Sex-biased sound symbolism in English-language first names


Sexual selection has resulted in sex-based size dimorphism in many mammals, including humans. In Western societies, average to taller stature men and comparatively shorter, slimmer women have higher reproductive success and are typically considered more attractive. This size dimorphism also extends to vocalisations in many species, again including humans, with larger individuals exhibiting lower formant frequencies than smaller individuals. Further, across many languages there are associations between phonemes and the expression of size (e.g. large /a, o/, small /i, e/), consistent with the frequency-size relationship in vocalisations. We suggest that naming preferences are a product of this frequency-size relationship, driving male names to sound larger and female names smaller, through sound symbolism. In a 10-year dataset of the most popular British, Australian and American names we show that male names are significantly more likely to contain larger sounding phonemes (e.g. Thomas''), while female names are significantly more likely to contain smaller phonemes (e.g. Emily’'). The desire of parents to have comparatively larger, more masculine sons, and smaller, more feminine daughters, and the increased social success that accompanies more sex-stereotyped names, is likely to be driving English-language first names to exploit sound symbolism of size in line with sexual body size dimorphism.