When someone is thinking about naming a baby, the convention is to consider certain names for boys and other ones for girls. But why is that? A new study attempts to tease out why we percieve boys' and girls' names as different — and, in fact, the results demonstrate one fascinating way that biology and society intersect.
The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , analyzed 270 million names given to American children between 1937 to 2013. It found that boys' names were more likely to begin with "voiced" sounds like "B" and "A" that require you to vibrate the vocal chords, while girls' names were more likely to begin with "unvoiced" ones like "F" and "H" that involve no vibration. Online surveys demonstrated that people consider voiced names "harder" and unvoiced ones "softer."
Hmm, so men are hard and women are soft? Yeah, there are a lot metaphors that can be drawn from this. So are we subconsciously picking up on innate male and female traits, like physical build, when we name kids? Or could something as biological as vocal chord vibrations still be cultural?
Well, here's one clue: The surveys also found that the more someone endorsed gender stereotypes that depicted men as tough and women as gentle, the more likely they were to associate masculine names with hardness and feminine ones with softness. "The way in which a name sounds can be symbolically related to stereotypes associated with its social category," the authors conclude.
Another paper with the same lead author, Michael L. Slepian, argues that gender is an embodied category. Embodied categorization, it explains, means that "abstract concepts such as morality, time, and interpersonal warmth can be based on metaphors that are grounded in bodily experiences." That study showed that people were more likely to categorize faces as male when they were touching something hard than when they were touching something soft.
It might be tempting to view such findings as proof of gender essentialism. But here's the thing to remember: embodiment is not independent of societal influence because "nature" and "nurture" are not actually separate. In fact, embodied cognition and categorization show how they interact. We may have a "natural" ability to distinguish hard phonemes from soft phonemes and rough surfaces from smooth ones, for example, and their meanings to us may even relate to our perceptions of physical bodies, but the way we assign them a gender is based on "nurture" because men are not objectively, universally "harder" than women. In other words: This perception is learned, not innate.
So, it looks like there's a method behind the way we associate gender with names, but that doesn't make these associations objectively correct. There's no reason a boy can't have a name beginning with a soft sound, a girl can't have one beginning with a hard sound, or the same name can't be used for people of all genders. And sometimes, it doesn't even matter what we name a child, because the names we choose for ourselves are often the truest names of all.