Much research on sound symbolism has shown that some aspects of word meaning are linked to phonology. For instance, people tend perceive a name as a female one if it is longer, has stress on a later syllable, or ends with a vowel rather than a consonant. It is yet unclear whether people also use sound-symbolic cues to infer name gender from phonology in a language they do not speak. In three experiments, native speakers of English and German listened to real personal names in Min, a south China language that our participants had not been exposed to, and rated to what extent a name sounded male/female. Compared to real female names, real male names were rated more male-sounding by both English and German speakers in a consistent way. Further exploratory analysis showed that male names in Min, compared to female names, are more likely to have consonant-ending syllables and English- and German-speaking participants happened to make use of this sound-symbolic cue in gender judgement. These results show that people are able to make use of sound-symbolic cues to infer the gender of personal names even in a language they do not speak.
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This research was supported by an ESRC grant (ES/L010224/2), a CUHK startup grant, and a CUHK Faculty of Arts grant to ZGC. We thank Lu Zhang for assistance in data collection and Gabriella Vigliocco for discussion.
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Real male and female names used in the experiments. The Romanised spelling is based on the Chinese Pinyin. As Min has voiced and voiceless consonant and a voiceless consonant can be either aspirated or unaspirated, we use lower a case letter to represent an unaspirated voiceless consonant, a lower case letter with a superscript h to represent an aspirated voiceless consonant and an upper case letter to represent a voiced consonant. For example, a /b/ represents an unaspirated voiceless bilabial (in line with Pinyin), a /B/ represents a voiced bilabial, and a /p/ represents an aspirated voiceless bilabial.
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Cai, Z.G., Zhao, N. The sound of gender: inferring the gender of names in a foreign language. J Cult Cogn Sci 3, 63–73 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41809-019-00028-2
- Sound symbolism
- Personal names
- Foreign language