Sound symbolism

Sex-biased sound symbolism in English-language first names.
Does size matter?

In one of the most iconic scenes in cinema Ian Fleming’s fictional hero sits at a baccarat table and in a low voice introduces himself as “Bond, James Bond”. In a letter to the real James Bond’s wife, Fleming wrote about why he chose to use the name: “[it] struck me that this brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon and yet very masculine name was just what I needed…”. But what is it about a name that makes it masculine or feminine? Is it just convention (this is a boy’s name, that is a girl’s name), or is there something in the name that makes it sound more masculine or feminine?


In this project Dr Alan McElligott from Queen Mary University of London, Dr Alex Mesoudi from Durham University and I investigated if the preferences for different names for males and females in the English language could have developed as a product of the sound symbolic frequency code and preferred sexual traits.


Sexual selection has resulted in male biased sexual dimorphism in body size (i.e. males are bigger than females) in over 45% of mammal species. In humans taller men are generally considered to be more dominant and attractive, and have higher reproductive success than shorter men. Conversely, particularly in western societies, shorter and slimmer women are typically considered more attractive and tend to have higher reproductive success.

In mammals, the production of voiced sounds involves a two-stage process called the ‘source-filter theory of voice production’. Initially, the fundamental frequency (part of what we perceive as pitch) is generated by the larynx, through oscillation of the vocal folds (the source). This is then modified (filtered) by the shape and length of the vocal tract and nasal cavities. This filtering creates spectral peaks called formants. Because the length of the vocal tract is largely restricted by surrounding skeletal structures (e.g., the length of the neck) it is closely linked to body size making formant frequencies a good indicator of body size.

The fundamental frequency of the voice is generated by the larynx and is then filtered by the size and shape of the vocal tract forming formant frequencies.

In human speech, vowel production depends on changes in tongue and lip position, and consequently the size and shape of the vocal tract, to alter the frequencies and dispersion of formants and thus vowel identity. High front vowels (e.g. /i, e/, such as the /i/ in pit) typically have higher formants and greater dispersion, while low back vowels (e.g. /a, o/, such as the /ɒ/ in pot) have lower formants and dispersion.

X-rays of the mouth during vowel production shows the changing position of the tongue. The red dot marks the same place at the base of the tongue in each x-ray. When saying i the tongue is pushed up and toward the front of the mouth, whereas when saying ah the tongue is pulled down and back.


A vowel chart showing the position of English vowels. The dots represent the base of the tongue (similar to the red dots in the x-rays). The left side of the chart represents space closer to the front of the mouth and the right closer to the back of the mouth. Similarly, the top of the chart is closer to the roof of the mouth and the bottom closer to the bottom of the mouth.
The relative positions of formants in high front and low back vowels. Spectrograms showing a 175 cm tall male (a) and (b), and a 165 cm tall female (c) and (d), saying “mil” (high front vowel phoneme, a & c) and “mal” (low back phoneme, b & d). The positions of the first three formants are labelled F1, F2 and F3. Lower frequencies of F2 and lower dispersion between F1 and F2 can be seen in “mal” compared to “mil”. Overall, lower formant frequencies can be seen in the taller male voice compared to the shorter female voice.

Across many languages there are associations between phonemes and the expression of size (e.g. large /a, o/, small /i, e/). This phenomenon is known as “sound symbolism” and is when a sound unit, such as a phoneme, directly expresses a meaning, resulting in a systematic relationship between sound and meaning. Examination of sound symbolism in English has shown that high-front vowel phonemes are typically associated with smaller sizes while low-back phonemes are more often associated with larger sizes.

