What’s in a name? Phonetic symbolism and its influence on associations with names

Who is taller – Morena or Mirena? Whose hair is darker, whose voice lower? This talk focuses on phonetic features of names and suggests that different associations are generated by these features. The idea of a close connection between sound and meaning dates back to ancient Greece and was refused by Saussure’s language model. This talk does not aim at challenging Saussure’s idea of arbitrarity, but suggests that sounds can support a special meaning: The sound combination [gl] for example is often found in words with a visual component (glitter, glint, gloss) (Hinton et al. 1995: 5-6, Lowrey/ Shrum 2007b: 43-33). Experiments, in which people were asked to name a product, also showed a preference for specific sounds depending on the features of the product. For small items the front vowel [i] was preferred over [a], for huge items [a] over [i] (Sapir 1929, Klink 2000 Lowrey/ Shrum 2007a).

This talk gives a short overview of phonetic symbolism, discusses possible reasons why sounds may evoke associations and presents a study on phonetic symbolism and personal names. In this study people were asked about their associations (in height, haircolour and voice) of a person with a certain name. These names were artificial and organized as minimal pairs to figure out the influence of different sounds: The influence of front and back vowels in stressed syllables (Tika vs. Toka) and non-stressed syllables (Toki vs. Toka) on associations with a name are discussed. Furthermore the impact of liquids/nasals and stops (Nola vs. Toka) is investigated.


Klink, Richard (2000): Creating Brand Names With Meaning: The Use of Sound Symbolism. In: Marketing Letters 11 (1), S. 5-20.

Lowrey, Tina M./ Shrum, L. J. (2007a): Phonetic Symbolism and Brand Name Preference. In: Journey of Consumer Research 34, S. 406-414.

Lowrey, Tina M./ Shrum, L. J. (2007b): Sounds Convey Meaning: The Implications of Phonetic Symbolism for Brand Name Construction. In: Tina M. Lowrey (ed): Psycholinguistic phenomena in marketing communications. Mahwah: L. Erlbaum, S. 39- 58.

Sapir, Edward [1929] (2008): A study in phonetic symbolism. In: Pierre Swiggers (ed): The collected works of Edward Sapir. Bd. 1. Berlin u.a.: de Gruyter, S. 219-239.

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