Do names carry information which affects what we expect someone to be like in terms of their personality? Recent research suggests this is the case. Sound symbolism, ‘the non-arbitrary mapping between sound and meaning’, has, over the past century, revealed that people tend to associate certain language sounds with particular properties. Within this framework, researchers have found that humans associate the name of a person with different kinds of personality. More specifically, people with abrupt-sounding names, containing ‘voiceless stop consonants’, such as ‘Kate’ or ‘Kirk’, are perceived as extroverted. On the other hand, people whose names contain ‘sonorant consonants’ and are characterised by more smooth and continuous sounds, such as ‘Noelle’ or ‘Owen’, ranked higher in personality factors such as ‘Agreeableness’, ‘Emotionality’ and ‘Conscientiousness’.
In a follow-up experiment, the researchers were curious to see how much this had to do with the names themselves versus with the sounds that they contained. Using uncommon or made up names which still contained sonorants or voiceless stops, they found the same effects were present. For example, ‘Lona’ (sonorant) was rated as being very agreeable and shy, whereas ‘Kipus’ (voiceless stop) was rated as being very extroverted, but not so agreeable.
Going further, the researchers assessed whether these associations were reflected in the real world: ‘are people with sonorants in their names actually kinder than people with voiceless stops in their names?’. However, they found that none of the associations observed in their previous experiments existed in the real world: there was no evidence to back up the hypothesis that ‘Noelles’ are actually kinder than ‘Kates’, or that ‘Kirks’ are more outgoing than ‘Owens’, merely that people might think they are (if all they know about someone is their name).
Students applying for Linguistics, as well as those planning to apply for Psychology, can reflect on how certain sounds might be perceived as depicting certain properties and how humans might tend to associate names with specific personality traits.