In 1995, researchers Herbert Barry and Aylene S. Harper invented a way to score personal names to determine how “male” or “female” they sounded. Names with positive scores on the scale were more female-sounding, and names with negative scores were more male-sounding.
- +2 points if the accent is on the 2nd or later syllable (Elizabeth)
- +2 points if the last phoneme is unstressed and schwa-like (Sarah)
- +1 points if the last phoneme is some other vowel sound, not a schwa sound (Melanie)
- +1 points if the accent is on the 1st of 3 or more syllables (Emily)
- -1 points if the name has 1 syllable (Mitch)
- -1 points if the last phoneme is S, Z, F, V, TH, CH, ZH, or DZH (James)
- -2 points if the last phoneme is P, B, T, D, K, or G (Jacob)
- -2 points if the accent is on the 1st of 2 syllables and the name has 6+ phonemes (Robert)
The authors looked at Pennsylvania baby names from 1960 to 1990 and discovered that the average phonetic gender score for girl names and boy names had become more “female” over time.
Several years ago, linguist Anika Okrent used the same scale to analyze national baby name data from 1880 to 2013. She noticed the same trend — stretching back to 1950 and continuing until today.
Her theory is that the shift was essentially fueled by shifting trends in boy names. As names like Donald gave way to names like Elijah, the result was an overall rise in the average phonetic gender score for boy names. This in turn triggered a corresponding rise in the average phonetic gender score for girl names “in order to maintain the gender distinction” (i.e., Janet giving way to Olivia).
Do you agree with this theory?
- Barry, H. & Harper, A. S. “Increased choice of female phonetic attributes in first names.” Sex Roles vol. 32, no. 11, 1995, pp. 809–819.
- Why have baby-names become increasingly female-sounding?