Monthly Archives: June 2014

What’s in a Name?

Baby names

Names are a source of fascination for many people. Perhaps it is because names are one of the most important linguistic aspect of our identities, and as such often evoke strong emotions. Perhaps it’s because there’s so much thought put into them; there’s hardly any other linguistic act that is as intentional as giving a name to a baby. We have all sorts of reasons for giving children certain names. We name them after people in our lives or book characters or celebrities. We may try to name them in a way that won’t make them conform too much but also won’t lead to bullying. We name them because we like the meaning of a name, or maybe we just like the sound of it.

The sound of names is especially of interest to me, and I seem to be in some good company. There has been some very interesting recent research on the phonetics of names. One Mental Floss article by Arika Okrent asks “Why have baby names become increasingly female-sounding?” She includes a table of a system developed by Herbert Barry and Aylene Harper to determine what makes a name sound male or female in English, which I have copied here:

Gender Score

Via Mental Floss

There are, of course, some exceptions to these rules, especially for names from certain other languages (for example, many Hebrew male names end in a schwa), but overall these rules are decent predictors of what will trigger each gender reading in English. And what Okrent found is that popular names for both boys and girls are skewing more female than they did in past years:

Why the change? Okrent posits that biblical boys’ names, those from Hebrew that end in a schwa, are having a comeback. 6 of the top 100 boys’ names end in a schwa, compared to zero in 1950. Names with six or more phonemes (individual sounds) are also falling out of favor with parents of baby boys; think names like “Howard” and “Edward” and “Leonard.” Girls’ names have also been becoming more feminine-sounding. Okrent believes that this is due in part to a decline in monosyllabic names like Gail and Joan, and an increase in names ending in vowel sounds, like Emily and Anna.

It turns out that not only are names influenced by generational trends like those Okrent describes, but they can also be affected by the political ideology of the parents. To hear about these tendencies in detail, I suggest listening to this Freakonomics podcast about names. Political ideology can also skew how “masculine” or “feminine” a name sounds. More conservative parents name their children, both boys and girls, with more “masculine” names. Liberals, by contrast, name their children with more “feminine” names across the board.

The more “masculine” and “feminine” names are described by Eric Oliver, the principal investigator of the study on this topic, as containing “harder” sounds and “softer” sounds, respectively. In many ways, this ambiguous description contains many of the rules from the Mental Floss article: conservatives prefer “harder” sounds at the end of names, like the consonants listed in the last two rules on Okrent’s chart. Liberals, on the other hand, prefer vowels like schwa and the “y” in Emily. According to Oliver, liberals also prefer names with softer consonants in them, like “l” as in “Milo” for a boy and “r” as in “Carrie” for a girl.

As an example, Oliver recommends taking a look at the names of two prominent politicians from either side of the aisle. Obama’s daughters, Sasha and Malia, have almost prototypical “liberal” names. They both are heavy on the vowels, ending in the schwa sound that garners you +2 lady-points in Okrent’s chart. Both contain “softer” consonants in the middle, “sh” and “l”. Now compare Sasha and Malia’s names to Sarah Palin’s five kids: Trig, Track, Piper, Bristol, and Flapjack.* All these names end in consonants rather than vowels. Trig and Track, the two boys, both have monosyllabic names that end in “hard” consonants, what linguists would call a “stop.” Stops are the most abrupt type of consonant.

It could be that these two findings are related. In general, conservatives tend to be more old-fashioned, and therefore they may be more interested in preserving some of the old, more masculine-sounding names. Liberals, on the other hand, may be more inclined to follow more recent trends. Demographically, the “millenials” — the people who are the most likely to be naming their children in recent years — tend to be more liberal than their older counterparts, even when those counterparts were the same age as they are now.

*Just kidding. Her other child’s name is “Willow,” but that would be a pretty “liberal” name, so I’ve excluded it from the example, and used this joke from Jon Stewart instead.

Share Button

Vocal Fry and Hireability

It appears vocal fry is in the news again, popping up in the Washington Post article entitled “Study: Women with creaky voices — also known as vocal fry — deemed less hireable.” A couple of years ago, vocal fry was declared the hottest new linguistic trend, and like most trends it quickly became stigmatized, particularly because of its (alleged) strong association with young women. It was even the topic of my very first blog post. The tweets below are a small sample of people’s (frankly, irrational) dislike of vocal fry and the women who use it.


