SOURCE: University of Calgary

University of Calgary

July 22, 2015 10:00 ET

What's in a name? Plenty, according to university study

Psychology researchers explore sound symbolism

CALGARY, AB--(Marketwired - July 22, 2015) - The first study to explore sound symbolism using people's first names has revealed that we tend to ascribe certain personality traits to names based on how they sound. Using dozens of popular baby names, University of Calgary researchers explored what people infer when they hear a name with either "round" or "sharp" sounds.

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

"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 easy going and gentle, whereas Kate or Kirk were determined and sarcastic.

The study also 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 and psychology professor Penny Pexman.

"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.

NOTE: Penny Pexman and David Sidhu are available for media interviews on Wednesday, July 22 between 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. MST

About the University of Calgary
The University of Calgary is a leading Canadian university located in the nation's most enterprising city. The university has a clear strategic direction to become one of Canada's top five research universities by 2016, where research and innovative teaching go hand in hand, and where we fully engage the communities we both serve and lead. This strategy is called Eyes High, inspired by the university's Gaelic motto, which translates as 'I will lift up my eyes.'

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