Researchers from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences believe that vowel sounds have a lot to do with why we classify certain names as feminine and others as masculine.
The researchers examined a 10-year dataset of the most popular names from England, Australia and the United States, which represents nearly a third of all births during that time period (15 million names from around 45 million births). They used recognised techniques from linguistics to determine whether names contained large or small vowel sounds.
They found an association between vowel size and gender: male names were more likely to contain “larger sounding” vowels, and female names were more likely to contain “smaller sounding” vowels. (Compare Thomas to Emily.)
From the abstract:
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.
Intriguing theory, I think. I just wish they’d looked at older data as well, to be sure the association they found wasn’t simply some modern trend.