Table of Contents
2. The Phonology of First Names
2.1 Syllables and word length
2.2 Stress position
4. Name Corpus Analysis
4.1 Name length
4.2 Stressed syllables
4.3 Phoneme combinations
Naming a child is always a difficult decision for parents. On the one hand, they want to express individuality and uniqueness, but on the other hand, they tend to choose a traditional name, such as, for example, one from a biblical origin (John, Samuel, Rebecca, Matthew). Aside from the etymology, the meaning, the popularity, and the family tradition behind the name, parents want to choose a combination of first and last names which sounds good or in the linguistic term euphonic. Given the fact that the last name is usually unchangeable and fixed at birth, parents want to find a first name that fits the last name in regards to word length, vowels, consonants, perhaps rhyming, and rhythm. These choices seem to happen unconsciously, and perhaps the feeling for a well-sounding name is determined by our cultural socialisation. However, the analysis will show that English parents are very conservative when it comes to the sound patterns of their children’s names.
This paper examines a data set of 214 names, with both first and last names in combination, from a linguistic point of view, and tries to find the best combination for a euphonic name and identify underlying patterns. The names under evaluation are taken from the 2007 birth register of the English county of Shropshire. At first, the related work for this topic is outlined, even though it only consists of literature which analyses the sound patterns of first names without taking the last names into account. Afterwards, the data is presented and analysed through the categories established in the first part of the term paper. Statements about the ideal length of a name and about particular phonemes which characterise female or male names will be made. Furthermore, these phonemes will be linked to the phonemes of the last name to see whether parents try to adapt the sound of the first name to the last name. Eventually, the results of the theoretical and the empirical part will be summarised and, in the best case, the reader will be able to differentiate why the combination Leo Jones is presumably more euphonious than George Jones or why a name like John Whittingham would be more stylish and easier to memorise than Oliver Whittingham.
2. The Phonology of First Names
2.1 Syllables and word length
Cutler et al. compare the phonological form of English first names to the English vocabulary as a whole, resulting in the authors finding that 90% of the lexical words (nouns, verbs and adjectives) were monosyllables or polysyllables with strong first syllable (Cutler et al. 1990: 472). The authors argue that English first names function as nouns and should resemble the rest of the vocabulary, and therefore they categorized 1667 names found in The Oxford Minidictionary of First Names (1986) juxtaposing them with 19,334 head nouns in the Longman ’ s Dictionary of Contemporary English. 60.2% of the male names were disyllabic, and 24.3% were monosyllabic whereas female names were more likely to be polysyllabic (36.1%). 53.2% of the female names were disyllabic (Cutler et al. 1990: 476). Altogether, female names are longer than male names. An explanation for this could be that female names often derive from male names and the sex is changed by the addition of a suffix, such as Jacob to Jacobine or Gabriel to Gabriela (Cutler et al. 1990: 476). In 1985 Slater and Fineman analysed the phonology of North American first names and they also find out that female names “manifest significantly more sounds and syllables … than male names” (Slater and Fineman 1985: 429). Hough (1999: 6) also points out that the feminine forms “exceed their masculine counterparts by a syllable …”. Cutler et al. also argue that “the tendency for female names to be longer is even more marked among the most popular names” (1990: 476). The Office for National Statistics released the 2015 list of the most famous first names in England and Wales. In the boys’ names list 10% of the first 50 names were monosyllabic, where on the other hand there were no entries for monosyllabic names in the top 50 girls’ names list. Concerning the type of syllables, Slater and Fineman find a higher ratio of open syllables in female names than in male names (Slater and Fineman 1985: 434).
2.2 Stress position
As with the number of syllables, Cutler et al. point out that English names follow the typical stress position of nouns, meaning they are mostly stressed on the first syllable. The authors indicate that 97.9% of male names have a strong initial syllable compared to 2.1% with a weak initial syllable. Female names have a significantly higher number of weak initial syllables, with 16.3% compared to the 83.7% with a strong initial syllable (Cutler et al. 1990: 474). Slater and Fineman also state that female names “more frequently vary the position of stressed syllable …” (1985: 429). Nevertheless, Wright et al. (2005: 539) claim that despite the above-mentioned phonological properties, female English first names and male English first names cannot be distinguished by their pronunciation, so that a Jen and a John have the same stress pattern and they differ just in a phoneme. Furthermore, the authors observe that both female and male disyllabic names primarily have a trochaic stress pattern (Wright et al. 2005: 546). Concerning polysyllabic words Cutler et al. identify 95% of the male names as having a dactylic stress pattern, compared to 25% of female names having a dactylic stress pattern.
In 1985 Slater and Fineman conducted a study in which they analysed the phonology of North American names with a focus on gender differences. They claimed that “the vast majority of names started with a consonant” (Slater and Fineman 1985: 435). The authors also demonstrated that female names were more likely than male names to end in a vowel or a sonorant (Slater and Fineman 1985: 436). Sidhu & Pexman (2015: 12) observed that female names were more likely than male names to end in a stop consonant e.g. /k/. Female names were also more likely to end in a vowel, especially schwa (Hough 1999: 6). Cutler et al. point out that there is a tendency for female names to contain vowels like /i/ and /e/ whereas male names tend to have vowels like /ɔ/ and /a/. The authors allege that vowels found in female names in English were associated with the concepts “small, sharp, bright”, while the latter vowels tend to be associated with the concepts “large and dull” (Cutler et al. 1990: 478). Sidhu and Pexman also claim that female names contain more small vowels than male names (2015: 4). The authors go one step further as they claim that there are specific phonemes which are associated with “roundness” (e.g. /b/, /m/ or /l/, /n/) and other phonemes which are associated with “sharpness” (e.g. /k/, /t/ and /p/). They state that round phonemes are associated with female names, whereas sharp phonemes are associated with male names (Sidhu & Pexman 2015: 10). Likewise, the authors point out that this also counts for rounded vowels (e.g. /u/ and /o/) and unrounded vowels (e.g. /i/ and /ʌ/) (Sidhu & Pexman 2015: 2). For Cutler et al. it is “noticeable that the female set contains a much higher proportion of /i/ than the other two sets, and a lower proportion of the vowels towards the other end of the brightness continuum” (Cutler et al. 1990: 479).
Unfortunately, there is no linguistic categorisation of British or American last names, and it is a desideratum that scholars find categories that could help to compare the phonology of first and last names. One reason for the lack of categorisation could be that there is more variety in last names than in first names. For example, Cutler et al. observed in 1990 that both female and male names were consistent and that they often reappear on the popular-name-lists, e.g. names like John or Elisabeth. However, they also point out that male names are more consistent than female names (Cutler et al. 1990: 480). Furthermore, last names in the United Kingdom and the United States have been influenced by immigration and spelling changes over the years, and this makes it difficult to find an underlying pattern.
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