The Washington Post article summarizes a recent study by Dr. Rindy Anderson and colleagues at Duke University, in which they found that speakers who use vocal fry are considered less hireable than those who do not use vocal fry, especially the women. The study’s authors asked eight hundred people to listen to recordings of 14 speakers (7 men, 7 women) and “rated how competent, trustworthy, educated and attractive the voices sounded to them – and how willing they’d be to hire each person.” Women with vocal fry were rated worse on all of the categories than women without vocal fry or men without vocal fry.

My problem (and that of some of my colleagues who have been heatedly discussing this topic on Facebook) is with the stimuli; the vocal fry is everywhere, even in the “normal” recordings. You can open this link and listen to them for yourselves, where the audio is listed under “Supporting Information.” Compare Audio S20 to the other recordings; he doesn’t fry, but nearly everyone else does. In a study claiming to study whether the presence of vocal fry hurts job candidates, it would be ideal to test participants using stimuli that actually present that contrast, rather than to have vocal fry contained in almost every stimulus.

So if almost all of the stimuli contain vocal fry, what are the authors actually testing? It seems that the odd-numbered recordings have a bit more vocal fry, over the length of a phrase. That length is more characteristic of a stylistic, conversational vocal fry. In reading and in more formal scenarios, vocal fry generally occurs on the final syllable or two of an utterance. So if you say “I worked for three years at the company” in an interview scenario, or if you read that sentence aloud, you’re more likely to only use vocal fry on the “-pany” or “-ny” part of that sentence. This happens because we start to run out of air; because this type of vocal fry is physiological, it takes a lot of concentration to say a sentence without it. In more conversational speech, however, vocal fry can occur over an entire phrase. This usage is more stylistic than the previously described type of fry, because it won’t necessarily occur very “naturally” at the end of a phrase and thus must be used with some degree of consciousness on the part of the speaker. We don’t yet know all of the stylistic uses of vocal fry, but some examples in my research occurred when speakers were trying to be secretive, or were feeling a little uncomfortable or embarrassed for whatever reason. So someone uttering the above phrase might use vocal fry over the whole phrase in a conversation where that phrase is admitting to something embarrassing or secretive, as in “I know their products aren’t very good. I worked for three years at the company.” We don’t have any direct evidence that people don’t use vocal fry over an entire phrase in an interview, but chances are that people are a) going to be more formal and b) not going to share anything secretive and embarrassing. It could even be the case that when vocal fry is considered “appropriate” (like that in the “normal” recordings), it could be seen as a positive aspect of the interviewee, compared with stimuli that do not contain any vocal fry at all. It would be more accurate to title this paper “Stylistically Conversational Vocal Fry Undermines the Success of Young Women in the Labor Market,” than the simple proclamation that vocal fry is bad. In addition, the title downplays the fact that men are affected poorly too. It could be that since women are marked, their disadvantages are emphasized whereas men’s are ignored.

In addition to the fact that the non-vocal fry recordings actually do contain vocal fry, there are also confounding variables in the stimuli. Compare Audio S13 with Audio S14; they’re both examples from the same speaker. Notice the lengthening of “-y” in “opportunity” (a feature linguists call post-tonic lengthening). The result is that the “with vocal fry” character sounds different from the “normal voice” character in ways that are unrelated to vocal fry. These aspects need to be controlled for, or at least discussed, or even thrown out altogether. In addition, many of the speakers use a markedly lower pitch for their “with vocal fry” stimuli. A lower pitch is natural for the usage of vocal fry for physiological reasons, but this adds another variable that participants could key in to while making judgments about the speakers. Speakers with higher pitches could be seen as being more polite and earnest, while a low pitch could indicate a bad mood or a host of other readings. Listeners may be tuning into these variables other than the vocal fry while making judgments about professionalism, which could certainly be confounding variables in this study.

While I do believe that certain styles of vocal fry may harm job candidates, especially female ones, this study leaves me less than convinced that it has tested for that. A more convincing study would take into account the stylistic patterns associated with vocal fry (and its duration within a phrase) as well as contain genuine creak-free stimuli.

Share Button