The sound of gender: inferring the gender of names in a foreign language

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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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Correspondence to Zhenguang G. Cai.

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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.

Chinese Gender Syllable1 Syllable2
碧霞 Female pek hia
赛慧 Female sai hui
丽梅 Female li Bue
佩莉 Female pue li
绮虹 Female yi hong
佳钰 Female gia Gek
晓佳 Female hiao gia
佳余 Female gia yi
晓爱 Female hiao aiŋ
惠婷 Female hui teng
佳琳 Female gia lim
少静 Female siao jeŋ
少云 Female siao hun
舒婷 Female su teng
小丽 Female sio li
晓婷 Female hiao teng
晓英 Female hiao eng
晓鋆 Female hiao hun
雪玲 Female sek leng
映婷 Female yaŋ teng
晓雯 Female hiao mun
可莉 Female ko li
梦真 Female mang jing
淑珍 Female siok ding
玉婷 Female Gek teng
志慧 Female ji hui
辉勤 Female hui king
丽娣 Female li di
美娟 Female miŋ giang
少晴 Female siao jeŋ
淑华 Female siok hua
淑敏 Female siok miang
少明 Male siao meng
钟松 Male jeng siong
槟浩 Male eng hao
国申 Male gok seng
建锋 Male giang hong
剑招 Male giam jiao
友智 Male yiu di
仕钊 Male su jiao
择幸 Male jek heng
伟源 Male wi Guang
柏煌 Male bek huang
维升 Male Zui seng
良兴 Male liang heng
锰秋 Male mang qiu
启明 Male kei meng
伟宏 Male wi keng
裕泽 Male Zu jek
泽贤 Male jek hiang
资森 Male zu som
泽豪 Male jek hao
勇锋 Male yong hong
冠合 Male guang he
重期 Male diong ki
泽隆 Male jek long
坚泉 Male giang juag
钦发 Male kim huak
宗岳 Male zong Gak
景祥 Male gim hiang
灿林 Male cang lim
志伟 Male ji wi
杭滨 Male hang beng
林桥 Male lim giao

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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).

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  • Sound symbolism
  • Personal names
  • Gender
  • Phonology
  • Foreign language