enough intensity to vibrate a man’s Adam’s apple — a finding with a lot of patriarchal layers to it.
It also shows how much society’s expectations for gender are baked into our very names. Research has found that people commonly believe men “should” have “harder” personalities and behaviors, and women the opposite: a musician like Drake is called “soft” when he sings (endlessly) about his feelings, while communications scholar Kathleen Jamieson has identified that female leaders (Hillary Clinton, for instance) have to navigate a double bind: Women have to demonstrate hard, tough traits to show they’re capable, while not violating gender norms so much that they risk losing voters’ trust. Other experiments in Slepian and Galinsky’s study found that the more a respondent supported descriptive gender stereotypes — like the notion that men should be rugged and women affectionate — the more they identified “voiced” names to be more masculine. Depending on how you perform your gender, the more you think men should act hard, and the more a hard-sounding name will read to you as a man’s.