This table shows examples of vowel phonemes and the size they are most often associated with. From Johnson (1967) doi: 10.1016/S0022-5371(67)80008-2



Most often associated size








































Our Study

We suggested that naming preferences in the English language have developed as a product of sound symbolism and preferred sexual trails. If English-language naming preferences follow body size preferences it may lead to a name-sex dimorphism paralleling the observed body size dimorphism, with names containing vowels with lower formant frequencies and dispersion favoured for males, and vowels with higher formant frequencies and dispersion favoured for females.
We analysed the 50 most popular first names for males and females retrieved from the public databases of (i) England and Wales, (ii) New South Wales (Australia) and (iii) the United States for the 10 years between 2001 and 2010, inclusive. We hypothesized that male names should be more likely to contain a large sounding stressed syllable, while female names should contain a smaller sounding stressed syllable. This would result in male names being perceived as more masculine and female names as more feminine, thus increasing their perceived attractiveness.
We transcribed names into the International Phonetic Alphabet to represent their constituent phonemes. Using the results of previous studies we then scored the vowel phoneme of the stressed syllable as either large or small. The frequency of large or small vowel phonemes was calculated within each year for each sex.
In total we examined 3000 entries, comprising 112 unique male and 151 female names. This represented almost 15 million babies, or 30.6% of all recorded births, during the 10 years.
Within the sexes we found that males names were more likely to contain larger sounding (low-back) phonemes than smaller sounding (high-front) phonemes. Conversely, female names were more likely to contain smaller sounding than larger sounding phonemes. Similarly, between the sexes we found that male names were more likely than female names to contain large phonemes and female names more likely to contain small phonemes. English-language first names therefore appear to follow the sexual size dimorphism observed in human body size.
The mean number of names per phoneme for each phoneme size category. Closed circles = Female names, Open circles = Male names.
In males, names that feature lower formant frequencies and dispersion are likely to be perceived as larger and therefore favoured. Studies of human speech have shown that male voices with lower formant frequencies and dispersion are perceived as more masculine, as well as physically and socially dominant. Names that contain lower formant frequencies are likely to tap-into this perceptual preference and may be favoured as a result. Similarly, in females, the bias towards higher formant frequencies and smaller sounding names potentially advertises the femininity of the individual, because greater formant dispersion is correlated with shorter vocal tracts and smaller body size. A male name that increases the perceived size of its bearer is likely to be favoured over one that indicates a more diminutive stature, while in females names that are perceived as smaller are likely to be regarded as more feminine. It is likely that we see such a strong relationship between sex and name “size”, particularly in the top 50 names, because there is little cost to name a child with a name with an appropriate size sound symbolism to their sex. On the other hand there may be a high cost, in terms of future attractiveness, to giving a child a name that is incongruent between their sex and its sound symbolism.

Other studies

While we are the first to show sex biased sound symbolism in human first names, size based sound symbolism has been found in the names given to other species in native South and Central American languages. In Huambisa, a speech community of the Jivaroan language family in north central Peru, smaller bird and fish species, less than 25 cm in length, are more likely to have names containing high, front /i/ phonemes, whereas the names of larger species are more likely to contain /a, u/. This association between species size and vowel phoneme content has also been found in the unrelated languages Wayampί (Tupian), Apalái (Cariban), and Tzeltal (Myan).
Sound symbolism in English-language first names appears to be similar to body size and dominance information in the breeding vocalisations of other mammals. Because of the fundamental similarities in the vocal production apparatus (larynx and vocal tract), similar correlations between formant frequencies and dispersion with body size, dominance and/or reproductive success are found across mammal groups (e.g. primates, seals and deer). Typically larger, more dominant males have vocalisations that contain lower formant frequencies.
In Huambisa smaller birds (< 25 cm) typically have names that contain small sounding phonemes such as /i/.
Larger birds (> 25 cm) typically have names that contain large sounding phonemes such as /u/.
Scientific Name: Pipra coronata Scientific Name: Baryphthengus ruficapillus
Huambisa name: wisham Huambisa name: yukúru

Related Publications

Pitcher, B.J., Mesoudi, A., McElligott, A.G. 2013. Sex-biased sound symbolism in English-language first names. PLOS ON8(6): e64825. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0064825